We all have a story, whether you think it’s interesting or not. But the only person who really knows your story and all the details, is you. No matter what anyone else sees, you are the only one who knows the truth.
I’m always thinking about how stories are told, especially when writing. Am I using the correct point of view? Do I have the correct character telling the story? Sometimes, it isn’t clear. Other times, I know with certainty that I’ve got it right.
And then I saw a documentary by Sarah Polley called STORIES WE TELL. I have to say first, most Canadians who grew up watching TV in the 1980’s is very familiar with Sarah Polley. As a young actress, she graced our screens in the Road to Avonlea stories. She went on to star in always quirky, mostly heartfelt movies such as THE SWEET HEREAFTER, and moved into her strongest role as director. Which brings us to her latest movie, Stories.
Polley decided that she wanted to tell the story about her family, particularly, her deceased mother. Through a series of interviews of family members, friends and people her parents worked with, she lets them tell us the story of her family—as they remember it.
What struck me with this movie is not only the fact that every person has a different view of the same situation, but that they believe it to be the absolute truth. Does this have to do with memory and recollection and how much detail we are accurate about? Maybe. Some of this is true. But even more, it’s about believing it to be the truth.
When you’re writing, you have to consider the fact that each character knows the truth about what is happening to them right then. And then you have to decide which truth to tell. Is it the right one? Are you getting all of the important details? Is one person’s truth as compelling as another’s?
Say you have a scene where a bank robbery is taking place. You could describe the scene from the viewpoint of the robber. He would have certain goals, fears, problems that everyone else in the room might not understand. His story would be compelling. Why is he there? Why does he choose to rob the bank at that exact moment? Is he willing to lose everything to get the money? As a writer, this might be the most important view to express. But is it the complete truth?
What if there is a young woman with a baby in the bank at that moment? What if she’s just had another argument with her husband because they’re both exhausted and stretched to the limits financially and emotionally with this new baby? What if her baby won’t stop crying, and he’s agitating the bank robber? How does she feel? Will she do anything to keep her child safe? Is she fearful that she’s putting everyone else at risk by causing such a commotion? Does she think she might never get back to her husband to apologize for such petty problems? Is this viewpoint the more important truth, the more compelling truth? Who would a reader care about more? The bank robber or a woman and her baby? See the problem?
When you’re writing, you have to make decisions, otherwise, your book might be confusing and far too long. But how do you know you’ve made the right choices and found the most compelling story? You can always stop a scene and write an alternate one, one from a different perspective, to see which one has the most truth in it. Of course, you don’t have to use it, but it might make you see an event from another character’s perspective and allow the scene to include different details that you might not have noticed otherwise. Give it a try!