Six impossible things

But It Really Happened That Way!

Real-life incidents aren’t all that useful in fiction, in my experience, because real life just sort of happens.  Basing a piece of fiction too closely on real-life events and experiences all too often results in stories that don’t work, and which the author justifies by saying “But it really happened that way!”

“It really happened” is just about the worst justification for having something happen in fiction that you can have, because fiction, unlike real life, has to make sense.  People will believe things in newspaper stories that they won’t believe in a piece of fiction.  Also, most writers don’t have terribly exciting and interesting lives (at least, very few people I know are interested in reading about somebody who sits at a computer and types for between four and sixteen hours a day).

Yet most people who have taught writing for more than a class or two have run into folks who object to criticism of their stories “because that’s what really happened!” We deal with it in various ways, from the over-stressed and rather nasty “Then perhaps you should be taking a journalism class!” to the more gentle “I believe you. Now make me believe your story.”

Whatever the approach, the it-really-happened folks always seem (in my experience at least) to be remarkably hard to convince. I personally think that comes about partly because they’ve bought in to the most literal interpretation possible of “write what you know” (after all, what do you know better than something that’s really happened to you?) and partly because they don’t trust their own imaginations enough.

The “write what you know” part is positively frightening at times. I had a student at one point who came to me for tips on how to ride a bicycle off the roof of his garage in order to “find out what it feels like to ride a dragon.” I pointed out that people who write murder mysteries do not go around murdering people, and also that no one has ever actually ridden a dragon and therefore any minor flaws in his description were likely to go unnoticed, and suggested that he simply sit and think about what it might be like for a while.

It took me a good half-hour to persuade him.

I don’t really know where this attitude comes from. I don’t think most people really believe it, deep down (if they did, writers who write “spicy” Romance novels would be in much more demand as dates), but when they get to actually trying to write something, they get all insecure and want to be able to point at something outside the story and say “see, I’m not wrong; this is how it really works.” The trouble is, the author can’t go around to every single reader and say “This is what riding a dragon really is like; I know because I rode a bicycle off the roof of my garage to test it.” The vast majority of readers will only ever have the words on the page, so it’s the words on the page that have to be convincing. Not “real life.”

13 Comments
  1. This post is really timely for me. I am trying to work out a story that involve being kidnapped on a sailing vessel. I’ve never been kidnapped OR sailing, and learning to sail isn’t a viable option right now. (Neither is getting kidnapped, actually…)

    I just realized (last night) that since my characters aren’t doing the actual sailing (they’re too busy being tied up), my visiting a maritime museum and reading up on sailing will probably be enough to get me through the chapters they spend on a boat.

    Sometimes the best way to gain enough experience to write a story is to scale down your expectations until you have a plan that’s practical for YOU.

  2. I took a course on “Teaching Writing” once in which the professor insisted that all of our writing be semi-autobiographical, and that we should require this of our students too. The theory was that this would be more relevant, and therefore interesting, to students and that they would be less likely to imitate other people’s works if they were writing about their own life. (Ironically, he also taught us the importance of using great writers as models).

    In his defense, the textbook he was concentrating on was called “Writing through Memoir.” It didn’t seem to occur to him that not everyone wants to write a memoir.

  3. Well, it is something to have convinced the sort of person who will weave dreams of dragons, and yet dreams them so scantly himself that he can’t think why they aren’t much like bicycles off garage roofs at all. The emulation of imagination: ow, ow, ow!

    And yet, there are textures and truth lost when experience passes from hand to hand. As Chicoy suggests, the trade-off with practicality is real, and a great part of mastery. I have walked in more enchanted wildwoods than Fangorn could shake a stick at, and yet my own never truly came to life until I took some rambles in their closest local cousins.

    Now, there are two kinds of real-happeners I think you’re treating together here – probably because they’re two sides of one coin. Suppose that I were one of these literalists, and a painter.

    The one side of the error is bad wishful craftsmanship; as if I would not paint my vision of the Golden Wood, being unable to afford ground lapis-lazuli for its skies, and moaned that I was stuck with painting Tooting Bec Common instead. It is not attempting enchantment, for lack of material that will do it all for us.

    The other side is lazy flattening reportage; as if I went across Tooting Bec Common for the Golden Wood’s inspiration, and then painstakingly painted the mallorn-halls as a boring municipal open space, because after all I had walked among tall trees and that is what they were like. It is attempting enchantment, and expecting the material to do it all for us anyway.

    It is all about mistaking a record for a tale. As far as I can see, it’s just the balance between pragmatic and artistic ambition that determines which side the bad penny lands on.

    But not only is the record not storytelling, it isn’t even living! [Shudders.]

    • Chicoy – The other useful option is to find someone who HAS done some sailing to read it over and see if you’ve messed anything up. But yeah, in most cases library research will get you as far as you need.

