You Can’t Make This Stuff Up


I have three stories for you. I’ll give them to you chronologically.

1) My brothers and their families came to visit us for the holidays this year and the brother who is closest to me in age stayed at our house. He and I are very close, and we lead kind of parallel lives. He’s not a writer, but he is a professional artist. We both have two kids, both have wives who make the lion’s share of the household money and who are way smarter than we are. We’re both into photography, birds, butterflies, etc.

One morning while he was staying with us, I came downstairs wearing a sweater I got last year from my in-laws. It’s blue with a high collar and a zip opening at the neck that goes down about to the chest. It’s not really a style I’d get myself, but I like it and it reminds me of my in-laws. Anyway, I go downstairs, and there’s my brother wearing a blue, high-collar sweater with a zip opening that goes down about to the chest. We laughed about it. And then he explained that he got it from his in-laws and that, while it’s not really his style, he likes it and wears it because it makes him think of them…

2) About three weeks ago, we had some nasty weather blow through the area. I mean nasty. Storms, hail, etc. We don’t get tornadoes where we live; we’re on the Cumberland Plateau, and something about the altitude kills the funnel clouds before they can form.

Except not this time. Nancy and I were standing in my office talking when we realized that we heard a really strange noise. It sounded like a steady loud roar, like a freight train. And at the same time each of us realized that though we’d never heard that sound before, we knew what it was. Sure enough, as soon as we started looking for the tornado, Nancy spotted it moving parallel to our house; not coming towards us, but going past. Turns out, it hit a forested area less than a quarter mile from our house and knocked down pretty much EVERY mature tree in an area several hundred square yards. It then crossed the highway and cut diagonally across the road leading into our subdivision. It was headed straight for the homes of two different families. But it skipped over them, took out some more trees, skipped over more houses, did a bit of damage in an adjacent neighborhood, skipped over more houses, took out some more trees, and then died out. Not a single person was hurt or killed.

3) Another weather related story: This past Thursday night it was incredibly nasty out, again. No thunderstorms this time. But torrential rain, temperatures in the thirties and gusty winds. It was like that all day Thursday and just got worse overnight.

I have one of those key fobs for my car that can lock and unlock doors, open the trunk, etc. One cool feature: If you hold down the “unlock” button for long enough, it’ll make all the windows in the car go down. Very handy on a hot summer day, when you’ve left your car in a parking lot. But not so good on a rainy winter night. Right after bringing home my younger daughter from her basketball game, I must have put my keys back in my pocket, gone back upstairs to my office to work, and sat in such a way that the unlock button on my key fob was being pressed. I had no idea. I mean, what are the chances? It’s never happened before in the three years I’ve owned the car. It didn’t happen on a cool clear evening, or even on a night when it drizzled. It happened on pretty much the coldest, rainiest night of the year.

The next morning, when we finally realized what had happened, the interior of the car was soaked. I got it dry eventually, but it was pretty much a lost morning caused by a freakish incident. (How’d I get the car dry? A combination of lots of blotting with towels, an industrial strength wet-vac borrowed from our local service station, and running the AC on max, with the heat on at the highest setting for, I kid you not, 6 and 1/2 hours while the car idled. An environmental nightmare, I know, but it saved the car from mildew hell.)

Why tell you all of this? Why post these stories on Magical Words of all places? Because we often talk about how life can be weird, but stories have to make sense. I’m not sure that I would use any of these stories in a piece of fiction. They’re too odd, too freakish; they would seem too contrived in a book or piece of short fiction. They make great real-life stories because they’re true. Turn them into fiction and no one would believe them. As a writer you can say “Well, coincidences happen,” or “sometimes fate watches out for us,” or “of course something like that only happens on a rainy night; it’s Murphy’s law.” But the fact is that in constructing stories we need to base them on something more logical than the vagaries of real life. Not always — of course you can use coincidence or fate or Murphy’s Law in your work. Just don’t rely on any one of them too heavily.

A quick note: This post comes in the midst of a massive rewrite that is demanding pretty much all my attention. I have another book coming out next week and will be blogging about that release next Monday. But I’ll get back to the “Writing Your Book” series the week after. Promise.

David B. Coe

19 comments to You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

  • Nice post, David. You are right about how life isn’t always a good basis for art where we expect things to cohere more than reality does. I can’t tell you how many tedious stories full of aimless dialgue I’ve read by students whose defense is “but this really happened.” The same is offered as justification for books telling “the story of my life.” It may be true and real, but that doesn’t make it something anyone wants to read. That said, your examples reinforce the way that real events bring with them the kind of specificity writers often fail to convey. I believe these stories because there’s a level of detail and a “gut” knowledge of their context that you convey effortlessly because it’s all so real to you. Mediated, given suitable shape and purpose, such episodes could be useful in fiction, I think.

