When truth is too strange for fiction

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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.”

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28 comments to When truth is too strange for fiction

  • ” Now she just gets attacked by zombies — same effect, more truthful and believable to the reader. ”

    ROFL x 2

    What is the world coming to? I ask, wiping tears of laughter from my eyes!

    Us fiction writers take a helluva lot more time checking out facts, it seems, than a great many reporters out there. Long live social media!

  • So my boyfriend used to go to school with my sister. They were in the same college class, both in newman and both singing in the Reignmakers group at the church (even at lunch reg together). I went to the college and overlapped a year with him, even probably talked to him a few times because he worked at the dorm i lived at. We might have met, either when I was in high school or when I was a freshman in college and he was a super senior.

    Our paths crossed again at a friends wedding and then several times at their game nights that i attended because I lost my job. He keeps reminding me of conversations we had that I didn’t file in the “keep track of” section of my brain. He ended up tracking me down on face book and I remembered him as the guy i talked books with and… well, we’ve been happily dating for 9 months now and talking about “the next level.”

    Oh, and here’s the kicker. he lives not even 5 minutes from my other sister. (there are other weird oddities and points of overlap but no need to keep rambling, right?)

    I feel like, if I pulled that in a book, I was just working to keep my cast small and bring some extras in from past stories so I had less to keep track of, and/or could pull that “destined to be be together’ thing.

    –Axi

  • Couldn’t have said it better myself, Carrie. Heaven knows I’ve said it often enough. Hopefully a few more people will hear and understand it…

  • Sarah

    You nailed it. (Now I’m reviewing your book in my head trying to see if I can figure out which scene you mean. Tee hee.) As Benedict says in Much Ado about Nothing, “If I saw it performed on the stage, I would condemn it as an improbable fiction.”

    Axisor – I bet you could put all that in a book somehow, but you’re absolutely right, it couldn’t be the driving plot because it would look like your protagonist was too passive, the random recipient or victim of circumstance instead of driving her own action. Not that you are as a person, but it would read that way on a page. If I was reading the story as a romance I would need a reason that Mr. Right came back into her life. And, though in real life I do believe in God’s providence, in a novel the explanation “well God just willed to be so” is very unsatisfying. It’s one reason I got fed up with the Christian romance series my mother kept feeding me as a kid.

  • Well said, Carrie. Reminds me of a similar problem I ran into but from the other side. During a writing workshop, a group of us tried to convince the author that she had missed some great opportunities to punch up her story, make it more exciting, really grab hold of the reader. “But this is the way it happened for real,” was her repeated response. She couldn’t change her story because, though she didn’t realize it, she didn’t want to write the piece as fiction. Too bad for her, the truth wasn’t strange enough!

  • Great point, Carrie. Of course, a part of me thinks that if something is possible–just–there should be a way to make it feel plausible in print, and though I take your point I think I’d be pretty irritated with readers who tell you things aren’t possible when you know they are. In fact, I’d probably write the scene and load it up with fact and science so no one could argue. (Thereby losing all my readers… )

    Oh, and for the record, it’s Fabian in Twelfth Night (Not Benedict in Much Ado) who talks about improbable fictions on stage :)

  • 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.”

    Once upon a time I was sledding with friends, and the guy “driving” the sled jumped off instead of steering. Which sent me careening right into the frozen lake. Luckily I wasn’t far from the shore, so I was able to clamber out of the water, up the snow-covered hill and into the lodge, where I ran to my room and got into the hot shower still fully dressed. So you’re right – one doesn’t immediately die. But one might wish she did! 😀

  • This is a great post, Carrie, and in part because it hints at a far larger issue. I’ve been leading a writer’s workshop for the past two days, and one of the things I’ve been noticing is that readers (all of us — myself included) can get hung up on all sorts of things. A story element that doesn’t ring true, a name that makes us stumble as we read, a worldbuilding element that seems off. And really, unless it’s central to the story, if it’s bothering readers it just needs to go. The story is the thing. Keeping readers focused on character, narrative, and the other crucial story elements is our goal as writers. Anything that distracts our readers, that pulls them out of the story, is a danger to all that we’re trying to do.

  • I think Hollywood is partly to blame.

  • So would you say that a story is like an argument? To make a good one, it has to make enough sense that people are willing to be swayed by what you have to say, and not spend all of their time poking holes in it.

  • Lovely post. I wanted to jump and shout Hot Dang! and, sadly, the people who know me would think is perfectly in character. I was in your shoes not too many years ago, but with my editor. I had a very ER scene with my AKA’s character Rhea Lynch MD. I LOVED that scene!

