Sacrificing Reality for Readability


There’s a probably-apocryphal story about the movie MARATHON MAN (wherein, Dustin Hoffman is tortured by having his teeth drilled, without anesthesia).  Supposedly, Hoffman (a method actor) went to his dentist and submitted to similar dentistry, so that he could know what his character experienced.  When he recounted that story on the movie’s set, Laurence Olivier said, “My dear boy, don’t you understand?  We call it acting for a reason!”

I think of that story often, when I’m writing.  The goal of my storytelling — whether I’m working in the secondary world of the Darkbeast novels or the contemporary world (with witches!) of the Jane Madison books  or any other fictional setting —  is to make my created world seem real to my readers.  (Duh!)   Sometimes, in order to make something ring true, to make it seem real, I have to tweak my depiction of reality, actually making my text *less* real than the world in which we live.

For example, last week, we talked about naming characters.  Most people (although not all!) agreed with my suggestion to avoid naming characters with similar names (e.g., Edgar, Edmund, Edward, and Edmund).  Even if, in the real world, we regularly interact with people who have similar names and we manage to keep them straight without great difficulty, as authors, we manipulate things to make reading easier.  We strip out similar names, sacrificing a bit of reality for readability.

Usually, we do the same thing in dialog.  Rather than relay actual conversations the way that real people speak (full of pauses and hmms and ums and likes), we usually write dialog as sharply polished sentences that get to the heart of the matter quickly and precisely.  Sure, we occasionally make an awkward reality clear by way of punctuation marks and misspellings, but that writing is almost always to specify how a single character speaks, or how a specific exchange is delivered in a single instance.  By eliminating real-life conversational hiccups, we help our readers move through our stories more efficiently.

Storytelling is the art of making illusion seem real.  Sometimes that art is accomplished by sacrificing reality.  What other aspects of real life do you find yourself curtailing or editing or ignoring altogether, to make your created worlds seem more real?


14 comments to Sacrificing Reality for Readability

  • Yep, truth be sometimes stranger than fiction…and other times, more boring. Ever been stabbed in the calf? I have. Heroes get shot and stabbed and keep truckin’ along. Just wrap that puppy up, I’ll be fine! That crap hurts. It hurts a lot to even stand on it. And makes it pretty hard to walk, let alone run, pivot on the bad leg, fight an angry dragon-honey badger (you think regular honey badgers don’t give a…). Thank the Gods for magical fantasy healing spells. Wish I’d had one of those. Thing is, if our heroes were laid up for as long as the damage they sustained would suggest in real life our stories would be all, “meanwhile, three weeks later…” Also had a perforated bowel. Same thing. Maybe you can sort of act for a while, the damage to the muscle would still be a detriment, but when the major pain sets in that gut wound is gonna rain on the action parade really quick. That or heroes are just awesome that way. Wounds in real life suck.

    Then again, I seriously played on that in the first book of my fantasy trilogy where one of the characters permanently loses use of his arm because I remembered my brother’s Dad having taken shrapnel in the shoulder in ‘Nam and lost all use of his left arm.

  • Cindy

    Time is the huge one. Novels don’t use linear time as the TV series 24 did. I have seen that technique used well in a short story. We skip transitional events all the time in writing. It would be pretty boring to discribe the events while someone is sleeping unless they are having a dream that is relevant to the story.

  • Ken

    Hi there Mindy, this was a great post!

    I agree about the “In-between” stuff. The reality of it needs to be sacrificed on the altar of readability…and for good reason. We want to know that Loreli woke from a fitful dream knowing exactly how to fix the hyperdrive and swung out of her hammock to go and do just that. We don’t want to know that along the way, she ran down 50 feet of hallway, climbed 37 steps and slid down two ladders to get to the engine room. The next thing we, as readers, want to see is Loreli hunched over the hyperdrive’s hyper propulsion matrix with a tuning fork and making with the fixing magic so that our heroes can hyper away from there and put the hurtin on the bad guys.

    On the other hand…

    The reality of it is that we don’t normally register hundreds of little things we experience each day and, yet, readability demands that we sacrifice a bit more and ADD some of those things.

    Character’s need to interact with their environment so that we, as readers, see them as being there. It adds to the reading experience to mention things in the environment that we–if we were to experience them in person–might not pay any attention to. We don’t sit down to a plate of nachos and think “I’m going to pick up a chip loaded with spiced meat and cheese and eat it” we just do it.

    In the story, Loreli picking up a chip loaded with spiced meat and cheese, maybe using her other hand to catch stray toppings as she shovels the overloaded thing into her mouth, while explaining that it was sabotage that knocked the hyperdrive out in the first place not only cements her into her environment, but it reveals something of the person that Loreli is (I’m actually starting to dig Loreli here…)

    The real trick, I think is figuring out how much of reality to sacrifice on the altar of readability…and when to do it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Daniel brings up the interesting point that, really, many if not most characters are in some ways super human. They can deal with a lot more crazy than a regular person and keep on going – and that’s part of what makes us love them.

    The trick, though, is to keep it well balanced and keep a clear idea of your audience. For a popular example, Harry Dresden takes tremendous amounts of damage and still keeps going, *but* he at least does take damage. It really throws me out of the story, as a reader, a character falls of a cliff or gets into a bar fight, for examples, and then jumps up with no significant injuries.

    Similarly, as a scientist, I always wish I could *be* McKay on Stargate Atlantis because, awkward as he is, he can accomplish in half-an-hour what could easily take a large team of “real” scientists a year or more to solve. If the show were hard sci-fi, that wouldn’t fly, but it makes for a pretty fun fantasy/sci-fi show.

