How to Write Fiction – Tell Truths

“Truth” is a hot topic these days. Truthiness. Truth isn’t truth. Alternative facts. Fake news. Fiction is an art form based on questioning and finding deeper truths about ourselves and others—about what it is to be human.

In the 1960s, author Flannery O’Connor said,We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Written a half-century ago, her words speak to us today. “Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.”

For instance, a writer’s story about a town’s divisive politics—one group of people clinging to the past, another group wanting change—could become a polemic if the writer uses the narrative to argue his opinion and refute the other.

But what if this writer, inspired by seeing a small-town Fourth of July parade, creates a fictional character, who clings to the past and is afraid of the new. Let’s call him Ray. He’s a mechanic, a restorer of cars. His daughter marries someone of another race or religion. Then a family that Ray sees as “foreign” moves in next door. He’s angry. He’s used to fixing things, but he can’t fix this. He doesn’t have the tools. His world is disrupted. Now we have the beginnings of a story. Because fiction is about transformation, we know Ray must change, but how and why? What actions will he take?

In what ways will the daughter and neighbors also transform? Will they help Ray through a crisis? Will he help them? The writer avoids a timeworn polemic and explores universal human truths about choosing to love and making things right. Whether humorous, poignant, or tragic, the story becomes timeless. Through writing it, through reading it, we discover our own ability or inability to love deeply and to restore lovingly what’s been damaged.

Wherever fiction is set, past or present, fictional town or real, when it’s grounded in human truths, it will ring true for readers now and into the future. Without human truths, fiction would feel false. By telling truths with imagination, we make fiction readable, believable and memorable.

Go to for a free trial of my online course “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery.”

Now – go out into the world or turn on the news. Listen for differing opinions and deeply held beliefs. Listen for anger and hurt. Listen for human truths. Then give one deep belief to one character, the opposite to another.

Write a scene where they argue. What truths are at the depths of their emotions? What does each character have to gain or lose by changing? You, the writer, takes each side in your heart. What can you learn from them?

Prepare yourself for moments of mastery!


Quarrel in “The Human Stain”

Fiction is conflict. Someone versus someone or something. Professor Coleman Silk, Philip Roth’s central character in “The Human Stain,” lectures his students: “You know how European literature begins? With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” He reads aloud the opening lines of The Iliad. “‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father.”

Roth’s narrator, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, begins with one of Coleman’s secrets, telling us that Coleman “confided to me that at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.”

Lesson: Embody theme in character

Coleman Silk has a past life. Secrecy is the heart of the novel. Conflict is the heartbeat. Roth gives to young Coleman boxing training and to the adult Dean Silk an academic life in which he’s unlikely to be found in a barroom brawl. Yet Coleman never drops the gloves. He’s been in fisticuffs since early adulthood, dodging what he believes to be the knock-out punch—the closely guarded Big Secret—that he threw at himself. 

Faunia Farley is not Coleman’s biggest secret. She’s of an age and social status that he believes would only further ravage his reputation, which has been pulverized by a misunderstanding due to a comment he made in class about two absent students. He asks, “Do they exist or are they spooks?” His father taught him to be precise with language; Coleman intends “spooks” to mean “ghosts, specters.” He’s never seen the students and, as his fate would have it, both are black. They set in motion accusations of racism and academic politics that lead to Coleman’s resignation and the grief, he believes, that causes his wife’s death.

Faunia, a victim and survivor of life’s misfortunes, also embodies conflict, but her struggles are no secret. Abused as a child by her stepfather, she ran from economic security to a hard-scrabble existence, marrying a man who beat her —Lester, her now ex-husband, a Vietnam vet who stalks her and Coleman. She carries the grief and guilt of losing her two young children in a fire—not her fault but certainly her negligence and the source of her internal strife. When she meets Coleman, she’s survived suicide attempts and is resigned to whatever comes her way—for now, the sex and companionship that Coleman offers.

Nathan Zuckerman is fighting battles, too. He’s impotent due to cancer surgery, unable to be helped by Viagra, which enables Coleman’s affair.

