Unless you've commanded a starship, fought off an alien invasion or survived a global disaster, your life experiences probably aren't too science-fictional. But still, the most powerful stories are often rooted in things that actually happened. Here are 10 tricks for turning your personal true stories into science fiction.
People often say that you should "write what you know," and this is interpreted way too literally, as if only opera singers can write about being opera singers. In fact, as George R.R. Martin explained, "we're talking about emotional truth here." You can write about things that actually happened in a science fictional context, but you probably have to file the serial numbers off somewhat.
And by "file the serial numbers off," I'm including stuff like "change real people's names and ideally invent whole new people to fill their place." You don't want your friends to hate you, or sue you.
So how do you do this? Here are some ideas that I've experimented with:
1. Find an objective correlative
Poet and critic T.S. Elliot coined the idea of the "objective correlative," in which you take a real emotion that you experienced and project it onto an object, or something external, which represents it. And I've heard writing teachers describe this as a way of taking a real experience and making it fictional — instead of writing about your mother's illness, you write about a lawnmower breaking down. Science fiction provides no shortage of ways to create an object (that could be something alien, or a piece of strange technology) onto which to project your emotions from a real experience. Neil Gaiman is fond of saying that fiction is "lies that tell the truth," and I feel like this is one way of doing that.
2. Use your experience as the status quo that gets disrupted
I've gotten a bit of mileage out of this one — in a lot of science fiction (and fantasy) stories, there's a reality-based "status quo" that gets upended by the appearance of something fantastical. (Think Arthur Dent's house about to be knocked down, and then Ford Prefect shows up.) Someone is dealing with something mundane, that feels very pressing to them, and then suddenly there's an alien invasion. I feel like the more grounded the mundane status quo, and the more the author feels invested in it instead of just using it as wallpaper, the better the "disrupted by outside forces" story works.
So depicting your own experience in a job or life situation, and then introducing something alien or extraneous, can make the whole thing a bit more powerful. (And power is what you're after when you use real-life experiences, as much as verisimilitude. You're trying to tap into emotions you actually felt at one time.)
3. Find the nightmarish, bizarre kernel of your trauma
There's at least a good chance the real experiences you're interested in writing about were not pleasant ones. And every experience like that has a version that's a total absurd nightmare, if you turn the contrast way up and the brightness way down. (So to speak.) Your night in the emergency room dealing with a sick partner, while arguing with insurance companies on the phone, can easily become something more grotesque and Kafkaesque. Find the disturbing core of this traumatic experience and satirize the hell out of it. Or turn it into full-blown horror.
4. Exaggerate all the details and romanticize
Or on the opposite tip, you can also turn your real experiences into a larger-than-life tall tale. Write about the same events, but on a massive, insane scale, as if you're drunkenly retelling your experiences at the bar at three in the morning. (Although be careful not to turn yourself into an idealized protagonist who's perfect and always right, because nobody likes that.)
The key here is to use not just the particulars, but also the emotional truth, of your brush with disaster in a big widescreen adventure story. Or get your Hunter S. Thompson on and describe your three-week bender in gloriously over-the-top style, including alien goop coming out of the toilets and a tampon machine that achieves sentience, while you're trying to barf. Or whatever.
5. Make yourself the alien in that story, or see yourself through alien eyes
Part of the key to fictionalizing a real-life experience, as both T.S. Elliot and George R.R. Martin explain in different ways, is to get enough distance from the events to write about them honestly and get at the deeper reality. And one way to do that is literally to get some distance — instead of projecting something alien or futuristic into the real story, turn yourself into the alien in the middle of a human story. Or view the whole thing through the eyes of a non-human observer who's trying to make sense of it. Think about how you'd explain what happened to you to someone from the future, or another plane of reality. Even if you end up changing a lot of stuff in the process of doing this, it can help you get at the emotional center of your experience while slowly turning it into something non-mimetic.
6. Let yourself fantasize about what you wish had happened... then subvert that
Let's be honest — a lot of writers spend a lot of time fantasizing about getting revenge on that one person who screwed with them in sixth grade. Or that bureaucrat at the DMV. Or if only a spaceship had come to grab them during their darkest moment, the way one grabbed Peter Quill. And while it can seem petty and silly to fantasize about revenge or escape while thinking about real stuff that happened, a lot of good stories have come from that. Of course, the more you go back and develop this story, the more complications and wrinkles will start to show up (if it's any good), and you may want to subvert the wish-fulfillment aspect consciously by showing how it's never that simple.
7. Use your real-life specialized knowledge to shore up your world-building
In other words, if you're lucky enough to have been a military engineer for 10 years, then you have the perfect background to write about military hardware from a position of expertise. But even if your expertise is in something like medical informatics or being a traffic cop, you can still use the details about how those things actually function — details that other writers would have to do hours of research to capture imperfectly — in a story. Nothing makes a story feel more grounded than realistic details about a job, or an occupation like fly-fishing. You can put completely fictional characters into a world that you already know in detail.
8. Identify the genre your experience belongs to, and then just write in that genre.
When we interviewed Rian Johnson back in 2008, he said the reason why genres exist is because you encounter them in your real life: "You're walking home late at night down a dark street, and all of a sudden your mind turns it into a thriller. You get nervous about who's walking behind you." Or you start falling in love, and suddenly you feel like you're in a romance story. If you have a powerful experience in your life that you're not sure how to write about, one way to get enough distance from it is just to think about what genre that experience belongs to. Was it a horror story? A thriller? A comedy? Assign a genre label to your real-life memories, and then just start crafting a brand new story in that genre. The real stuff will seep in.
9. Take your totally illogical experience and make it logical.
This is another big one — as Ted Chiang told us a while back, the reason why people say "truth is stranger than fiction" is because fiction has to make sense. People judge true stories and fiction by totally different standards, and they expect fiction to hold water. Reality can have any number of "plot holes" in it, because people are just weird. So one way to transform the thing that really happened to you into fiction is to plot it out and then make the plot logical. You might find that as soon as it has logical consistency and a coherent plot, it's no longer the reality of what happened. And then you can start building more fiction on top of that, like a perfectly plumb foundation.
10. Start with the truth and keep twisting it
And finally, there's the obvious thing — write a straight-up memoir about what happened to you, and just introduce more and more lies to it. Either as you go, or on every pass through the manuscript. Keep adding lies to the truth, until there's no truth left, and only you can see the shape of what used to be there.