  • I want to add to this that sometimes true things are too believable to use. For example, in a college workshop, one student wrote a character who had peculiar sexual activities. In the context of the story, they seemed out of place and uncomfortable (because they kept being mentioned when really the tale was about something else entirely). When the author stunned us by admitting that the story was mostly true, it then became impossible to workshop the story because the pictures in our minds (which were bad enough) had become much, much worse. Truth and fiction sometimes don’t mix.

  • I was once reading Paul Auster’s New York trilogy (three rather loosely related books about the power of chance.) I had volumes 1 and 3 from the public library, but 2 was checked out, and I was waiting for it to be returned. I took the subway home one night, having grabbed the train at a different station than usual, so I exited the train from a different car than usual and walked a much longer time than usual to the station entrance/exit. When I arrived there, a college friend happened to be exiting at the same time (this was 10 years after graduation.) He had the second volume of the trilogy, which he’d just finished reading on the train ride home. He loaned it to me, and I returned it to the library before it was due.

    Yeah. Some coincidences in real life are far too “contrived” for fiction.

  • David, kudos on the car/dried out thingy. Rod’s GEO has a leak and, well, it has not had such a happy ending. Ick.

    I once told a writer that there is only one coincidence allowed in a mystery book and that is the opening. The way the protag is brought into the murder investigation can be happenstance. Everything that follows must occur by a logical trail. (He didn’t like that, b/c accident solved the murder in his story.) I think a bit more coincidence is allowed in fantasy than in the mystery genre. But not much more.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a bit this morning instead of working and it occurred to me that using coincidence in storytelling rarely works because it feels like a cop out. It feel like you, the author, have no idea how to solve the plot problems you created, so you just threw something in there that conveniently digs you out. In real life we don’t feel that way because . . . well, it’s real life. The coincidence is happening before your eyes and that’s just the way it is. But the reader knows that the author controls the universe he created and therefore has the power to avoid such things as coincidence.

  • Emily

    David: glad you and your family (and your car) are safe. I was raised in California, and while earthquakes don’t upset or worry me much, I’m terrified of tornados. They scared me more when lived in Ohio and they were more likely than here in NC.

    Your post makes sense: stories have to make sense in real life, and too much or too big of a coincidence makes it seem fake. That made me think about how things work in reverse… that is, when we encounter stuff (people, odd behaviors, coincidences) we (as a cultre, or maybe just writers do it, or do it more than others) make a story, a narrative, to make it all make sense. These, of course, aren’t necessarily true, but we’d like it to be. We’d like it if serial killers’ behaviors could be explained by something like “mom’s fault.” Or if a massive earthquake that devestates a town happens because they’re all really demons. Hrm. I guess no real comment, just that your post made me think, which is always good.

  • Great comments, all.

    AJ, yes there is that other side of the “real life story” — the banality of real life experience doesn’t always translate well in written form. As for these stories, I’m really not sure I could use them, but I’m a writer and EVERYTHING is, potentially, grist for the mill. So, I’m sure to try….

    Stuart, with respect to your first comment, Yuck! I guess the moral is that too much information is too much information whether it’s true or make believe. And that’s a great point about coincidence. The author who relies on it too heavily can say, “but coincidences happen all the time,” and this is true. But that doesn’t mean that relying on it makes for good storytelling. The story has to work, without the deus ex machina.

    Mindy, first off Hi! and Welcome! Second, that’s a great story and a perfect example. Put that in a book and I, as your reader, would say “No way! Doesn’t work for me.” It doesn’t matter that it happened; it’s just too freaky. Sounds like a good trilogy, by the way. I’ll have to check that out.

    Faith, thanks. I single-handedly set back the fight against global warming by ten years, but my car is dry. I once had to replace the windshield on a car and forever after it leaked. Smelled not so good. One coincidence in a book is probably a good call. I feat I’ve occasionally used more. Yes, it was fantasy. But still, I might write those books differently now.

    Emily, thank you. I’m glad we’re safe and dry, too. I was in CA for the Loma Prieta quake, and I still remember the terror. Nature is nothing with which to trifle. You raise a terrific point in your comment. Just as relying too much on coincidence is a danger for any writer, so is making a plot work too perfectly, too rationally. Life isn’t like that, and that sort of iron clad logic can seem just as contrived in a book as a series of “accidents”. There is a balance to be found in capturing the random logic of real life. It’s not easy, but it can make the plotting process great fun.