      Emily – That’s one of my problems with how-to-write classes and books – many, if not most, of them insist that their way is the One True Way, that nothing else will work, or even just that nothing else will work as well, when in fact there are dozens and hundreds of ways that work equally well (many of which will work much better than whatever the teacher is teaching, for some considerable number of students).

      Gray – Yes, some people do better when they have a bit of real-life experience that they can tie to whatever it is they’re writing. I like the two sides of your bad penny – that’s an extension of the problem that I hadn’t made, and certainly another aspect of the difficulty. But I’m beginning to think that the imagination is much like a muscle – if it isn’t exercised, it atrophies. It’s as if your painter, having seen Tooting Bec Common, cannot make the mental leap to the possibility of the Golden Wood at all, nor even to the Forest of Nottingham.

  4. I’d have a hard time persuading any reader of some of the weird (and pointless) coincidences that keep cropping up in my life. The fact that my kids’ new friend turned out to be our financial advisor’s son might work, but how do you persuade anyone that a book that belonged to your father-in-law as a child crossed the country from Ohio to California to wind up in your father’s hands when *he* was young?

    Sometimes you have to make things up. It’s the only way to make the story make sense.

  5. Personal experience is not always the most accurate representation. If you’ve lived through, say, an earthquake, you will know what’s happening in the room you’re in, but very little about what’s happening elsewhere.

    Author David Weber said that sometimes in military history it’s more useful to have studied an event than to have lived it. If someone has lived an event, they know what happened in their area, and what they think happened elsewhere, which may or may not be accurate. They’re less likely to step back and look at other viewpoints.

    Regarding “write what you know,” he says,
    “You have to write about something that you have wrapped your own mind firmly around, however you got there to do the wrapping in the first place. And hopefully it will be something that you’ve managed to wrap your mind around accurately.” He continues that he’s never been a female starship commander, but one of his main characters is exactly that.

    (taken from “An Interview with David Weber,” part 3)

  6. A few years ago, I met one person who was like this. Once he included a piece of jargon for the way roads slope down from the middle (the “crown” of the street, maybe?), but most of us weren’t familiar and it threw us out of the story. It wasn’t enough that the term was correct.

    In another story, the POV character got drunk and did something kind of stupid and gross, for no reason. The only answer we received when we asked why was, “But it actually happened!” He didn’t seem to want to accept that it didn’t matter. The scene didn’t work in a fiction story, it wasn’t believable.

    I was sort of thrown at the time, that he was so adamant about the truthfulness, regardless of whether it made for a good story. He clung to that excuse rather than change the story.

  7. I think it’s interesting that everything has to make sense in fiction, where dragons and faeries exist, while in the real world, anything goes, even though we have stuff like physics to keep everything in order.

    • nct2 – What you said.

      Sabrina – There’s an off-again, on-again argument about the adviseability of using jargon or obscure vocabulary in fiction. On the one hand, it can add a lot of flavor and characterization; on the other, you don’t want people to be thrown out of the story. For the rest…well, he’s a prime example of Gray’s literalist who assumes that as long as it’s “real,” it’ll work. There isn’t much one can do about such people; they usually get really cranky if one advises them to be journalists, and they don’t usually listen to a simple “this scene doesn’t work.”

      accio_aqualung – It only seems odd until you think about it a little more. If you see someone do something very odd in real life, well, there they are, roller-skating down the middle of the highway in a clown suit and antlers. It’s weird, but it’s hard not to believe it when you saw it yourself (or if enough other people tell you they saw it). It’s real, and that’s all there is to it.

      Fiction starts with a handicap in this regard – everyone reading it knows that it’s a made-up story. We just all agree that for the length of the story, we’ll pretend that it’s real…but that temporary, willing suspension-of-disbelief is a lot easier to break than the ongoing belief in whatever-is-real that most of us have.

  8. I use a certain small amount of my real life in all of my writing, and it seems to help readers connect to my characters. But it’s generally prosaic stuff, like a setting where a conversation takes place, or the smell of an old Peugeot diesel car driving up into the Cascade range. I once used my childhood best friend’s house as my POV character’s home. My wife recognized it immediately, and I’ll bet Gary would also, but I doubt anybody else is likely to think “this is real.”

    I hope they don’t.

    • Bill – Good to see you again. Most writers use bits and pieces of reality that way, but it’s sort of like building things out of Legos – the end result doesn’t have to have any resemblance, in toto, to what the writer took apart to get the bits and pieces. I think some of these folks confuse “make your writing seem real” with “your writing has to be real”…but they don’t ever verbalize it, so they don’t realize consciously what a problem they’re making for themselves.

  9. > people who write murder mysteries do not go around murdering people

    That you know about…

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