    But Ms Editor kept saying, “It couldn’t happen.” I kept saying, “It did. I was there.” And she finally said, “Your readers will never believe it. I dont’ believe it. Take it out.” For her it was non-negotiable.

    And so I took the scene out. And later felt like an idiot for making her complain. The scene didn’t matter. The story did. Lessons learned the hard way.

  • The show Mythbusters both reduces and increases this problem. There have been a number of “myths” they tested that I thought for certain would be busted but they turned out to be verified or plausible.
    One test they did was of a hot water heater that had a broken pressure relief valve turning into a rocket and shooting out of the basement, through two floors and out the roof of a house. Turns out that really can happen. I was sure the heater tank would just crack and spew steam out everywhere but whoosh up it went, smashing through floors and ceilings and roof and on up to some incredible height. But I bet if you put that in a book you’d get a lot of people shaking their head.

  • Unicorn

    I had almost the same scenario a while ago. I’d written a story and sent it to a friend (also an avid reader, especially of fantasy) to see what she thought of it. She liked it, but one thing bugged her. My werewolves changed shape independently of the moon, and there was no change in their temperament – they had the same personalities when they were lupine or sapient. Not the traditional ravaging monsters who explode into wolf form at full moon. I was puzzled, but I couldn’t change it because it was central to how the story worked.
    Do my gentle-natured, transforming-by-willpower werewolves sound too strange to anyone else? I would like to know, because in my current stories they behave that way, too. And I like them the way they are…
    Unicorn

  • Unicorn, I can think of several examples of werewolves that change independently of the phase of the moon, and keep their same temperament. (Some of the examples I’m thinking of are New York Times best sellers.)

    I’d run it past more than one beta reader. If they all have a problem with it, it may be the way you’re presenting it. If she’s the only one that found it improbable, you may not have a problem. (But you may want to interview her and find out why she thinks it’s improbable.)

  • Hey Unicorn,

    I’m a huge fan of shape changers. I am not, however, published or contest winning so be aware of that before cashing in my 2 cents. :) I’d say the “transforming by willpower” bit doesn’t bother me, as long as you acknowledge that you are ignoring that bit. Many series have were’s change when they want to (Kelly Armstrong’s and Rachel Vincent’s series come to mind, there’s also a SS collection “Howling at the Moon” where several are “at will” too. most address the fact that they ignore the moon cycle). As for the temperament, it might be worth making the emotions stronger or more “raw” and on the surface–in the moment? I haven’t read what you wrote (though I’m curious) but it might be a good way for the reader to know the difference between lupine and sapient if they have to stopped in the middle and had to come back. I hope that helps?

    –Axi

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, Axisor, that was helpful… It can be really tricky in dialogue and action when one character keeps on popping from shape to shape, but I try to keep track of it. As for acknowledging the absence of traditional werewolf behaviour, sigh, I’ll have to add that to the Things to Fix in Revisions list. It’s a good point and I completely overlooked it.
    Thanks again
    Unicorn

  • I like to learn something from time to time that I didn’t know when reading fiction. And as such, I’m much more likely to believe something if it’s explained in such a way as to make me learn something new, or at least go and look it up. I guess using the person falling through the ice as an example, if I’m perhaps told that the character had read about how to survive that situation but never thought they’d ever have to use that information, I might be more willing to think about it or accept it. When I say Hollywood’s to blame I’m talking about those films that show a person falling through the ice and immediately succumbing to the freezing water and then getting pulled under the ice so that they can’t get out from under it. Obviously if Hollywood put it in a film they had to have researched it. Nah, people get out of falling in the ice all the time, but you’re more likely to hear about those people who don’t survive.

    It really just depends on how well you keep your head, the condition of the remaining ice surrounding you, whether the water is rushing or still, and how quickly you can get out before your limbs go numb and unresponsive. Though Hypothermia and frostbite afterward is another matter entirely. I’m sure wringing out the clothes would help, but they’d still be pretty damp and in freezing weather they’ll still be pretty cold. Layers actually might help a little, but one would still probably need to find a way to get warm and dry soon. I know how being cold makes me feel in the winter when I wake up and the house is 45 degrees and I need to start a fire. I can imagine how the bone-numbing temperatures of falling through ice in winter would make one feel. However, I don’t find it too hard to believe with a little survivalist explanation to back it up.

    I guess what I’m saying is that perhaps the believability of a scene is at least in some part in the delivery. Then again, my level of suspension of disbelief is pretty high, so I could just be easy in that regard. I’d probably just chalk it up to sheer luck and move on. 😉

  • So sorry for the delays in my responses! I was up until past 4am getting a draft turned in (why do I ALWAYS underestimate how long it takes to type up edits!?).