  • Great post as always, David. You could use these weird happenings if you were writing a story about an author who keeps having weird, synchronous things happen to him…and then he finds that he has tapped into some alternate universe. Ah, nevermind.

  • Wolf Lahti

    I think it was Asimov who said, “The main difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” Lots of other folks have said it too, I’m sure.

    And regarding coincidences: Readers will believe (or at least accept) the most outrageous happenstance that gets yours protagonist into a jam or makes his situation worse. What they will *not* accept is any sort of coincidence that gets him *out* of it.

  • Great post. It’s really heart-breaking when one of these moments crops up in a story without you paying attention, and you realize you’ll have to cut it because it puts too much strain on SOD.

  • David said, “I single-handedly set back the fight against global warming by ten years…

    All that snow in the mid-Atlantic didn’t convince you there’s no such thing as global warming?
    *grins, ducks and runs away*

  • I saw those storms down there on the news and I wondered how you fared. I’m glad you and your family made it through safely. Sorry about the car. Sometimes technology ends up biting us where the sun don’t shine.

  • Evidently there were too many trees growing in that region and the ancient alien machine that terraformed our planet was making up for it. 😉

    Glad everybody was alright. Never been that close to a tornado and don’t really wanna be.

  • I have wanted to reply to comments all day — you don’t know how much — but have been in rewrite hell. Have now emerged and can reply. Thanks to all for the comments and your patience.

    April, thank you. Glad you liked the post. Yeah, I could see writing that kind of a short story. Actually, it would be loads of fun and probably fun as hell. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks for the idea!

    Wolf, I’ve heard that quote (or a similar one) attributed to Tom Clancy, but, yes, many have probably said it. And it rings true every time. I think you make a good point: We have more leeway getting our characters into trouble than getting them out.

    Atsiko, many thanks. I’ve had that too. I come up with an idea only to realize (or be told) that it’s just a bit too *easy*.

    Yes, Misty, you’d better run… 😉

    Thanks for your concern, Mark. The tornado scared us all, the girls especially. And those old reassurances — “Don’t worry; we never get tornados up here.” — won’t ever work again. As for the car, the same technology that created the problem got me out of it, so I really can’t complain too much.

    Right, Daniel! I’d always wanted to see a tornado, because they truly are awesome. Now I’ve seen one, and that’s quite enough, thank you.

  • Amy

    I have a question for you, but it goes more with the “Writing Your Book” series than this post.

    What do you do when you have a character and a world but haven’t been able to think of a plot? Should you just forget the idea or do you have some things you try first?

  • That’s a great question, Amy. Let me try to answer it in two ways, both of which make the same point: No, you don’t forget the idea. Not at all. Level 1: I strongly believe that books and stories can’t be forced. They come to fruition in their own time. You have an idea for a character and for the world in which s/he lives. That’s huge. Just coming up with that much can take some writers years. The plot will come. It may be that this story isn’t ready to be written yet. But eventually the plot idea will come to you, and with it will come other characters, details about your world and main character that haven’t occurred to you yet, and, perhaps, visual images of scenes that you’ll be writing. In the meantime, you might want to work on other things. Or….Level 2: You don’t WANT to wait. You want to write about this character and this world now, and the fact that you don’t have a plot yet is bugging the hell out of you. In that case, I would suggest a couple of things. One would be to work on background stories about your character and histories from your world’s past. These are the two story elements you have right now, that you know about and, presumably, are excited about. So explore them more deeply. As you do, as you begin to imagine elements of both, you might well come up with plot ideas. You might also brainstorm a bit — I like to write stream of consciousness about stuff like this, asking myself questions and answering them with the first things that come to mind. Sometimes I do this on paper, other times on screen. But I’ll literally write things like “What is the most important thing happening in my character’s life right now?” and then type an answer. “What is the most important issue facing my world/kingdom/city right now?” and writing an answer. And as I explore these issues, plot lines start occurring to me. This is where I’d start, if I were you. And if I wasn’t clear or didn’t answer the question well enough, try me again. Best of luck!

  • Sounds like a pretty good answer to me. Writing up the world, it’s past, it’s people, it’s dangers, would be a very good way to come up with the eventual plot. You never know what’s going to jump out as a main plot once you start delving into the deep core of the setting.

  • Right, Daniel. And the same can be said of working with characters. And, in fact, one other thing that might work for Amy is creating a second character. A friend of the first; an enemy; a relative (or is that redundant…? just kidding…) even a stranger, but connected to the first in some way. In creating a new character, you often create the potential for conflict, and then you’re off to the races!

  • Amy

    Thank you so much. That actually helps tremendously. I’ll give some of those things a try and see what happens.:)