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Monday, October 21, 2013

Reality doesn't have to make sense

I cannot tell you how often in critique group I've had or heard the following conversation:

Critiquer: This section felt a bit unbelievable.
Writer: But it really happened that way!

Or else:

Professor: I found this section unrealistic in its portrayal of police operations.
Writer: But it could happen that way! I spoke to a retired cop once and he said it.

The list of excuses is endless: I saw a news report that... I read a study that... My great-aunt said that... This is based on a man who did almost exactly the same thing!

Honestly? It doesn't matter.

Back in 2010, I came across a news story about a toddler who was ejected from his mother's car during a rollover crash. He was shot into the air over a twenty-foot sound barrier along the edge of the highway and into the back yard of two volunteers for the police department, who were trained to handle emergencies and just happened to be home at the time.

(If you're wondering, the mother was arrested on charges of child neglect because she didn't have a license and there were no car seats in the vehicle.)

My Patient Husband's remark was, "If that appeared in a story, no one would believe it."

No, as a writer, you couldn't do that. Well, maybe in a story about a guardian angel who was told by God to have fifteen of his friends over for a touch-football game, and between plays they noticed the car rolling over, and because they were angels they lifted the child twenty feet into the air to clear the wall, and then they went back in time to ensure two law enforcement officers bought that particular house and would be home to help the kid. You could swing it in Doctor Who, also. 

In a regular story, no. In  non-speculative fiction, it's best to go with the regular way of doing things even if the other way could theoretically happen, or is based on something that probably happened, or even if it did actually happen. 

In fiction, "it actually happened that way" means nothing. You're not going to be standing there with your reader saying, "No, it really happened!" Nor will you be including footnotes to news articles courtesy of the Wayback Machine. 

If you break the fictive dream with your reader, the social contract has been ruptured. The reader no longer feels like believing you because you as an author are unreliable.

Not the narrator (unreliable narrators are fun) but you the author.

Those little trustworthy moments add up to trusting you on the big ones. A friend of mine set an action-adventure SF novel in a series of caves. The overall story involved FTL travel, alien races, telepathic animals, and a bomb that could destroy a planet. Quite a lot to suspend your disbelief for, right? But her caving details were so dead-on-target-accurate that the whole setup was believable. (She got fan mail asking where she did her caving.)

If on the other hand the everyday details don't add up, the reader won't believe the big scene and the big situation and the big stakes you're setting up. And why risk that? Because something cool actually happened? But it's not reality. It's a work of fiction.

Yes, fiction has higher standards than reality. One of my writing professors used to reply, dead-pan, that in reality, a man in a clown suit may walk into the room, hit you in the face with a pie, and leave never to be seen again. But that's not something you want to put into your novel.

If something happens one way 99% of the time, it doesn't matter if it happens another way that other percent: do it the 99% way or you risk alienating all your readers who think, "No, I know that's not how it works." Or else prepare us far in advance for that 1%. Fold it into the story so that when the really odd thing emerges, we already know it's possible.

I'm glad reality rules and that the child in the news survived his brief flight. But children need car seats, and fiction needs to make sense.

Check out fellow QT blogger Ash Krafton's Fall Into Fantasy giveaway -- fifty fantasy and paranormal titles up for grabs! And one of them is mine.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or swatting mosquitos. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. 


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

It's funny to think we can get away with huge departures from reality as long as we nail the details. Definitely a guideline to watch carefully.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

People who make action movies need to read this one! I find myself appalled several times over during some films, when the stakes are made so high that there is no way I can believe the successful ending.

I guess that makes the ending unsuccessful. It does make for one irritated movie-goer.