Kay: Is the Story Better if It’s True?

truthThe other day a friend called and asked me to go to a movie. “I think it’ll be good,” she said. “It’s based on a true story.”

Her assumption—that a story will be better (more interesting, more engaging, more emotionally rich) if it’s based on something true rather than a complete work of fiction—turns out to be false. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates that people incorrectly believe that they will have a stronger emotional reaction to stories that are based on fact—and they make consumer choices based on that assumption (which is why film studios are quick to market movies as “based on a true story”).

Researchers Jane Ebert of Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis of New York University proved their point this way: Two groups of study participants read a story about a girl who died of meningitis. Members of the first group were told that it was either real or fictional. After reading it, they revealed how absorbed they were in the story and how sad it made them feel.

After reading the piece, those in the second group were asked to predict how their emotional reaction would have been affected if they’d known that the story was either real or fictional. This group predicted that if they’d known it was fiction, their response would have been less intense. But, in fact, when they read the book—whether they believed the story was fictional or real—their responses were equally strong.The only time participants were not fully involved emotionally was in an experiment when a fifteen-minute film was interrupted every minute due to “technical problems.” For the researchers, this result demonstrates that unbroken concentration is necessary for readers or viewers to identify emotionally with fictional characters.

I wasn’t free to go to the movie with my friend, but afterwards I asked her how she’d liked it.

“It was terrific,” she said. “You know, it was based on a true story.”

So, how about you? Do you think you’re more engaged—or less engaged—if you think the story is based on fact?

11 thoughts on “Kay: Is the Story Better if It’s True?

  1. I suppose it depends on how it’s written and what the ethos/ message of the story or the piece of literature is about. I’ve found both fiction and non-fiction to be quite engaging, but then, I’m very choosy as to what I expose myself to :). I’ve recently published two books and live in hope that even one of them could be engaging lol

  2. I like fiction, and I enjoy biographies and documentaries – anything with fascinating real life characters, like Touching The Void or Tim’s Vermeer. I really don’t care for books or movies that are ‘based on’ a true story. ‘Based on’ means the writers have started with the facts and changed them to make a stronger story whenever the truth wasn’t juicy enough. That gives them all the advantages of fiction, while marketing the product as fact. Instead of enjoying the story I spend all my time wondering which bits are true and which bits have been tweaked.

    • This happens to me, too! One thing about those tweaks: as we discussed in class, fiction has to be better than real life, so you can see writers do it. But I always end up thinking that the writers of stories that are “based on” something lacked the juice to come up with their own ideas. Although, Argo. I loved Argo.

  3. I’m with Jill–I find the whole “based on a true story” thing to be really distracting.

    I posted a story on my blog once about a woman attending an art opening featuring nude portraits of her daughter, painted by the daughter’s girlfriend. Since the story was “based on a true story”–I do have a lesbian daughter, her girlfriend did do an art show featuring nudes of my daughter–I posted a photograph of one of the paintings at the top of the story. (In fact, it was the painting the mother in the story buys at the art show, mostly because the daughter is swathed in black satin from shoulder to ankle.) Because of that, everyone who read the story assumed it was pure truth, even though I thought I made it clear it was a short story. (Almost none of the conversations that occur in the story were real, just the situation.) Some of my readers, primarily the men, I noticed, were furious when they discovered it was fiction. They said they wouldn’t have read it if they’d known.

    I think every story is a blend of truth and fiction. If there’s no truth, no emotional truth, your reader won’t connect. And if there’s no fiction, 99 times out of 100 it’s going to be too boring to read.

  4. Interesting reaction from your readers. I have a male friend who never reads fiction—he thinks it’s a waste of time because “it isn’t true.” But as you say, every story has an emotional truth, and fiction is one way that people find signposts to navigate the world.

  5. On the flip side, I put some truth in my fiction and I’ve heard other writers do the same. At RWA nationals in San Antonia, a couple of us saw a series author who said one of her locations is a fictional replica of King Ranch. Everything is exactly the same, but it is called something else. I have a steeplechase in one of my stories and it needed a big purse to fit the story line. The steeple chase that occurs here only has a max purse of $75,000. The one in New Jersey has a $500,000 purse. That worked better. So I took that steeple chase and plunked it down in Maryland and called it something else. I think things like that can help make the fiction believable while not being ‘based on a true story’.

    • Absolutely! Probably everyone who’s ever written a piece of fiction takes an amalgam of experiences and facts and melds them into the story they want to tell. And yet, as you say, that doesn’t make it “based on a true story.” It more like, “based on things that are true to me.”

  6. When you take this from a historical perspective, I think having a ring of truth to it makes the fiction seem more “real.” Frex, the whole bit in my story about Napoleon heading to Paris in 20 days really happened. He really did lose a bag of gold down a crevasse in the French Alps. He really did need money. And his sister really was a “playa” — she’s certainly playing the viscount.

    Look out Outlander (lord knows we’ve discussed that enough offline)…it’s a fascinating story, but what’s more fascinating about it (to me) is that the fiction is braided with the history.

  7. Hmmm, like everyone else, I think a story has to have some “true story” in it to be good — even if my story was set on a far-off planet, it would have to have enough truth to resonate with the reader — something the reader could get her hooks into (or something to get its hooks into the reader).

    Based on a true story seems like it would be easier to do — if you get blocked, you simply look up the facts and carry on. However, “truth” is so wide and varied — we have too much of it, and not enough of it at the same time. For example, say a celebrity is accused of murder. We’ve got tons and tons of news stories and court records to go through — maybe too much to read in one lifetime. But on the other hand, there’s something secret and kept back — things that only the participants would know. That’s where the story-teller can show her craft.

    “New Journalism” (I think it dates back to the 60s) tried to use story-telling techniques to get at the larger truth. Sometimes it worked really well, sometimes it was a flop.

    Personally, I don’t think “true story” really has an influence on me — I read for the elements in the blurb.

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