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Story Truth vs Happening Truth:
What High School Lit Taught Me About Telling Better Stories Online

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Telling stories as a part of your content marketing strategy is absolutely essential. 

There’s no question that a good story can boost the Know • Like • Trust relationship between you and your audience. AND we also have to be mindful about the boundaries we utilize to tell these stories. 

The importance of honest, truthful storytelling with responsible boundaries needs a clear understanding of Story Truth vs Happening Truth, as originally conceived by Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried.

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Let’s bring it back to my sophomore year of high school:
picture it, Apple Valley, Minnesota, Spring 2004. 

We’re completing a unit on memoirs of war and uses of meta-fiction, and we read (as so many before us have) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. 

Now, despite my classmates penchant for Slaughterhouse Five, I am immediately captivated by The Things They Carried. My penchant for narratives of honest grief and conflict aside, there is one bit that feels like a lightning bolt to the heart: the idea that there are different truths in storytelling: Story Truth and Happening Truth. 

To this day, it resonates with me like no other and reminds me of a line from my current favorite musical, Jesus Christ Superstar: “we both have truths, are yours the same as mine?”

We’re decades out from my sophomore year of high school at this point, but the concepts of Story Truth and Happening Truth are just as relevant today as they were when O’Brien first penned the meta-fictional novel in 1990. 

While we won’t dig too deeply into the philosophical merits of the two types of Truth in storytelling, in this post, let’s establish clear definitions for the terms Story Truth and Happening Truth, and outline the ways in which each must be used in honest storytelling online.

Ready? Let’s dive in with some basic definitions.

What are Story Truth and Happening Truth?

Story Truth and Happening Truth are two sides of the same coin. 

cover art of The Things They Carried by Tim OBrien

Happening Truth can best be defined as the unarguable facts of the situation: times, dates, locations, verbatim conversations. Happening Truth is many times the most sterile of accounts, as only what can be corroborated is part of it. 

Story Truth, on the other hand, is the fleshing out of the event, filling in the gaps or holes in memory to create a complete experience for the reader and the writer alike.

Here’s the passage from The Things They Carried that introduces the concept. It might help illustrate the difference:

“It’s time to be blunt.

I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

Almost everything else is invented.

But it’s not a game. It’s a form.


I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is to make things present.”

The Relationship Between Content Marketing and Story Truth

Content marketing is, at its essence, creating and sharing material you believe to be useful to your audience, often without explicitly selling your brand, products, or services. 

It’s an essential part of any marketing strategy because it establishes the Know • Like • Trust factor necessary to move folks from being a passive audience member to raving fan of your work. 

Sharing personal experiences and anecdotes within that content is one of the surest ways to establish rapport and build trust with your audience: Story Truth allows you to do this effectively.

Story Truth in online storytelling cuts through the chaff of unnecessary information to get at the emotional core of what it is you’re trying to say. It dispenses with the distracting unnecessary details to illuminate the specificity of the experience.

For example: 

I honestly don’t remember if the unit in sophomore english was on war memoirs or meta-fictional storytelling. I don’t remember if we read Slaughterhouse Five first or The Things They Carried first. 

But for the purposes of this story, that doesn’t actually matter. 

What matters is the way The Things They Carried affected me, the way I view storytelling, and the creation of this blog post to teach the basic definitions of these types of storytelling. 

The use of Story Truth to set up this blog post was necessary to illustrate my own intellectual journey and set the stage for your learning.

So where does Happening Truth come into play?

In a post-Scientific-Revolution world (oh yeah, we’re pulling out all the high school call back stops today!), we thrive on facts. 

As hard as it may be to come by, we hunger for objective truths and demand corroboration of events. 

Especially as we digest more and more of the daily lives of celebrities and influencers on social media, we demand to know what it is “True” and how to ensure the honesty of the stories we are being told.

This is where responsible boundaries come into play. 

Story Truth, Happening Truth, and Responsible Boundaries in Your Online Storytelling

If you need a refresh on responsible boundaries, you can do so HERE (link to blog), but suffice it to say sorting through what is appropriate or not for your platforms and your audience is the first step in good storytelling, period. 

Maintaining responsible boundaries in no way hinders honesty, and THAT is the key to understanding your relationship with Happening Truth: honesty. 

Facts aren’t necessarily truth in storytelling; the truest thing is what you are honestly experiencing.

NOTE: Let me be very clear: in no way am I advocating for false vulnerabilities or “alternate facts” (dear lord). Can we just all agree there are degrees of objectivity and commit to ethical storytelling? Ok good awesome thank you.

Let’s bring this all back to content marketing…

How and when to use these different types of Truths to create a deeper relationship with your audience 

In my own content marketing, I advocate freely and loudly for mental health care. 

In relating stories and revelations along my own mental health journey, I may use Story Truth rather than Happening Truth to illustrate a moment of epiphany, because to tell the Happening Truth could violate my own boundaries and detract from the epiphany, the conclusion I arrived at and want to illuminate for my audience. 

In this way, Story Truth is utilized for the respect of both my and my audience’s boundaries.

Another time where Story Truth and Happening Truth may weave in and out would be around family events. 

I, for one, don’t share much about my family online (and for those that do, YOU DO YOU!). 

So if I’m recounting an experience that happened at the latest fully family reunion (my dad has four sisters – there are a LOT of us and we are loud), I’m weaving in the Happening Truth (the cacophony of aunts and uncles, the buffet line of home cooked food) with the Story Truth (carefully choosing which conversations to relate, perhaps melding multiple conversations had in half sentences between bites of food and interruptions from the kids into one poignant moment).

This helps me tell tell the story I’m aiming to tell, in the Happening Truth sense as well as the Story Truth sense, while still maintaining and protecting the particular boundary I have chosen to put in place regarding sharing about my family online.

Clear as mud? It might be.

But I promise you’ll find your way.

All learning needs repetition, so let’s recap:

Story Truth is the emotional core, the necessary account of events that illustrates the experience had by the author. It allows you to tell hyper-personal anecdotes in your content marketing without violating your boundaries.

Happening Truth is the most objective collection of facts in the account of an experience. It is what can be confirmed by all those present during an experience.

Ultimately, the question isn’t “did this really happen?”

The question is “am I honoring the experience ethically and honestly in accordance with my boundaries?”

Yes. It’s all complicated AF.

But you’re a smart cookie. 

If you’d like to understand your natural inclinations as a storyteller to harness your innate talents and create deeper connection, find out what your storytelling archetype is HERE. 

You’ll learn how your brain naturally makes sense of stories and even get a few prompts to spur you on to better storytelling.

Remember: Story Truth is your greatest asset in relating to your audience.

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