Finding the Truth of a Story by Pat Bertram

We are steeped in story. From birth to death, story forms our lives. Today, more stories are available to us in more media than ever before in history, including the stories we share with each other and ourselves. What is a daydream if not a story of the future we tell ourselves? And at night, while sleeping, our dreams tell us other stories. No wonder we have such a hard time finding a story that is not clichéd.

But original tales do exist. In fact, anyone can write a non-clichéd story if he or she does the work to find the truth of the story, but all too often writers with nothing to say look to books and movies for the truth and end up with rehashed forgeries. (This is nothing new. As Edward Gibbon wrote centuries ago, “Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.”)

Stories of pattern killers (serial killers by another name) became clichéd very quickly. How many times have we heard or read that same untrue bit about the killer being a white male between the ages of . . . Never mind. You probably know it better than I do. Because so many writers borrowed their truths from previous stories about pattern killers, the only thing new they had to add was the grisly murder pattern, each one more gruesome than the last. The way to tell a non-clichéd serial killer story is to find the truth. In a bizarre sort of way, a pattern killer story is romance between the killer and the hunter. Their relationship forms the story, not the murders. And, on a deeper level, a pattern killer story is the tale of the hunter finding the killer within himself. You may not agree with me about the truth of the pattern killer story, but that is my truth. It is up to you to find your own truth.

So how do we do we find the truth for our stories, not just pattern killer stories? By going small, by knowing everything possible about our characters, the streets they walk, the way they think, the places and people that make up their world. Some authors travel to get the feel of their settings, some take survival courses to find out what their characters would experience in wild, but not all of us have the time, money, or inclination to travel to distant places or to take physically taxing courses. Nor is it necessary. We can find the truth in our own neighborhoods. We can walk the streets and take note of everything we see. How do those streets differ from any other we have traversed? By being true to character and place, we find the small bits of action that tell the story’s truth. We are used to thinking of action scenes as car chases, fights, and other horrifying events, but an action scene can be as subtle as a look or a touch of a hand. That is where the truth lies, in the unexpected details.

A story, when set in a particular place with a particular character, will have a truth that no other story has. If we have the patience and skill to find the story’s truth — our truth — we can tell the tale without reducing it to cliché.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”


Filed under How To, Pat Bertram, writing

10 responses to “Finding the Truth of a Story by Pat Bertram

  1. My latest effort Cold Water Conscience will have the truth of bits and pieces of my own part. The crimes on the part of the main character are fictional but the crimes perpetrated by his adversary really did happen. Hopefully this will lend authenticity to the work which is still in progress. It is the most complex and truthful writing I have ever attempted. The settings are the setting I am very familiar with. One suburb I don’t mention. The fact that it is no different from any other suburb near Sydney is enough. The suburbs are beginning to look alike with individuality stripped away. It is something I wish to get across to the reader. There is a relationship that changes between the main characters but I wouldn’t call it romance unless it is regarded as a very twisted romance.

  2. I like your idea of looking for the story’s truth. I’ve always thought that was easier to do when allowed the story evolve out of my feelings, intuition and experience. It grows naturally that way, from within, rather than being forcd by ideas from without Other writers will have other ways. I think we need to find “our way” of approach fiction before we can find the truths.


  3. Beautifully said, Pat. I wonder if it’s why, when I’m asked if my books are autobiographical, the answer is “Absolutely not, but…..” The “but” has to do with some of my “truths,” as you put it, transplanted and combined with others. Hmmmm, I’m still thinking about this one.

  4. I can totally relate to Ms. Bertram’s finding the truth of a story. Here is my own truth of a story. One that Second Wind will be publishing soon. The inspiration for FOGGY JOE & THE RIVER OF SIN grew out my fishing career during those cold New England gales, hugging the potbelly stove, listening spellbound to those old timers (long gone now) as they relived their daring exploits during the wild Prohibition years.

    Back then, even at my young age, I knew in my writer’s heart that there was a wonderful story to be told. I grew to love these characters both real and fictional. I was also determined (then and now) not to see these fishermen who went down to the sea to run booze, disappear into history’s dusty attic. For me, their lives were rich with romance and drama laced with action and humor, not to mention their bawdy superstitions. And hopefully, I succeeded in keeping these characters alive and well.
    I might add that my follow-up novel SEA FEVER pretty much follows that same truth of a story.

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