Silk’s Post #83 — Does this sound like a pretty stupid question? It’s a no-brainer, you might think. Fiction is not true. Reality is.
Are you sure?
Maybe this only seems obvious because, by definition, we don’t give “no-brainer” questions much thought. We treat them as givens. Settled law. Reality is something we can believe in. Rock solid. Fiction is—well, just something made up. Unreal. Fiction is the thing that “truth is stranger than” according to the old saw (an adage that is predicated on the notion that reality can sometimes surprise us by being more unbelievable than fiction, but fiction is always unbelievable).
And here’s the challenge for writers of fiction: to engage readers in your made-up story – to make them care about your characters, your plot, your setting, your theme – you must make it all seem like reality. Or at least plausible within a context that readers can relate to. The world and people in your book may be fake – works of imagination – but they need to feel true at some level to be meaningful to readers.
Authentic, convincing, resonant, compelling – these are the words authors would love to be reading in reviews of their novels. How do we get there?
Let’s start with the Oxford Dictionary, just to give this post a whiff of authority:
fiction — n. 1 an invented idea or statement or narrative; an imaginary thing. 2 literature, esp. novels, describing imaginary events and people. 3 a conventionally accepted falsehood (legal fiction; polite fiction). 4 the act or process of inventing imaginary things. Synonyms: unreal, imaginary, invented, made-up, fanciful, mythical, fictitious.
reality — n. 1 what is real or existent or underlies appearances. 2 the real nature of a thing. 3 real existence; the state of being real. 4 resemblance to an original (the model was impressive in its reality). Synonyms: actuality, fact, truth, genuineness, authenticity.
But indulge me for a few minutes while I try to follow the twisted loose thread in this neat dichotomy: the thread of believability. Here are two simple questions, each of which can only be answered with “no”, that pretty well blow Oxford’s comfortable clarity to smithereens and (fortunately for us writers) open up a wonderfully blurry world:
Does something need to be believable to be true?
Does something need to be true to be believable?
Before I get totally lost in the depths of philosophy and etymology, let me explain my inspiration for this post. It was a tweet from Senior Editor Melissa Ann Singer at Tor/Forge Books:
feel like I can’t say this enough: every scene must have a purpose. every part of every scene must have a purpose. no filler.
I think this neatly sums up the most important way that fiction is not like reality. Real life is absolutely chocked with filler. A great novel has none.
I think this is where so many “emerging” novelists – myself included – get lost trying to follow the believability thread. Believability isn’t about reality at all. When readers (your critique group, your agent, your aunt Polly) tell you that your story is unrealistic, inauthentic or not believable, they aren’t longing for true-to-life filler. The tooth-brushing scene where a character thinks deep thoughts while gazing into the mirror (or maybe just remembers to buy more toothpaste). The waking up scene. The drinking tea scene. The hanging out at the bar scene. The driving (or walking or riding on the bus) scene where the character needs to get from one plot point to another and is conveyed there literally. The waiting scenes in all their myriad guises – waiting for the phone to ring, the plane to land, the other shoe to drop. Give your readers these realistic bits of filler and they’ll stop turning pages in a hurry.
Let’s face it, a lot of reality is just plain boring.
Even worse, from a reader’s perspective, is that many of the filler scenes in fiction seem to be inserted for the purpose of delivering backstory and exposition that the author couldn’t really find a place in the story for, but believes the reader simply must know in order to understand the plot or the character.
Another, even less appealing, type of filler is when the author just likes the sound of his/her own voice. Real life is full of such tangents, but fiction can’t survive them. All of us, on occasion, have been guilty of indulging in flights of fancy, or mini-treatises on a favourite topic, or deft philosophical observations, or long poetic descriptions, or just cleverly worded side-trips that sound wise and erudite. Guilty as charged here, I don’t know about you.
But, while these forays might make for interesting late night conversation over a bottle of wine in real life, in fiction they’re filler.
So, if fiction needs to feel true and be believable, but not literally be true or mundanely realistic, what do you leave out and what do you keep in? How do you even recognize filler in your own writing?
In writing fiction, we get to take tremendous liberties with reality in order to achieve believability, tell a good story, and connect with the reader at an emotional level. In fact, we must take those liberties. But when you’re still a novice, this can produce a lot of angst. Especially if you get lost in research.
For example, much is made of accuracy in details. What type of firearm does a police officer carry in Pasadena? What factory colours did they make ’57 Chevies in? What are the first symptoms of bubonic plague? How does the Cloud actually work? We live in fear of getting these things wrong and being caught out. But perhaps we shouldn’t confuse the need for authenticity with slavish adherence to reality. What we really need to serve is the story’s believability (taking into account the genre’s audience).
While getting the details right is challenging, the hardest thing is to pick which ones are necessary and which ones are filler. And that goes for every bit of content in the story: characters, descriptions, settings, events, and all that difficult connective tissue that binds the scenes together. Filler must be exterminated. For a lot of writers, the seek and destroy mission to eliminate filler may happen in the second or third draft. The sooner, the better, because the longer words stay on the page, the more necessary they seem to your story. When they become like old friends that you hate to abandon, it’s harder to recognize them as deadly filler.
But if you want to end up with a manuscript that a publisher will leap on and people will gobble up, you need to pare it down to exactly what’s needed to tell a memorable story – not one word more, not one word less. You have to get it down to its essence.
Great fiction compresses reality, enhances it, sculpts it to the needs of the story. Great fiction stimulates the colours of the imagination, whose brilliance far surpasses the colours the eye can actually perceive. It animates unforgettable characters and larger-than-life heroes. It creates grace notes seldom heard in the noisy everyday world. It dials up emotion, collapses time, supercharges curiosity, and above all imbues every event with meaning, value and consequence. And great fiction demands that every story end with a satisfying conclusion, whether happy or sad or triumphant or haunting.
None of this is like real life. But great fiction makes us believe it. Or maybe more important, makes us believe in it.