Doesn’t my artistic license cover that? (Click to embiggen) (Click to embiggen)
Several times over the years I’ve gotten into discussions with co-workers (who are also technical writers) about the differences between writing fiction vs technical documentation vs other kinds of non-fiction, and why many of them believe you can’t be good at both kinds of writing. The usual feeling is that the requirements of most organizations needing technical writing are so regimented that they stamp out any possibility for creativity. The people who make this argument believe that technical writing is merely describing and presenting facts in the correct order, whereas fiction writing requires an artiste.

Others argue in the opposite direction. Once you learn basic spelling and grammar, they claim, fiction writing is just about making things up. It’s not possible to get anything wrong. If you accidentally contradict yourself, well, it’s your story, change it! They believe it’s much more difficult to learn and understand all the parts of a device or program or process and then explain it in a concise way.

Both arguments are exactly wrong. And both contain as much truth as falsehood.

A writer’s job—whether she is a novelist, technical writer, journalist, or historian—is to take an idea or vision they have in their own head, and use words to evoke or transfer that same knowledge to the mind of the reader. That process, the meeting of minds, is ultimately the same whether you are describing how to configure a clustered server application, an adventure in a distant galaxy, or the process to make your great-grandma’s chicken noodle casserole.

There are specifics in each of those scenarios that are different, but they all use the same skills. And non-fiction is never as straight forward as people think. This is why you end up with situations, such as the Stonewall movie I’m feeling trepidatious over (and wrote about yesterday). If you’re trying to tell someone about a series of actual events, you still have to make narrative decisions about where to begin, how much background information to include and when, which events to include and which to leave out, and where to end it.

German drama critic, Gustav Freytag, suggested this method of analysing the structure of stories in 1863
German drama critic, Gustav Freytag, suggested this method of analysing the structure of stories in 1863. (,uk Click to embiggen)
For a novel or movie based on a historical event, that also means choosing viewpoint characters, constructing an emotional arc you think will resonate with the audience, and arranging events to follow that arc to reach a satisfying conclusion. Real life seldom happens in a neat, precise order that perfectly follows Freytag’s Triangle.

So you have to make compromises. You fudge the timing of events to make a more dramatic and satisfying story, perhaps. This is what we actually mean by “artistic license.” In order to tell the story in a way that moves people, you take a few liberties. In the 1995 movie about the Stonewall Riots that I mentioned yesterday, for instance, they take an event that happened in 1966 and drop it into 1969. The sip-in was an event organized by the Mattachine Society, the non-radical gay rights organization that had been around since 1950. Lots of states had laws against bars serving gay people—specifically in New York at the time, a bar could lose its license if it simultaneously served drinks to more than one gay person. A single openly gay person at a bar was okay, but two (such as a couple on a date!) was a big no-no. So this group of very respectable-looking people went from bar to bar, made a big announcement that they were gay, and asked to be served. They had to go to a bunch of bars before someone refused to serve them, at which point they could file a lawsuit, whose ultimate aim was to get the regulation thrown out in court as a violation of the Constitutional rights of association and assembly. Which they did.

None of the people involved in the sip-in had anything to do with the Stonewall riots later on. And the Stonewall Inn was not one of the bars where they tried to get served at. The makers of the 1995 movie, for whatever reason, decided to have the heroes of their movie being the guys that also stages the sip-in, and had them do it a month or so before the riots at Stonewall. It doesn’t really make much sense, and it certainly isn’t how it happened. The filmmaker was probably trying to come up with a way to show that his fictionalized versions of the real people who spontaneously rose up in the riots were actively fighting for their rights before that night. It was a way to show them as being active, aware participants in history, to give them agency in the plot. Because, apparently, deciding as an unarmed person to physically fight back against a bunch of armed police officers isn’t active enough!

I think that’s going to ultimately prove to be what’s happening with that brick-throwing scene that everyone is up in arms about in the trailer. The movie maker, having decided to tell the story through his fictional character who is not based on any specific participant in the riots, and who was crafted specifically to be an archetypical everyman, needs to do something active to show agency, and to move the audience to see him as the hero of his personal narrative. That doesn’t necessarily excuse it, but it would explain it.

It is a tough problem. When I was doing an edit pass on the first book in my Trickster series, I realized that I had spent so much time weaving all of the subplots together (and all the jokes—the word apocalypse may be in the title of the first book, but I am writing light fantasy!) so that all the characters get to the big climactic battle and have their emotional arcs culminate, I had turned my main protagonist (and one of the supporting protagonists) into a soccer ball. They were each propelled by events from one part of the plot to the next, seldom showing any agency. They each made decisions along the way, but I had wound up writing those scenes in such a way that each was always reacting to events outside his control. Fortunately it didn’t take a lot of revision to recast some of those scenes to make it clear that there were actual choices being made. I added one scene to give the main protagonist a more active role in shaping the end result of the plot. I think it worked.

As a storyteller, I know why these decisions about how to make a compelling tale out of historical events happen. Your hope is that the overall effect is to illuminate the past, show how far we’ve come, and introduce people unfamiliar with the topic to the struggles of the people involved. If not done right, you might still please the audience, but you’ve muddled things up, erased the real heroes, and sold the viewer a pretty but awful lie.

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