Every character in this story embodies conflict: Coleman’s associates on the faculty, his children, his birth family. Coleman’s greatest secret —thus his greatest quarrel with himself—resides with his birth family.

Lesson: Know when to parry, when to punch 

Through the writer Zuckerman, Roth masterfully controls the narrative. Zuckerman lets us know that he knows Coleman’s secret and then delays delivery. We’re given hints:

Sixteen pages in, we’re told that Coleman is a “small-nosed Jewish type with the facial heft in the jaw, one of those crimped-haired Jews of a light yellowish skin pigmentation who possess something of the ambiguous aura of the pale blacks who are sometimes taken for white.”

This seems like an odd bit of detail, but it flows in context with a narrative that from the first sentence offered abundant information: “It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena college for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.”  The gem about the affair aside, there are a lot of numbers: 1998, two, twenty-odd, sixteen more, seventy-one, thirty-four. Whew!

As writers and close readers we know that masterful authors make every word count. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Zuckerman, relating an incident from Coleman’s youth, refers to “the kind of obstacle that the Silks themselves had had to overcome to achieve all that distinguished them as a model Negro family.” Model Negro family? Wasn’t Coleman a white Jew? Well, apparently not. He’s lived a lie his entire adult life, denying his family and heritage in order to marry a white woman and be accepted into white academia. The lie has stained his life and even though the truth could save him from the accusations of racism, he doesn’t tell his wife. When she dies, his guilt at holding the lie is even greater. Perhaps the truth could have saved his career and her. But he’s lied to his children too. He’s backed into a corner, up against the ropes. His fear and shame have shadowed his life more than his genetics have darkened his complexion. His cowardice costs him, if not every round of his fight, certainly the match. 

Lesson: Offer a time out, if not resolution or victory

Things end badly for Coleman and Faunia, who die when her truck careens off the road into a lake. Zuckerman believes Lester is the cause of their death. The narrative we’re reading is the book Zuckerman is writing about Coleman’s life, telling truths that Coleman didn’t have the courage to tell. Zuckerman confronts the volatile Lester, who is ice-fishing on the above-mentioned lake. Zuckerman sees a broken, terrified, and terrifying man—the man he, Zuckerman, could have continued becoming and would become if he didn’t tell this story in a reliable, truthful way. His bout finishes without a winner or even a technical knockout. We don’t what will happen to Lester or to Zuckerman, who trails off…

“Just facing him, I could feel the terror of the auger—even with him already seated back on his bucket: the icy white of the lake encircling a tiny spot that was a man, the only human marker in all of nature, like the X of an illiterate’s signature on a sheet of paper. There it was, if not the whole story, the whole picture. Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.”

Lesson: Layer contemporary events to add social dimension

Roth is a  “Great American Novelist.” His themes are grand and intricately linked to contemporary events. “The Human Stain” is the story of Coleman Silk and also the story of our nation in the late 1990s, our shame, and our secrets. In spite of desegregation, civil rights as evidenced by  laws on the books for decades, and the ability to identify the demons which possess America, whether PTSD, cancer, or Clinton’s “incontinent carnality” (Roth devotes passages to Bill and Monica), we Americans still struggle to get past race, religion, politics, tragedy, sanctimony, and whatever causes us to judge and fear, and prevents us from seeing ourselves in other human beings.

Symmetry of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

As the story goes, when Harper Lee first submitted her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1957 to J.P. Lippincott publishers, she was told it was a “series of short stories strung together.” She worked with an editor to shape the material into novel form, and the novel was published in 1960 to acclaim. It’s a good bet that few unpublished writers would get that kind of editorial help today, and it’s likely that some editors would reject this Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the grounds that the story wraps up too tidily and that some passages border on the polemic. Call me old-fashioned, I love the symmetry of this book and I can accept the author’s slipped-in moralities: failure of schools to teach, comparisons of Hitler’s Nazism to America’s racism, the detritus of missionary zeal in tribal cultures, hypocrisy of the “well-bred”—because of her handling of the narrative through Scout.

