Truth is Stranger than Fiction: Fake News, Facts and Writing

by | Dec 7, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 5 comments

All Truths Are Easy To Understand Once They Are Discovered; The Point Is To Discover Them. 
Gallileo Galilei
by Jamie Freveletti

We’re talking about story premises or facts that are true, yet so strange that an author is unable to use them in their novel for fear that their readers will be unable to suspend their disbelief enough to read the story. I’ve come across many facts like these, but, sadly, with the onslaught of Fake News on the internet, many of the previously unbelievable truths can now be written about in a novel. 

We’ve always had Fake News and unbelievable stories–just consider the tabloid newspapers that our parents and grandparents laughed at in the checkout aisle, or the use of propaganda by governments to sway the populace. All of this is fake news.The difference now is that there are masses of people creating these stories and throwing them on the internet in order to obtain money-each click and they get paid. Unlike the tabloids, the clickbait Fake News doesn’t require you, the reader, to actually purchase the tabloid in order for the newspaper to make money, it only requires you to click it. And hence, the problem. As we’ve all heard time and time again: follow the money and you’ll find the true source (in the case of fake news, figure out the angle of the person creating it-what do they want to gain?)  

The answer both to fighting the Fake News phenomenon and using true- but- wild- information in a story is the same: you need to educate the reader before you hit them with the truth. For example, a disease exists that makes one suddenly fall asleep for weeks on end.The victims fall into a type of coma, yet come back awake spontaneously.This disease may have been the basis for the Sleeping Beauty folktale. It has no cure, is rare, and puzzles scientists. I used it in my fourth novel, DEAD ASLEEP. Before launching into the disease, though, I wrote in a character who is a scientist and who explains to the protagonist that the disease exists. This way the reader learns from the scientist just as I did as the author or the protagonist does.  

Some things, though, a reader will not forgive, even if the fact is actually true. I read with interest this week’s story about the man who bought into a fake news story regarding a restaurant in DC running a child sex ring. I had to hand it to the writers of this fake news, they managed to get a lot of people to click their story, repeat it, and try to sell it to the rest of the country as true.Then, one gullible man actually went to DC to “self-investigate” the bogus story. With a gun. To a pizza place. Looking for alleged underground tunnels. 

I can’t even tell you how many incredulous emails from readers I would have gotten had I written that in a book. You know what they would say? Something like this: “Really? Why didn’t the protagonist simply call the DC police with his concerns and ask them to investigate? Or the FBI?” 

I call this the “turn on the light” phenomenon. How many horror movies have you seen where the heroine heads into a dark room where she can’t see the monster lurking? Don’t you want to yell “turn on the lights!” at the television screen? It’s the same thing as the question above. Protagonists can do wacky or stupid things, but you’d better set the stage beforehand or you’ll be caught out writing something stereotypical and you’ll lose the reader. And once you’ve lost the reader you’ll be hard pressed to get them back again. 

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I’ll post again on the 21th and until then, Happy Holidays!

Jamie Freveletti

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    What an important blog at this time! It is critical to be able to distinguish between fake news and hard-to-believe facts. A great primer for helping the reader do so in our novels.

  2. Jamie Freveletti

    Hi Sandy! Yes, I use to check, and I also hit a few different trusted media sources. Some argue that main stream media has a "spin" and they do, but few will fall into a trap and publish fake news (although FOX recently apologized for doing so). I also hit foreign publications like The Guardian, BBC or Der Spiegel (this German paper has an English International edition). I usually end up getting to the truth, but I have the time for this-most of us don't. I think the fake news needs to be addressed and fast so the rest of us don't fall prey to it.

  3. Karna Bodman

    Right on, Jamie — we are inundated with so many crazy stories that I never "forward" anything even if I agree with the premise and think a friend mind like to read it — unless I truly check it out with an original source or one of the other "fact-checking" sites (though I often wonder about some of them too). In any event — your warnings are so timely. Thanks for this post!

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    I agree-I don't forward on something until I've checked it. Occasionally something gets by me, but rarely. Glad you liked the post!

  5. Chris Goff

    You've been in my living room when I watch TV. Frankly, I think the woman who goes into the basement to investigate the noise when it's a well known fact that a serial killer is working the town deserves to die. That woman is not brave, she's stupid!

    It's definitely difficult to discern what's real and what's not. We've all experienced those things that we couldn't write in our books and have them be believed. And it's amazing how many times a new writer will say, "But it's a true story. It really happened." In our genre, one of the most difficult things to do is a writer, is write the truth in our fiction. Yet it's believing what's on the page is possible that makes a great work of fiction.

    As for me, if I hear someone in the basement, I'm calling the cops–and so is my protagonist!