Monday, March 28, 2011

When is real not enough?

Something struck me as I was reading through feedback on my WIP over the last months.

In the text there were two things that happened that were taken pretty closely from real life. Events that were unique (maybe even offbeat), but because I knew them to be real I felt confident about weaving them into my story. That being said, neither was very likely in real life (one involved a roundabout explanation for why my MC had no driver's license, the other involved a person telling a family member that they would haunt them under certain conditions).

To me they seemed plausible, but only because in my mind they were based on real events.

In both cases I got feedback from readers that they came off as implausible, impractical, even unrealistic.

It got me to thinking about when things feel "true" in books. That essential element of storytelling that either makes you nod and read on, or roll your eyes and mutter "seriously?" It reminded me of the principle of Occam's Razor: that all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is the one you should take.

I realized through this process that even if elements came from reality, it didn't necessarily make them plausible for a reader. It was definitely one of those cool "aha" moments in writing.

So, have you experienced something similar?

How do you judge an event in your story, to ensure it feels real to the reader? 

What "aha" writing moments have you had lately?


  1. My aha moment for my current WIP came from a beta. I had a main character that I loved, but that my betas had a hard time identifying with. One beta suggested giving a strong hint in the first scene as to why she is that way. So I did. It made a huge difference. Now my MC is loved instead of "meh"-ed.

  2. Somewhere in The International one of the characters mentions that fiction has to make sense, but truth doesn't.

  3. Kind of like if your character lived through an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown...

    Sometimes reality is too large for fiction.

    Nice post!

  4. You know, I think this is one of those "eye of the beholder" things. What's believable to one person could be completely unrealistic to another. It all depends on our life experiences. So I say, if you've researched it enough and it's believable to YOU, keep it. :)

  5. Interesting post.

    I'd have to agree with Meredith (although when I read Elle's comment I gasped -- so true!). It's quirky little plot points that make your book stand out from all the others. Even if they're unrealistic. Look at any bestselling kids' book or YA novel. Is Alex Rider realistic? Heck, no! But it works.

  6. Sometimes I find when writing that if I'm including something from real life, the tone changes from the writing that I'm inventing as I go. Whereas if I use elements from something real, but not all the facts it doesn't seem to be noticeable. I like the idea that fiction has to make sense but truth doesn't!

  7. I think we look for sense and consistency in our characters that we just don't expect from people in real life! Maybe because we know we can never completely understand even a little corner of the real world, but we expect to understand everything in the world of a book? Great post!

  8. Huh, what an interesting problem to have! I guess this is what they mean when they say truth can be stranger than fiction, if you'll forgive the cliche. I think this is one of those times when you really do need beta readers. I'm not sure it's something you can train yourself to pick up.

  9. Nice Connie- that sounds like great feedback.

    interesting Carolyn!

    Amazing Elle- totally true. I would never believe that in a book or film.

    Good point Meredith. Wouldn't want to err on the other side.

    True Joanne-- Real life can be ho-hum. That's why books are so great.

    Very cool observation Mummazappa.

    So true Carrie- we do expect a consistency from book people that we don't in real life. Or maybe it's just more obvious to read about it, and less so to observe it.

    Absolutely Amie- after reading all the posts I think balance is critical.

  10. I think beta readers is the best way to find these "unreal" tid pits, so it sounds like you are on the right track.

    I agree that sometimes reality seems far less probable than fiction. It all comes down to the reality of the world you are creating. Supernatural events can seem very believable, if that is the world your making. But weird coincidences that could happen in real life, well they can come of as unbelievable.

  11. That's an interesting point because I would always assume that a real-life event would be believable and real in a story. Anyway, I write non-fiction so I've never really had to face this... everything I write about is real.

  12. I've had a similar problem where the real life events I've put into my writing come off as satire. It's weird how that happens.

  13. Yes, I went through that with my first book does seem counter intuitive that fiction can't be as strange as the truth, but it's true.

    I do worry a little about your comparison since I'm not a big fan of the principle of Occam's Razor. It has tended to limit scientific thinking historically, IMO, and applying it to fiction could limit imagination.

    I think you can make just about anything happen in fiction if you eliminate any coincidence factor as much as possible and (most important) find the right motivation w/in the character(s) for the event to happen.

    I also find that a "this can't be happening" response from one of the characters (voicing the reader's feelings) can go a long way toward making the unbelievable read as believable.

    (Sorry for the long comment...I got off on a tangent)


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