    Axisor — what’s interesting about the scenario you laid out is that I wouldn’t necessarily think that’s too strange. I’d definitely think it was crazy coincidental but I do think that readers are more willing to set aside believability for the coincidence of inciting incidents (if that makes sense). When the whole plot rests on several coincidences it gets more difficult, but all stories, to a certain extent, are about crazy circumstances (that’s what makes them interesting!)

  • Sarah – lol – the scene I deleted is actually in the book coming out March 22, 2011– The Dark and Hollow Places. It will probably be pretty clear when you come across it :)

  • Stuart — YES! Exactly! That’s actually one reason I find it difficult to pull experiences from my own life. I was actually writing a book based on a summer that I spent as a debutante and also an intern at the coroner’s office and that should have been a story with all kinds of funny moments and intrigue but I couldn’t get past “what really happened.” I ended up having to set it aside.

    I think that’s one reason I write speculative fiction — it’s so far outside the scope of my current reality that I can’t get trapped in “what actually happened.”

  • AJ — I can definitely get irritated when readers say “that could never work that way” when you’ve put so much thought and research behind it. I actually have several reviews that say “well, they should just do X” and I want to tell them all the ways “just doing X” will fail. It’s one reason I actually like school visits because I always have the kid who says “why don’t you just shoot all the zombies?” and it gives me the chance to discuss population, supply and demand for things like bullets, and how to manufacture weapons.

    Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of science in my world that my main character says so I can’t load the scene up with it though that’s a great idea. I’m actually okay taking it out — it made me realize there was a hole I needed to fill and that was the perfect place to do it!

  • Great point David — usually after I get all defensive after getting a crit on my book I’ll step back and realize “it doesn’t matter if I feel like I’m right, if it’s getting between the reader and the story, it needs to be fixed.”

    But it’s hard sometimes to get to that realization :)

  • Moira, I think you raise a good point. I’ve definitely known readers who have loved a book and then finished and realized how shoddy the worldbuilding was. But they didn’t care because they still loved the story. So I do think that if the story is utterly compelling readers won’t be dragged away from it to question details.

    At the same time, if a reader hates the story then even if it’s perfectly researched and believable… they may not care.

  • Unicorn — re your shapeshifters. I remember writing a vampire book several years ago and my husband asking “why are they vampires if they don’t drink blood and can’t go outside?” I think his point is that I had to address the typical vampire cannon but I think I’d probably ask the same question about your wolves — why do they change? How did it start? Where did it come from?

    If you have all of that down, I think you can absolutely have them not change temperament — it just has to be something you understand and make sense in the scope of the story. Generally I would think that if it’s “our” world, something had to happen or come about in the past to make the shifting possible (or if it was always possible for everyone, then no longer possible for the rest of us).

    Hopefully that makes some sense…

  • I totally agree Daniel — I think the delivery can make all the difference. Unfortunately in my situation there are no books, no school or anywhere for her to really learn or know anything except from experience. Since it wasn’t crucial I just cut it — maybe it will make an appearance in another book and a different situation.

    You’re right — grounding makes all the difference!

  • Unicorn

    Sorry, Suzi and Carrie! Haven’t seen your comments before now because I wasn’t home this weekend. Pardon the late replies.
    Thanks for all your advice. It makes a lot of sense and has opened up a whole new window on my Other World… I never even thought of asking “But how did they actually start changing shape?”
    Food for thought.
    Unicorn

  • Young_Writer

    Thanks, this was realy elpful! I would kill to write something that shouldn’t have happened but did, but I don’t for the same reasons you listed.

  • Another problem with “real life” especially when it happened to a friend is that it might be simplified or enhanced in the telling and therefore if told as it had happened readers might have found it believable but with some details left out or expanded to make it a good story it becomes believable. (I know that some of my true-life stories become simplified in my memory as the years pass.)

    As a reader, I think if something is desirable and central to the plot (e.g. Unicorn’s werewolves) it can be addressed. However, the key is that when one gets a response that it doesn’t read real it should be addressed. In some instances (like falling in ice) it is not worth addressing the issue and make sense to use a different method to achieve the goal of that scene.

    BTW, I would have found falling in ice believable. But then I’m thinking of all those polar bear clubs that purposefully jump in freezing water. And more importantly, I’d heard of this woman’s recovery. Still, many readers wouldn’t and therefore as you write above it must be addressed.