Sunday, March 7, 2010
What Makes Fiction Seem Real
The human brain is somewhat like a garbage dump. Not a very flattering analogy, perhaps, but I like that description because it accurately reflects our experiences and our perception of the world. Whenever siblings gather during the holiday seasons and discuss their childhood experiences, the stories often diverge in ways that defy logic. “Oh, yes you did,” and “Oh, no I did not!” becomes part of the discussion, with each party convinced that their memories are correct.
If we have trouble remembering events that happened in our mutual lives, then it shouldn’t surprise us when we have problems with ‘facts’ that we did not directly experience. Most fiction is composed of things that happened— or should have happened, or perhaps might have happened— or at least we hope the reader will think so. There is a writer’s term that covers this situation. We call it suspending disbelief. You might think that stories that are similar to current events are easier to make believable, but this is not necessarily correct. I think there are three elements that make a story resonate with the reader and make them come back for more.
First: Do I believe in what I am writing? In one writer’s group where I am a member, someone asked a rather complicated question about obtaining DNA from a werewolf that had drowned and remained immersed in water for several days. Initially, I was startled by the question and wondered if the author did not know that werewolves were fictional creatures. But as I thought about the question, I realized that this author was doing something that all of us should strive harder to accomplish. In the world she had created, werewolves were real and she believed it with the necessary conviction to bring her plot to life on the written page.
Second: Do I understand the facts I have woven so carefully into my plot? I still cringe over a major mistake I once made in a story. I had carefully researched my plot and was convinced that all of my research was accurate. I checked three different sources for the details on this particular situation and they were all in agreement. The story was already in print before I realized I had missed this particular ‘fact’ by a country mile. Writers are notoriously bad at harvesting details from other books on a similar subject. How many times have you read about the smell of cordite lingering in the air after a shootout, even though cordite hasn’t been used in small arms ammunition for many years? There is nothing like talking to someone who has been there and done that.
Third: Do the ‘facts’ in my story run contrary to popular belief? There are a surprising number of things in this world that everyone believes to be true when they simply aren’t accurate. Some of the popular crime shows on television are notoriously inaccurate in pushing the envelope concerning technology. DNA evidence gets compared almost overnight, when in the real world, the backlog in crime labs make anything faster than two weeks very unlikely. On a recent crime show, a male agent turned to his companion and said, “I am an FBI agent. I get shot at every day!” In the literary world, writers attempt to whip every situation into a major event and people have come to accept these over-hyped situations as reality. I know a police officer who retired after thirty years on a large police force. He told me that he had never fired his gun while on duty, a fact of which he was rather proud. Try dropping that little gem into a story and see how much fan mail it will generate. Life is interesting and we must strike a balance between reality and what people believe about the world. It is an interesting situation, but that is what makes the world of fiction so interesting whether we are reading or writing the next bestseller.
Posted by Joe Prentis at 10:29 AM