We had quite a heated debate at the writing group this week. The discussion was about a patently unreal scene in a piece of fiction. This wasn’t a story about another dimension or some magical kingdom where the usual rules don’t apply; the scene was set in the real world, but so unrealistic as to be absurd. The writer maintained that it’s fiction, so it doesn’t need to be realistic.
But does it?
The thing about this writing business, I was warned many years ago, is that it ruins the reading experience. Whoever said that was absolutely right. Everything I read these days comes under scrutiny, for a variety of reasons. In the old days of traditional publishing, the grammar, punctuation, spelling and syntax were checked and double-checked before the book was printed. An editor would check facts and correct assumptions to ensure the narrative was accurate and realistic. In these times of self-publishing, the writer gets to be their own editor. Obviously it’s best not to muck around with established facts, but how far can we go in stretching a reader’s credulity?
In the middle of an otherwise serious piece of work, unrealistic events jar; they strike a discordant note that jolts the reader out of the story. We suspect that the writer isn’t in control. And if the reader loses trust, the writer has failed. The writing group discussion made me wonder how realistic fiction needs to be.
How do you feel about flowers blooming in the wrong season, for example, or non-native birds chirping away in England when they should be in North Africa for the winter? What about a misquoted nursery rhyme? How many nine-dollar bills will you excuse? (Me? None. ) Is it so irritating that you lose faith with the author and abandon the book, or do you just ignore it? Personally I think this is just lazy writing – which is very annoying to the aspiring writer – it’s easy enough to check anything these days.
Some fiction is obviously not going to be factual – sci-fi, or fantasy fiction for example – but it still needs to stick to the cosmic rules of the world it presents. Don’t have your characters talking in Christian terms, for example, where your imaginary world is completely godless. Which also means no turning the other cheek, or going like to a lamb to the slaughter, both of which have their origins in the Bible.
Writing about everyday people in commonplace situations in our ordinary world should still take account of the established laws of physics. For example, can a person drive all the way from north to south London, during the rush hour, in the rain on a Friday evening, in fifteen minutes? The answer, for those of you who don’t live in London, is probably not, unless you’ve got a matter transporter. So, when I read about someone doing just that in a novel, I lose a little bit of faith. I don’t like my space-time continuum being interfered with, unless I’m reading science fiction and I’m prepared for it.
Maybe I’m just being picky.