“The Zanesville Incident” or Writing the News

You’ve probably heard this story already.  On October 19th, 2011, the owner of a private zoo in Zanesville, Ohio opened the cages of more than fifty exotic animals in his care, before fatally shooting himself.  The freed lions, tigers, and other animals caused a panic in the Zanesville area, and many were killed by authorities during the ensuing attempts to capture them.

It’s been a little over a year since this story made national news, and in that time IR has received at least half a dozen fictionalized accounts of these strange and sad events.  Although we haven’t yet published any of these short stories, I completely understand the impulse to use this news item as material for fiction.  It’s a bizarre and compelling story that raises intriguing questions about human psychology, our relationships with other animals, the media’s response to such a tragedy, and so on.  I would love for IR to someday publish a short story about “The Zanesville Incident” (nobody steal that title), and I encourage any of you with such a story to submit it.  However, in this blog post I want to discuss three of the unique issues that a writer has to consider when taking on a well-known news story as the subject matter for his/her fiction.

  1. Verisimilitude vs. Factuality:  If you didn’t click the link in the first sentence of this post, do so now, and check out the photo accompanying the New York Times article.  I love that sign.  If a description of the sign appeared in a short story that wasn’t explicitly about what happened in Zanesville, the reader might ask a question about its verisimilitude:  Would authorities really put up a sign like that?  In the context of “The Zanesville Incident,” however, the reader is more likely to ask:  Did authorities really put up a sign like that?  The sign is, of course, a relatively small detail about the incident, but it serves as an example of a larger issue facing a writer of this kind of story.  The writer is burdened not only with making his/her story realistic, but also with the reader’s expectation that at least some of the details in the story are factual—not to mention the reader’s ability to Google the details to confirm their factuality
  2. Predetermined Plot Points:  While the writer of a story about “The Zanesville Incident” doesn’t necessary need all of the smaller details in the story to be factual, he/she does need certain major plot points in the story to adhere to the factual sequence of events.  Let me explain it this way:  If a story that doesn’t announce itself as being about “The Zanesville Incident” opens with a man holding a gun, the reader does not immediately know that the man will kill himself at some point in the story.  It’s possible that he’ll shoot himself, but it’s also possible that he’ll shoot someone or something else, or won’t fire that gun at all, in blatant disregard of Chekov’s advice.  If, on the other hand, a story opens with a man holding a gun on a farm in Zanesville, Ohio, standing next to a tiger cage, most readers probably know where that gun is going to be pointed when it goes off.  A story with predetermined plot points necessarily sacrifices some of its ability to generate tension or suspense for the reader, and the writer needs to find ways to compensate for that.
  3. The Narrative of News:  If you didn’t read the opening of that Times article when you clicked the link the first time, do so now.  You’ll note that it’s a third-person account of an exchange of dialogue between two people, including lines of both direct and indirect dialogue, as well as narrative commentary about the sound of someone’s voice.  Sure reads like the opening to a short story, doesn’t it?  In fact, considering the strangeness of their exchange, it wouldn’t be half-bad as a short story opening.  Here’s my point:  The news is always delivered to us in narrative form.  So the writer of a short story about “The Zanesville Incident” needs to convince readers that the specific narrative form of the short story will tell them something new about the events that they didn’t already learn through other narrative forms, such as an article in the Times.  Otherwise, the reader will be left with the sense that the story is as transitory and disposable as an article in the Times.

The last decade-plus in American literature has seen a proliferation of fiction about 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hurricane Katrina; and I suspect that we’ll see a crop of Sandy stories in the near future. In fact, I look forward to those Sandy stories.  I think it’s important for writers to take on real events like these, but I’m also curious about the ways in which readers react to such fiction.

What are some of the best “ripped from the headlines” short stories?  How does knowing that a story is based on actual events change the way you read it?  What are some other issues that a writer needs to grapple with when writing such a story?  Please share your thoughts in the comments thread, and seriously, send us those Sandy stories when you write them.

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