A Visual Guide for Storytellers: When Is It OK to Make Stuff Up?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 21 2012 12:58 PM

Can I Make Stuff Up? A Visual Guide


When This American Life retracted an episode based on Mike Daisey’s one-man show about workers’ rights abuses at Apple factories in China, it reignited a long-running debate about when, if ever, it’s OK for writers to embellish the truth. Recent years have seen a cornucopia of storytellers—journalists, memoirists, humorists, novelists, and so on—fudging facts. Sometimes this prompted outrage and public scorn; other instances were met with a shrug. Which raises an important question: Who gets to make stuff up?

To make life easier for would-be liars everywhere, we have attempted to answer that question with a handy visual guide. Some of our conclusions are obvious: If you’re a journalist, making stuff up is not a good career move. If you’re a fantasy writer, on the other hand, you’d better make stuff up by the chapter-load, or you’ll be out of a gig. But what if you fall somewhere in the middle?


Well, if you want to make stuff up, it helps to be funny. While David Sedaris’s books are classified as nonfiction, for example, no one seems to mind that they’re not all true. Likewise, stand-up comedians can tell you about the hilarious thing that happened to them last week, and no one will check to see if that hilarious thing really happened last week. Even if you’re writing a reported piece for a fact-checked magazine like Harper’s or Rolling Stone, you might be able to throw in a few whoppers if you’re as funny as David Foster Wallace. (Try to write prose as memorable as his, too—that seems to have helped Truman Capote.)

You may also want to consider putting your story on film. While biographers get a hard time for documentable inaccuracies, biopics don’t get the same degree of scrutiny. If you write a true story, it should probably be true; if you make a movie “based on a true story,” people will assume you made a bunch of stuff up.

One other thing: You may notice that the pretty little heads on the left nearly all belong to men. The only fact-fudging scandal involving a woman we could find went back over 30 years, and didn’t make our chart. Do men make stuff up more often? Or are there simply not as many female storytellers in the public eye? Let us know what you think in the comments—and if you can think of any other women who got in trouble for making stuff up, tell us where you’d put them on the guide.

If you make stuff up as a journalist, you will be considered such a liar that the state of California won’t let you become a lawyer.
If you make stuff up as a memoirist, Oprah will excoriate you on the air, and your publisher will refund duped readers the cost of your book, but you may have a lucrative second career employing young writers to pump out popular fiction.
If you make stuff up as a columnist, you will get suspended. Then you can write your column again.
If you make stuff up as a monologist, Ira Glass will be very disappointed in you, but lots of people will defend the “greater truth” of your story.
Nonfiction Novelist
If you make stuff up as a “nonfiction novelist,” people will call you out on it eventually, but you’ll still go down as a great writer (especially if you die prematurely).
Humorous Journalist
If you make stuff up as a humorous journalist, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker will be heartbroken.
Biopic Director
If you make a movie “based on a true story” that includes made-up stuff, journalists will write articles pointing out where you were wrong, but you might win an Oscar anyway.
Historical Novelist
If you make stuff up as a historical novelist, people will point out on Wikipedia that you were wrong and evaluate your claims on TV, but you can still make the bestseller list.
Period-Piece Showrunner
If you make stuff up for your mostly historically accurate TV show, linguists will scrutinize your every misstep and magazine journalists will compare your show to their memories, but you’ll still be a critical darling.
If you make stuff up as a humorist, The New Republic will fact-check the dickens out of you, but most people will say your lies are OK, especially if they’re just about your personal life.
Stand-Up Comedian
If you make stuff up as a stand-up comedian, no one will care (unless you lie about where your jokes came from.)
If you say you had a “good day,” bloggers will fact-check you twenty years after the fact. But they will still love the song, even if it wasn’t exactly true.
Science Fiction Writer
If you make stuff up as a science fiction writer, you will be honored as a visionary. (Unless you convince millions that your stories are true and found a church, in which case you will be derided as a nut.)
Fantasy Writer
If you make stuff up as a fantasy writer, you will earn a place in the hearts of children everywhere. But some fundamentalist Christians might burn your books.

Photo credits: Stephen Glass, YouTube; Mitch Albom by Vincent Wagner; James Frey, Berrien County mug shot; 'Truman Capote',  a Polaroid portrait by artist Andy Warhol, rephotographed by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images; David Foster Wallace by Keith Bedford/Getty Images; Tom Hooper by Chris Jackson/Getty Images; Dan Brown by Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage; Matthew Weiner by Jason Merritt/Getty Images; David Sedaris by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images; Louis C.K. by Katy Winn/Getty Images; Ice Cube by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Dr. Isaac Asimov, 1965, from "New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection"; J.K Rowling by Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo is a Slate Web and interactive designer.


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