I was reading a book discussion thread the other day. A few readers were pointing out aspects of the story they thought were implausible (aka “would never happen in real life”) and we’re not talking about things like zombies coming to life, but rather things like how cops would approach a certain situation dealing with minors. The author then came on and said she’d taken those details directly from an experience a friend of hers had — those things had actually happened in real life and “you know what they say about truth being stranger than fiction.”
This reminded me of right when I first started writing again in 2006 and I joined a crit group on yahoo. It was a huge group, mostly romance writers, and you just sort of worked on the crits you could. I picked one up where the first chapter or two take place in a courtroom at a federal courthouse during a trial. Just so happens, my husband was working at a federal courthouse at the time and we’re both lawyers so I read it aloud to him because a lot of it didn’t ring true: the character was able to go places *no* one should be allowed to go (and didn’t get in trouble for it) and the judge and lawyers did things that were really crazy and way out there. So I wrote a very detailed critique and pointed all these things out. She wrote a terse reply that it had all happened to a friend so it didn’t matter that it sounded strange to me. I was wrong because she had the truth of her friend’s experience on her side.
Here’s the thing: I don’t care. It still reads as untrue. That’s the problem with truth being stranger than fiction — even if it *is* true, if it reads false, who cares? The reader still thinks it’s false and unless the author can be there at every moment to say “But this happened to me or someone I know!” then the reader’s going to think it doesn’t ring true (and that’s the problem with being an author — we can’t be there to defend ourselves every time a reader thinks something sounds false).
In fact, I’m facing this issue in my current book right now. In one of the scenes a character falls through the ice into frigid water. She gets out, strips off her wet clothes, jumps around to warm up her core, wrings out her clothes and continues with her life. Several early readers said to me “She’d die,” and my initial response was “No, she wouldn’t.” I’d done a lot of research on this — I’d watched people demonstrate how to survive falling through the ice. She wouldn’t be happy but she wouldn’t die.
But that’s the problem — the more I had to defend that scene to every reader, the more I realized that it didn’t matter that I’d done all that research. Readers read it as a false scene and I wouldn’t be there in person to convince them otherwise.
It’s like a catch 22 for authors and it can really stink. Because we’ve all had crazy things happen and we desperately want to write about them and when we do… it sounds like we’re making it up. And really, this isn’t a problem (after all, much of fiction is making things up). But it becomes a problem when readers start to question it — when they say “cops don’t behave that way” or “lawyers would never say that in court” or “she wouldn’t survive falling through the ice like that” or “no random person is going to end up in the file room of a federal courthouse and even if they did the guard on duty wouldn’t let them stay and wander around in there.” Of course those things *can* happen and probably do. But the problem is as readers, it doesn’t read as truth.
Now, if this is the crux of your plot, then I think you can finagle around and find ways to make it work — readers really are willing to suspend disbelief on things (zombies, anyone?). What I don’t understand is when authors still cling to these “but it’s true” stories when they’re just fluff and peripheral to the story. Did it really matter that the woman in question ended up in the file room of a federal courthouse? No, not that I could tell — so why keep it in there if it would cause readers to doubt the author and her research?
Because usually, that’s what happens — someone like me who is a lawyer and knows how it works will read the story, see all kinds of big rules being broken, and wonder whether the author did their research. It makes me question everything else about the story, and for what gain?
That’s why I cut that scene about the character falling through the ice. It wasn’t pivotal — I just needed *something* to happen to her to break up the pacing of a scene. I needed danger. Now she just gets attacked by zombies — same effect, more truthful and believable to the reader.
Here’s the bottom line: everything in your book has to be believable. From the zombies to the police procedure. You have to find a way to make it work and have explanations for how and why it works the way it does. If your cops act squirrely, give them a reason other than “this happened to a friend of mine.” If you have your heroine stumble into a forbidden area of the courthouse, give her a reason. As readers we suspend our beliefs all the time, but it still has to be in a context that works.
As Mark Twain said: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t,” as well as, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”