The phrase truth is stranger than fiction means: real events and situations are often more remarkable or incredible than those made up in fiction.
This phrase occurs, for example, in the review of the second season of the U.S. television series The White Lotus—review by Abigail Buchanan, published in the National Post (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) of Saturday 14th January 2023:
The second season of The White Lotus, a tragicomedy of manners on Crave, is set in an exclusive Sicilian resort. The cast is a gang of moneyed, miserable holidaymakers who have paid a premium for la dolce vita, and the long-suffering staff who must cater to their every whim. It’s the perfect vehicle for satire. But when it comes to how the ultra-wealthy holiday in real life, the truth is stranger than fiction.
The notion expressed by truth is stranger than fiction existed before the phrase was coined. The following, for example, is from the review of Extract of the exact Description of the House of Ice, erected at St. Petersburg in January, 1740; and of it’s [sic] Furniture, by Georg Wolfgang Kraft (1701-1754)—review published in The Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, Province of Maryland, British North-American colonies) of Wednesday 30th August 1749:
When we read in the Fairy Tales, or other romances, of certain wonders, as transparent palaces, or such like, we think such stories quite ridiculous, and beyond nature. It is always for want of knowing nature well, that such writers have recourse to such miraculous descriptions. Nature, narrowly and studiously observed, presents us with realities more surprizingly [sic] astonishing, than the strongest imagination could ever produce, or the liveliest fancy describe.
This phrase first occurred as truth is always strange, stranger than fiction in Don Juan. Cantos XII.—XIII.—and XIV. (London: Printed for John Hunt, 1823), by the English poet George Gordon Byron (1788-1824):
Canto XIV – CI.
’Tis strange—but true; for Truth is always strange,
Stranger than Fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange;
How differently the world would men behold!
How oft would vice and virtue places change!
The new world would be nothing to the old,
If some Columbus of the moral seas
Would show mankind their soul’s Antipodes.
The phrase then occurred as truth is stranger than fiction, and with explicit reference to Byron’s Don Juan, in the transcript of a remark made by one of the magistrates during a court case at Lambeth-street Police-office, London, published in The Sun (London, England) of Friday 2nd May 1828:
Mr. Wyatt observed, that never had he heard of a case that abounded with more extraordinary incidents than the present. It appeared more like a tale of romance than an occurrence in common life; and were it not that the circumstances were so well authenticated, would be absolutely incredible; it, in fact, verified the remark of Byron, that “truth is stranger than fiction.”
The phrase then occurred as truth is stranger than fiction, and without explicit reference to Byron’s Don Juan, in the transcript of William Corder’s defence, during his trial for murder, at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, published in The Courier (London, England) of Saturday 9th August 1828:
“It has been well observed, ‘That truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,’ and never was the observation more strongly exemplified than in my life, and the circumstances connected with the extraordinary occurrences which have led to the present charge.”
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the variant with fact(s) instead of truth is a misquotation from Byron’s Don Juan—it is from the Wakefield Journal; and West Riding Herald (Wakefield, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 13th September 1839:
The nomination of that most pragmatical plebian—that “novus homo,” as he has been styled—Mr. Poulett Thomson, to an office from which that pompous Peer, the atrabilarious Earl of Durham, so gallantly and opportunely ran away, is a ludicrous, and at the same time a lamentable illustration of Lord Byron’s dictum, that “facts are stranger than fictions.”
The variant then occurred in the title of a short story by the U.S. author John Neal (1793-1876)—as advertised in The Evening Post (New York City, New York, USA) of Friday 14th February 1840:
THE NEW WORLD
Of Saturday, February 15th, will contain an original story of deep interest, founded on real events, entitled “The Tragedy of Errors; or Facts stranger than Fictions,” by John Neal.