It seems like an oxymoron, right? To make fiction true?
After all, the definition of fiction is:
Thus, isn’t the essence of fiction to tell lies, to make false truths, to make stuff up? To, in a nutshell, do everything EXCEPT tell the truth?
In order to make stuff up, you have to convince your readers that it’s real. Both emotionally real and world-wise real. Most writers tend to be good at one or the other. They can tell the emotional truth of their characters (i.e. make you empathize/sympathize, make you laugh/cry/scream/feel the character’s shame) OR they can tell the real truth of the world (gorgeous and believable settings, proper explanation of how things work, etc.).
I was thinking about this because I read this fantastic piece called, “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning.” Basically, he explains that drowning doesn’t look like someone waving their hands, calling out and showing signs of distress. Drowning, he says, is quiet, silent, fast.
Granted, the piece is not written for writers at all, but in an attempt to inform readers and possibly save lives. However, as I read it, I couldn’t help thinking of its implications for writing fiction. Actually, it was this line specifically that made me consider the fiction-writing aspects of it, “The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television.”
Which brings back this memory from when I was a firefighter in college: Sitting at the fire station watching the movie “Backdraft” (which had recently come out on video) with my firefighting crew, and all of us yelling at the TV, “That’s not how that works! Fire doesn’t operate that way!” and “Oh my god, that was stupid. A trained firefighter would never do that.”
Now, that movie told the emotional truths of the fear, adrenaline, camaraderie and newbie-haranguing that is commonplace of many fire departments. But it completely missed the scientific truths of how fire operates and how most firefighters do their job. Granted, most non-firefighters don’t know the difference, but we sure did. And we hated the movie for all the places that it got it wrong.
Ditto with eyes closing when someone dies (I was also a paramedic — people’s eyes stay open when they die), people who say smart, intelligent, thoughtful things after they’ve been gut-shot or fell off a 90-foot drop or have been burned alive; anything to do with horses or other farm animals (I grew up on a farm), and most stories about “writer’s lives.” Other friends of mine freak out when someone in a movie holds a gun wrong, or shoots forty bullets out of a double barrel, or when a car explodes just because another car runs into it. Still others know enough about bike riding, hang gliding, motorcycle repair, etc. that they bitch when someone botches it.
Mistakes like that can take those in the know out of the story in one second flat.
Which brings me back to drowning. Why do people write in sections where fire behaves in a way that would never happen in the real world, or where the main character “dies” by closing his eyes, or where the drowning person flails and yells in a way that is nearly impossible?
Because it makes a better story. Because those readers who aren’t in the know expect fire to blow through doors, dead people to have closed eyes and drowning people to flail and freak out. If you show the truth, the real truth, people will think, “Well, that’s not real. He didn’t even scream before he went under.”
So, what IS our job as fiction writers? To tell the real truth of the world? Or to tell the world the truth they expect? I think, and I say “think” because I truly do not know, I think that our job as fiction writers is to do both. To tell the real truth of the world while paying homage to the story. If readers expect that a drowning person will flail and scream, then I do think my job is to create such a real drowning scene with such a real drowning person that the character’s
beneath the surface will say it all. And the reader will not say, “Well, drowning people don’t do that.” The reader will be too busy believing.
What do you think?
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.