Tuesday, October 2, 2018

When Fiction is Unbelievable

Many moons ago a professional in the publishing world said one of my stories belied credulity. A fancy way of saying it had too much this-and-that to pass for a realistic tale, as it was realistic fiction.

My first reaction was to hyperventilate. This particular middle grade novel depicted real events from real life. Not necessarily mine, but the life of a trustworthy person close to me who had nothing whatsoever to gain from making it up.

To me, this criticism meant one of two things. Either the reader had a limited range of what they could absorb as realistic, or I had failed to tell this story in such a way that it could pass for what might, just possibly, be something that could have happened.

The first possibility, regarding the reader’s limited imagination, is something I could do nothing about. The second was completely up to me.

When there’s a choice between what I can do nothing about and what is up to me, I choose the second. Helplessness is depressing, and what I can fix is empowering.

I know, my first instinctive reaction was to push such onto other people and, well, not my fault is a mantra we learn from a young age. Not only does it spare us possible punishment, (“the dog ate my homework”) but the adults around us model such reaction every day. Just look at our elected officials and almost anyone accused of a crime.

But, as I told my kids when they were growing up, only you can undo the things that are your doing. This is powerful.

When DS was a toddler and going through the “mine” phase, I remember some unfortunate thing happening that resulted in my saying to him it was not his fault. I don’t recall what that something was, but I never forgot his response. “It is my fault! It’s all mine!”

It was funny, but also a teachable moment for both of us.

So, moving forward, I combed over the fictionalized biographical story and labored to make it stronger and more vivid. In the process, I discovered a writing technique that might work for you if you encounter this reservation from a reader.

It’s in the details.

If you write concrete and specific details into the story, it gains a dimension of reality that wasn’t there before. The more details the better. Go all out. Describe the shape of the doorknob and the sound it made when the protagonist twisted it slowly, or the smell of specific herbs cooking next door. Don’t think of the details as unnecessary, but as part of concertizing. Not only fantasy stories deserve world building.

The true story I refashioned into fiction came my way without details. I had to invent them. But the fiction I imagined made the bones of a true story more realistic.

Don’t despair, fix it.

Can you tell I’m in the throes of just such?


Evelyn said...

I loved your DS's story about "It's all mine!"

Vijaya said...

Such a good post. The other thing about real life is that it's messy and often doesn't make sense. But fiction has to. Happy revising! May all your dominoes fall into place.

Janie Junebug said...

The devil is in the details? I guess not. Salvation is in the details.


Romance Reader said...

Wow! This is powerful. Yes, as all writing craft books say...use all the senses. We sometimes despair that there too much detail. And too much narration also takes the reader out of the story.

These details should be drip fed in such a way that it hooks readers interest. Now I only wish I knew how to!

Kelly Hashway said...

A lot of writers don't realize there is world building in EVERY story, no matter the genre.