Mar 12

‘Facts’ and Truth in Stories

‘Facts’ and Truth in Stories

Words From Context

In stories which are set in real places and real times it is natural and usual to include some ‘facts’ to give authenticity, or clues if you do not want to be too specific. You might mention actual street names, a famous person associated with a place or historical event to set it clearly in a time frame, in passing. This is an interesting way of adding to the bare story line and giving colour and background.

As an author you could, of course use this in various ways; incorrect facts for the reader to spot to discredit a character and give a clue to his lack of knowledge, untruthfulness about whether he was ever where he said he was, or deliberate lies in general.

You may have come across passages which are just plain irritating; two characters are passing a building and one starts to tell the other its fascinating history, which goes on too long, is distracting and/or has absolutely no bearing on the story. You just know that the author happens to have been there, or has found out about it while researching the area, and could not resist putting it in. Some people feel they simply cannot bear to waste research but being able to discriminate between useful information that helps to set the scene and extraneous material is a vital skill for writers!

Particularly with historical settings some authors tend to include too much detail, for some readers, in long passage about for example a battle or an well known historical event, that happens to coincide with the story’s timeline but is not specifically relevant to the plot. Done well, and if not too long it may be interesting but editing out anything that distracts rather than adding to the story should generally be fairly ruthless.

It is important, to remember that ‘facts’ change. There is something called ‘the half life of facts’, which I think is a great phrase. It refers to just this point. A fact is what is understood to be the definitive information about a topic at a certain point in time. In the light of new information, further research or experimentation that understanding may change, and particularly in modern times it does so frequently and rapidly. Stories set in the past should have reference to this. Characters in the 19th century cannot have a twenty-first century knowledge or understanding! The panel game QI, famed for its ‘quite interesting’ facts, has had to devote time already to updating information, which was correct at the original time of broadcasting but has since changed, been modified or disproved in light of new information.


Apparently scientific knowledge is growing by a factor of 10 every 50 years which means that half of what scientists may have known in a particular subject will be wrong or obsolete in 45 years!

Scientists seem to agree that there is no way to fully distinguish what is fact and what is theory or opinion!


Remembering certain kinds of facts is notoriously flawed as demonstrated by the different accounts of an incident given to the police by eye witnesses. They ‘see’ different things for all sorts of reasons. It may be they are simply looking from a different angle and therefore actually some can see details that others cannot. It could be that something about a person resonated with the witness because of his or her own interests or knowledge. Even at speed we may register an image or anomaly and process it in some way which affects how we recall it. For example a person who is interested in fashion might take in more about what someone is wearing, a keen football fan may unconsciously                recognise a team shirt and identify it, a very tall person might notice if someone is even taller than them, someone with acute hearing may hear something said that is not reported by another witness who failed to hear it. The police are obviously aware of the difficulties and try to get witness statements as soon as possible after an event. They want to access the memories while they are as fresh as possible, and before they can be analysed, consciously or subconsciously, by the witness who may then process them as we do with everything.  We link to past experiences, we tag the new onto existing knowledge and if we discuss it we might be influenced by some comment by someone else……

There is also something known as false memory. Sometimes you can be told so many times about an event that happened when you were ‘too young to remember’, that you actually believe that you do recall it. False memories can be implanted as has been seen tragically in some child abuse accusations where the questioning has intimidated the ‘victim’ so much, or has lead him or her to link the content of the questions with some other resentment against the accused, or some other source or missing memory, that the child ‘agrees’ that something took place when it actually did not. The power of suggestion is phenomenal.

Flawed or completely false memories can be used effectively by an author to misdirect, to increase tension and suspicion, especially in mystery novels, psychological thrillers or fantasy. They work particularly well with a first person narrative as the assumption of the reader is that the narrator will be telling the truth. Doubts and scepticism can be built up gradually, adding to the dramatic tension.

Sometimes an author will actually say in an introduction that they have compressed time or changed the order of certain actual events for the sake of the plot. Within reason, and as long as they tell us, that is fine and no detriment to the story.

As far as possible you would normally try to keep your backgrounds factually accurate unless you are entering into the realms of science fiction, alternative universes or time travel.

Sue Almond

January 2017

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