What Makes It Real?

The art of fiction is the art of creating an illusion. When we read a story, we think we’re visiting places we’ve never been, seeing and hearing people as they say and do things, and so on. What we’re really doing is sitting in a chair, staring at a bunch of words on paper.

Okay, these days it may not be paper. But you know what I’m talking about.

The neurological process that allows this illusion to occur is fascinating and not well understood, but that’s a topic for another time. At the moment I’m more concerned with how the writer creates the illusion. To create the illusion, the author needs to master at least four distinct techniques:

  1. Psychological truth.
  2. Narrative flow.
  3. Sensory detail.
  4. World-building.

Every writer of fiction is an amateur psychologist. Without a seat-of-the-pants theory about why people do (or fail to do) things, you can’t possibly create characters. I don’t just mean you can’t create good characters — you can’t create characters at all.

Fortunately, human beings are endowed with an instinctive apparatus for imagining what other people are thinking and feeling. If you have this apparatus in a well-developed form, and if you pay attention to it while writing, you’ll do fine. Your instinct will tell you, “That feels wrong. That character wouldn’t do that.” Or that it feels right.

Writers who start out with too rigid an idea of the shape of their plot may be tempted to ignore their instinctive nudges. Their characters may behave like puppets, jerked around on strings as required by the plot. Figuring out a natural way to have a character do what you need him or her to do is not always easy. When a writer says that her characters took over the book and changed the story completely, this is what she’s talking about. The characters had to be allowed to do what they would naturally do. The result, if you’re patient, is usually going to be a better story.

If you’re trying to create a non-human character, of course you have a different problem. You can err by making the character too human, or by making the character so alien that your readers can’t relate. This is a balancing act, and not one that I’m going to venture into right now.

Narrative flow has two parts — paying close attention to the passage of time within a scene, and making sure the reader is getting all of the required information.

Today I was reading a published novel in which there’s a scene in which two women are conversing. Clearly they’re facing one another, because that’s what people do when they’re conversing. But after several lines of speech, suddenly the writer tells us that one woman is speaking to the back of the other woman’s head. We can see, if we think about it, that the other woman has had an emotional reaction and turned away — but the writer forgot to tell us that! The required information has been omitted. As a result, we’re jerked out of the scene. We have to stop and figure out what’s going on. Very bad. If there’s a meaningful bit of stage business during the scene, put it in a sentence. Don’t make the reader assemble it piecemeal.

The normal way to write scenes, and usually by far the best way, is to make sure time flows forward. If the narrative backs up, the reader will get confused. The scene won’t seem real.

There are exceptions. Rex Stout, one of my favorite mystery writers, tends to start a chapter with a topic paragraph in which he informs you that during the next three days of the story, nothing important happened. He then backs up and proceeds to take you through those three days item by item. Now, this may seem like a dreadful technique. Certainly any writing teacher would advise against it. But the truth is, it’s brilliant.

Why? Because the actual plot details of Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries are generally rather thin. The fun in these books is watching Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (his assistant and the narrator) spar, watching Wolfe browbeat his own clients and lie to the police, and so on. If the chapter were constructed in the usual way, with a forward flow of time, the reader would miss the fun by trying to figure out which events provide important clues. To prevent this, Archie says up front, “There aren’t any clues in this mess.” You can then relax and enjoy the ride.

The need to provide sensory detail is almost too obvious to need comment, but aspiring writers often overlook it. If you’re an aspiring writer, or even a pro, you may want to practice by pretending that you’re watching the story on a movie screen. Tell us what you’re seeing!

World-building is vital. It’s not just your characters who have to seem real — the world they live in has to conform to the expected parameters. This is perhaps most obvious if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, but the truth is, every story takes place in a constructed world. If you don’t think deeply about how everything works, your readers will throw the book across the room in disgust.

Here’s a simple example, not from SF or fantasy but from an imaginary Western novel. The hero manages to untie his hands and feet, delicately pulls the six-gun from the holster of one of his sleeping captors, and tiptoes away into the dark. But a moment later the gang wakes. There’s a hot pursuit and a gunfight. And the hapless writer has the hero fire the six-gun 18 or 20 times — not just without reloading, but in a situation where it’s obvious he doesn’t have any extra bullets.

Would you keep reading after that scene? I wouldn’t. If the writer gets such a basic detail wrong, he or she can’t be trusted to keep the thousand other details straight. Your readers’ trust is not to be squandered — it’s a valuable commodity.

World-building is knowing how gadgets (such as six-guns) work. It’s knowing how money works in your fictional world. It’s knowing clothing styles and the weather. It’s knowing the basics of ground-based, naked-eye astronomy. If memory serves (and it usually does), I gave up halfway through the very first volume of Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” because of a gross failure of world-building. The author had his hero sleeping outdoors by a campfire, and reported that the full moon rose well after midnight and set again long before dawn.

That ain’t how the moon works, folks. And you can’t duck and dodge by saying, “Well, it’s a fantasy.” This isn’t about fantasy premises, it’s about basic optics. Donaldson lost at least one reader because he neglected the rudiments of world-building.

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