  • McKay is the Scotty of SG:A. 😉

  • RE: McKay: He was like the awesome culmination of the neuroses of every sci-fi scientist/engineer out there and probably my favorite so far.

  • As one writer once said, “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction must make sense.”

  • Re Ken’s comment, we might show one bite, but unless Loreli is talking while chewing – and spewing – chances are we’ll only get to read about her eating one chip. Don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve NEVER eaten just one meat and cheese laden chip, EVER!
    We rarely see, or describe, our characters doing most of the mundane everyday things. I know the Red Castle in GRRM’s ASoIaF has garderobes because Tyrion kills his dad in one. I don’t know if any of the castles or keeps in Tolkein’s LotR have them.
    I wear contacts and still need reading glasses for that small telephone book (or menu) print. But most fantasy characters can see perfectly well. I ache, because I’m getting old and spent a lot of my youth on horseback, stacking bales of hay, lifting things too heavy for my size, and other rough-country-life things. In Fantasy, everyday aches and pains don’t exist.
    Yes, fiction has to make sense, but it also has to have fuzzy edges that seem crystal clear.

  • Daniel – Bouncing back from injuries is a *big* throw-me-out-of-the-story, although I feel it more in TV and movies than in books (I suspect because I’m a rather slow reader, so I give characters more time to heal, in my head ::wry grin::)

    Cindy – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “A few hours (days/weeks/months) later, Our Hero continued with important plot stuff” without detailing the time in between. I really liked the way 24 handled the passage of time the first season, but by season three or four (when they gave up on subplots), they totally blew the “real-time” concept — especially with Jack needing to drive across L.A. and similar things. That annoyed me!

    Ken – I like your example of eating nachos — we typically get a glimpse of the activity but not all of it because, let’s face it, it’s just not that exciting to watch someone eat. (And, BTW, I’m going to a Mexican restaurant for dinner tonight, and nachos sound really, really good!)

    Hepseba – I think that’s one of our challenges as authors, to find the ways that characters remain human, even when they’re facing superhuman challenges. (Of course, if we’re writing superhero fiction…) I think it’s possible to have characters facing massive pain/emotion/whatever and still go on — so long as we authors acknowledge, “Wow, they’re in massive pain/emotion/whatever!”

    MByerly – I like that quote, because it really gets to the heart of what we’re doing in writing. There are coincidences in real life that would make me throw a novel across the room!

    Lyn – I think that failing to describe garderobes is partially a function of staying inside a character’s mind. A character living in ancient Rome isn’t going to think about the stench of the open sewers — they’re just part of her life. Only if she’s been someplace that doesn’t stink might she even begin to comment on it. (And I’m increasingly frustrated with aging characters who aren’t part-blind, aching, slow to wake up, etc…)

  • Ah, but one can show mundane activities while dealing with internal conflict/mulling over issues that have been plaguing them. Quite frequently, a thing that might relax a character (the eating of greasy, meat-laden chips) can be used to show a reader the interior struggle and final solution to a problem.

    Even in Faith’s works, one sits back with a soothing cup of tea to think. Perhaps that last sip…or crunch of chip…brings the realization to the answer they’ve been trying to uncover, but it happens.

    Just today, with me, in fact… 😉

    Quite frequently, habit is not about the external, but the internal. Deal with the internal while showing the external and you give both a hint of the habits of the character while giving the reader some internal struggle and possible solution.

  • So freaking late to the par-tay. Sorry! Mindy this is great. I catch so many of these things in my own writing, especially the *I wrenched my leg and yet I’m still running* stuff. I think it’s because (like Lyn and Daniel and others) I hurt and I want to be pain free. For me it is a subconscious longing that plays out in my writing, and I really have to work at removing it all.

    This post is very timely, Mindy. Thanks. (Looking back over my WIP…)

  • Razziecat

    Reality is the leading cause of stress… 😉

    I’ve found that I always feel much closer to a character, whether my own or someone else’s, when I experience, through the story, “real-life” physical details. Most authors, for example, skip over the fact that on a long journey, the humans, at least, are going to need to relieve themselves. While I don’t want to know about every instance of this, it’s good to note once or twice that the hero has to step aside into the woods now and then. And I find it pretty unrealistic that most women in fantasy can run off on a quest without worrying about that once-a-month inconvenience!

    Pain and disability is another element. One of my space opera characters has a lame leg from a badly-healed injury. I have to constantly keep this in mind when writing his story, factoring in when, and how much, it hinders his activities. It’s just a fact of life for him, so I don’t want to overdo it, but ignoring it wouldn’t be realistic either.

  • Reality is just sometimes so damned inconvenient, isn’t it? Your story reminded me of my next door neighbor who is a doctor. In medical school, he underwent an endoscopy without any drugs at all so that he would know what it was like for his patients. As a result, he now makes sure his patients are drugged to the gills and feel NOTHING of that going down their throat.

    One of the obvious choices to ignore is going to the bathroom, getting a period, and cleaning up after sex. Also, morning breath. Those only get attention when it’s very useful for whatever the author is doing–a laugh, or as in my The Black Ship, when my character couldn’t take off or put on his own pants, so has to have help every time he goes to the head. Can we say awkward?

    Personally I think there’s a lot of things I overlook or have to cut out because I over describe the reality and it just doesn’t contribute. oh, and if we had characters talk the way they do in real life, I might have to punch someone. We distill everything down to the best and most useful for the story. Readers bring the rest.