Friday, October 7, 2016

Reality tells taller tales than fiction.

Fans and editors sometimes ask and criticize how authors plot outlandish events and happenings that just really couldn't ever happen. Right?
Well, I'm sorry, Virginia, there might not be a Santa Claus, but there is a bum in a Santa Claus suit who really does roam the beaches of Honolulu gifting cookies in April.  And I have seen dozen of drunk Santa Claus look-alikes on a lawn during the Houston's Lights in Height's Festival.  And there was that Santa stripper with herpes I saw in an ER room once...

Anyway, my point (and I do have one) is that it is very easy to fall into what I will call the "Jarring Too-Reality Trap" when plotting my stories.  

I've seen and discovered some very weird things while  researching things for my novels, A Walk Away and Catch to Release.  Even weirder things than I see in my day job riding along with first-responders and extreme environment teams to do job analysis (and some of those tales are indeed tall--like the time I got to stand under a 20G centrifuge for people in Russia's Star City).
As a writer, I'm incredibly tempted to work in those very real and very weird things into my stories. It's quirky flavoring, something that I love as a reader myself, but that temptation can cause a backlash of disbelief or confusion so strong that it leaves a reader hating my story and it's ridiculously real events.
And that's a problem. Not that I believe I will ever learn enough to know how to write to please everyone (I'm not sure I'd want to either), but I do believe that fiction serves a purpose.  I think fiction is supposed to help us deal with our world more mindfully by entertaining us enough to read through many different mental simulations or rehearsals where we can see how various people handle and process emotions and situations.  Fiction is an engaging way for us to learn interpersonal skills and discover social insights, without any boring lectures or dangerous missions.  So it's a problem if I shock too many readers out of that opportunity with a plot event they can't reconcile with probability, but it is also a thin line--I mean we read fantasy and much of those stories include events that are no where near probable, but we don't mind because in their established universe they sound probable and real.

So what I have learned to help avoid the "Jarring Too-Reality Trap" so far is:

  1. Yes, it is cool that a South American radio novella star really did serve as a cartel hit-woman by arranging murderous accidents for her targets in the 1980s and that would make a good twist--but any weird reality-fueled twist probably requires a lot of narrative exposition to establish that as a viable probable reality for my readers.
  2. Feedback from editors and betas can really help you see when your true facts are too true and the reader will likely doubt any explanation you might provide in narrative.
  3. Society and popular culture decide the final truth you can get away with in your fiction. For example, in reality 95% of those who receive CPR outside a hospital die, and it isn't really helpful for injuries like gunshot wounds.  Also, those 5% who live don't usually live long or ever return to normal. CPR works best on cardiac arrest victims, and then it still only helps around 15% of the time. But thanks to  TV, many readers believe that CPR can save a main character and restore them to 100% functioning within a day or so.  If you don't want to promote that fallacy, then you have to plot carefully enough to avoid any situation where the reader thinks "they should just do CPR to save that character, that is what would have happened in real life."
  4. Limit my quirky reality flavoring to two events per novel or less.  A little probably goes a long way? I mean would you believe me if I told you I once used a Rock Flounder to pull myself to shore, without swimming, through a cloud of jelly fish? Or that I saw a man who had died instantly from a 15 mph auto accident even though he was wearing a seat-belt, driving a decent car in the US, and had an airbag that deployed correctly?  It just doesn't matter how true it is if I overwhelm you with too much truth to process in one reading.
  5. I have to remember to serve one premise. The purpose of my writing anyway, even if it isn't the purpose of all fiction, is to create a story that engages readers and empowers them to learn something about their own social and interpersonal experiences; so if I want to accomplish that then everything in the story should serve the story's premise first and foremost.  For example, the premise of Catch to Release is that the best way to protect the ones you love is to show them you love them so they don't do stupid things that get them hurt trying to get more love and attention.  Anything that doesn't support that premise, I tried to cut despite it's veracity (or not) otherwise.  The jarring too-reality events I kept where the ones that support that premise--sometimes being a hero means helping your loved one be her own hero, so she can defend herself from our improbable, unbelievable reality at times.
Have you discovered any tips or tricks for avoiding the "Jarring Too-Reality Trap" in your own writings?  Any too-true funny or scary stories of succumbing to the trap that you want to share in the spirit of Halloween impending?
Holding wild hawks was deemed too real by a beta reader for the scene I wrote about counting them in A Walk Away.

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