Monday, June 6, 2011

IS IT REAL? The Truth About Fiction

On June first, a line of devastating storms sped through the state of Massachusetts bringing with it numerous tornados. My home town of Ware, sitting snug in the valley was spared, but much of the surrounding areas weren’t so lucky. In fact, Monson, a neighboring town will be picking up the pieces for a long time to come. As news of the destruction played out across our television screen and family and friends posted pictures on Facebook my four year old daughter became worried and confused.

“Was it a real tornado, Mommy? Or just a make-believe one like in the movie TWISTER?” she asked.

Now keep in mind, TWISTER is one of her favorite movies. Something about the storm scenes amazes her much more than it frightens her. Maybe she is destined to become a Storm Chaser or Meteorologist. Either way, at four, she is confused by the images she is seeing so close to her grandmother’s home. Of course this prompted a discussion of what is real and what is not real. This is a difficult concept for a young child to grasp. The “real” images from the June first tornado are eerily similar to the “fake” ones from the movie. I tried to explain that the movie is fiction; a story somebody made up.

“Why does it seem so real?” She wanted to know.

And herein lays the real root of the problem. As a fiction writer myself, the answer is simple. After all, if it didn’t seem real, it wouldn’t be believable. Who wants to watch a movie or read a book that isn’t believable? The key to writing good fiction is making the reader believe it. Whether you’ve brought your reader to a post-apocalyptic country where children are forced to play deadly games to win food for their village, or, like in my upcoming picture book, you introduce your reader to a slipper wearing bedbug who doesn’t want to share her bed with a human, it must draw the reader in.

If the tornados in the movie TWISTER looked like the funnel in a soda bottle science experiment it certainly wouldn’t have been nominated for an Academy Award and the effects department would find themselves standing in line at the unemployment office. The realistic feel of the movie is what made it a hit. It is what drew audiences to see it.

But not all fiction is cut and dry. Of course my smarty pants daughter wanted to know if the recent documentary we watched on Pompeii was real or fiction.

“That was real,” I said.

“You mean they videotaped it while it happened?” she asked.

Oh boy, this kid never allows for an easy answer. I explained the film we saw was a reenactment of the true story, which is called non-fiction, and the people were all actors. That seemed to appease her for the moment, but now, every story she comes across, either in print or film, spurs a burning need to know if it is fiction or non-fiction. This whole episode had me second guessing my own take on fiction. Therefore I did a little research. Webster’s definition of Fiction is, literature made up of imaginary events and characters. But as I mentioned earlier, fiction is not cut and dry. I came across a few sub-categories which will help straighten out my daughter’s confusions and hopefully yours too.

1. Realistic Fiction: A story which is not true but could actually happen. I think the movie TWISTER is a good example of this.
2. Non-Realistic Fiction: A story where the events couldn’t really happen. Like Nick Jr’s TEAM UMIZOOMI.
3. Non-Fiction: Based solely on fact like the Pompeii documentary.
4. Semi-Fiction, which is a fictional account based on a true story like the 1995 animated film, BALTO.

There are obviously more categories such as Science Fiction or Historical Fiction and more, but that delves a little deeper than this discussion warrants and I’m trying to make sense of this for a four year old after all. Who, by the way, seems to be catching on. This morning, while watching TEAM UMIZOOMI, she proudly announced the show was fiction because there obviously is no real “tiny team,” although she is unsure of the existence of Umi City. Even so, her deduction tells me she’s learning. The concept is not beyond her. The brain-sponge is soaking it in and sending a few drops my way. We’re learning together.

Another lesson we're learning together is compassion in the wake of this tornado disaster. I've sent in my monetary donation and wish I didn't live so far so I could do more. Please keep these people in your prayers.

I’d like to thank Sherri Pelski for use of the photo images of the Monson Tornado. As I mentioned earlier, this community will be picking up the pieces for a long time to come. Monson is a typical Norman-Rockwell type small town and it needs your help in order to rebuild. If you’re able, please take a moment to send in your donation at the following web site:


  1. I live in Oklahoma in the heart of "Tornado Alley" and still pause when I see the devastating effects of a tornado. Moments prior to our last warning, my hubby and I were huddled in the bathtub praying for our safety and the safety of others. We hugged and thanked God for sparing us and went to be. Blessed to be alive. Seeing the photos and reading your story made me realize just how much fiction draws from reality. Thank you for sharing and for your insight.

  2. Niki,

    I am sorry to hear of the devastation so near the doorsteps of your childhood hometown. This tornado season has carved a deadly path that will be long remembered.

    I am writing a nonfiction story. I have created dialogue and internal thoughts. I say it is nonfiction with fictional elements. I know some places won't accept that. What is your take?

    Linda A.

  3. I'm impressed with the dialogue you're having with your daughter. Isn't it awesome how the Lord is using your 4-year-old daughter to probe your own thinking? I had never heard all of those different categories of fiction. Make sense though. And it is great that you are also teaching your daughter compassion and empathy. Get ready for even bigger questions about why there are bad things like tornados in the world! Carol Baldwin

  4. Niki, What a great post!
    Linda, Perhaps you are writing what's called Creative Nonfiction. (or historical fiction?)


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