Based on a True Story

Guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, and was an early contributor to bOING bOING when it was an online zine. He lives in San Francisco. 

Here's my idea for a Monty Python And The Holy Grail-like opening title sequence. The following titles fade in and are crossed out one by one:

  • A True Story
  • Based On A True Story
  • Inspired By A True Story
  • Inspired By Real Events
  • Inspired By Reality
  • Partially Inspired By Reality

I've argued here before that storytelling, like language itself, is a compression scheme– ideally, you leave out everything that doesn't matter or doesn't in some way contribute to the whole. If you're decompressing the story– reading, listening to, or watching it– the first thing you need to know is, is this true? You need to know where to put it in your head, whether to incorporate it into the model you use to navigate the real world, or whether it should go into the "not true" bin. Our survival depends on this distinction.

Meanwhile, on the storyteller's side, there are many reasons to blur true and not-true– particularly, I think, if a story is being told for profit or to maintain of power relationships. Stories interpreted as real demand more attention and more likely to influence people's actions than fictional stories.

There was an interesting discussion here (in response to a great piece by Susannah Breslin) about the future of porn video when CGI can simulate humans realistically. Yes, there is an "uncanny valley" problem where the simulations are not quite realistic enough, but let's assume it will be overcome. My prediction is that there will still need to be living, breathing porn stars in the world, because viewers need something to build a fantasy around, no matter how remote. Recall the parade scene at the end of National Lampoon's Animal House, when a college cheerleader flies through a window and lands on the bed of a teenage boy reading a porno magazine. He says, "Thank you, God!" It's funny because it's true– or so I am told. 

It's true that people can become obsessed with animated fictional characters, and for them the real/unreal issue doesn't matter (or works the other way). But those of us with more "stalker" type personalities want to be able to think, "I wonder what she's doing right now?" Instead of pitching our fantasy tents comfortably in the world of fiction, we anchor them to some contrived but remotely plausible chain of circumstances where we might, just might, really have a chance.