Honesty in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?


I just want to make something honest.

I was churning out these dry stories, detailed-to-minutia, all scene, no internal dialogue, very little dialogue at all (because I’m insecure about writing dialogue) and then I realized I was sharpening the wrong tool. I have been so focused on showing the intent of characters through their actions, to the point that I outlawed any exposition, any narrative details except the clear dry facts. My characters were like puppets on a stage with no music, bare sets, very few words, certainly no voice-of-god narrator cluing the reader in.

I realized all of a sudden one day (walking out of writing workshop) that my fiction just wasn’t honest anymore. My scenes were bare black and white photographs, raw material with little heart.

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve allowed myself to indulge in some of what I consider “syrupy fiction.” It’s actually just normal fiction, the stye in which almost all literature and great fiction is written, but for some reason I’m in this rut where I consider too much extraneous narrative .. authorial. I have one more fiction workshop this fall before I graduate and I’m going to try both styles on my classmates.

I feel like fiction which is “too honest” is a little gratuitous. But then, I don’t think we can write good fiction unless we’re honest, so how can we really be “too honest”? Let me give you an example: when I write about characters who use drugs, if I try to actually write about that addiction the way addicts experience it, the constant reference to drugs and using seems gratuitous to me. But then, isn’t the gratuitousness the essence of drug addiction? The relentless presence of drugs defines the life of an addict, so when writing about addiction, it’s DISHONEST to write about drugs less often than your characters would realistically think about and use them. On the other hand, it feels “too honest” to go on ad infinitum about using.

The problem here is skill. A truly talented writer can depict the fire of addiction exactly right, can capture that obsessive impulse without the prose feeling over-done. But even the best writers can’t do it without practice.

So for now I just write little blurbs, and I try to be as honest as I can. Sometimes I read fiction that is so honest and upsetting and raw that it makes me question everything I am as a writer. I was driving and listening to a story (that I have scoured google for and can’t find) about a son and mom who are in an underground bunker and the mom cuts off her body parts to feed her son and it’s basically gut-wrenchingly horrible. I had to pull the car over and have a full-blown panic attack. I couldn’t listen to any of the other stories by that author. And as extreme as that author was (if I find the author online I’ll update with a link), he shook me to my core. I’d been dabbling in horror and thought I’d written some pretty disturbing stuff. Laughable. I haven’t written horror since. I will, though, and probably soon. When the time comes, I’ll gather up all my stories and poems and stray pens and aspire to that squirming level of honesty.