Lesson: Use symbols well to shape the story

Symbols abound in first-person narrator Scout’s world, and they are used by Lee to shape the story from first page to last.


A broken arm, described by Scout in the opening sentence, ties Jem, her brother and unfortunate victim, to Tom Robinson, the Negro convicted of raping a white woman. Jem’s left arm is “somewhat shorter than his right” and Tom’s left arm, seen two-thirds of the way through the book, “was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.” The fact of Tom’s disability should have saved him from the rape conviction, but it doesn’t. Jem’s injury, mentioned in the first sentence, is not incurred until 20 pages from the novel’s completion. The broken arm, seen by the reader through Scout’s eyes as “dangling crazily in front of him,” bookends a story of racism and love.

Oak tree

An oak tree with its knothole and jutting roots looms large in Scout and Jem’s small-town neighborhood. The tree lies at the edge of the Radley property, along the route to school (though there is some confusion here—early in the book there are two oak trees that seem closer to Scout’s home and later there is the one that is closer to the school yard—oh, well—this may be evidence of the novel having been a series of stories). One day the knothole beckons with foil-wrapped gum, then other gifts such as soap sculpted in the likenesses of Scout and Jem, but soon the hole is plugged with cement, effectively cutting off the cryptic communication between the children and the mysterious filler-of-the-knothole-with-presents reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.

In the course of the story, the children venture beyond their neighborhood and the phantoms of their imagination to the larger world of the courtroom, where their father, Atticus, defends Tom, and where the children witness a truly bad man—Tom’s accuser Ewell— and learn the horrific outcome of his intentions.

The novel is winging its way to a close when the children, headed for a school Halloween pageant, pass under the oak—a stand-in for Boo. The reader is alerted: Boo has a role yet to play. When, on the way home, barefooted Scout (her vision obscured by her ham costume) “felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak,” it’s as if Boo were there, but we trust the narrator and the author not to shock by making Boo a villain. The children are accosted and Scout is unable to see who is grabbing her or who has appeared on the scene to save them. The reader understands before Scout does that the rescuer is probably Boo Radley.

Sharp implements, gestures, flowers, food, feet, dogs, birds

The attacker is Ewell, the man who with his daughter invented the rape story to frame Tom Robinson. Ewell is killed with a knife. His own? Boo’s? Scout can’t possibly know—she was inside the ham! The reader pieces it together as Scout sees and hears Atticus and Sheriff Tate discussing scenarios of the attack and the killing. By the time Atticus asks her, “Can you possibly understand?,” the reader is certain Boo killed Ewell in defense of the children, and knows that Atticus and Tate are corroborating on a story that Ewell fell on his knife. They want to protect Boo from being subjected to prosecution.” Earlier she’d been told that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because all they do is sing, and she makes the connection saying to her father: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?

Sharp implements—scissors, hedge clippers, knives—slice into the story from beginning to end. Comforting gestures—Atticus’ pat on Jem’s head, Boo’s petting of Jem’s head, Scout’s hand on Boo’s arm as she escorts him home—add a gentle touch. Flowers—a garden of azaleas, camellias with tops lopped off, rows of potted geraniums—define and connect women characters. Food is ever present—as nourishment, payment of debt, gratitude, love, and social strata clues. Shoes and barefeet keep the story grounded in a rural Southern place. Soap—as sculpture, a sign of cleanliness, a measure of poverty—is a tactile element. A rabid dog, shot dead by Atticus, hints at the human deaths to come. Birds, real and symbolic—mockingbirds, the good-hearted Finch family and neighbors, populate the story and keep hope aloft through the end.

Full circle

The dangerous man is dead, racism is alive but more open to scrutiny in the Maycomb community, and the children are safe. Atticus gets the last word: “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” The book comes full circle to Jem, asleep with his bandaged arm. Atticus is in his son’s room and “would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Sigh. The reader rests in that moment of resolution.

Master Craft Juggling

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery


 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.