Monday, June 06, 2011

Just Because it’s True…

What I’m reading: Chasing Fire, by Nora Roberts

Have you checked the Deals & Steals tab lately? Some deals expire soon. Don't miss out.

Back when I was just starting to learn the craft of writing, I had a live critique group (The Pregnant Pigs—don’t ask how the name came into being, as all of us were beyond child-bearing years). The others in the group were going back to school as part of a local college program for adults looking to change direction in life. These wonderful women were all studying writing. I hooked up with one through my volunteer training for the Adult Literacy League, and she invited me to join the group. I felt as though I was getting a free education as they were quick to share what they had learned (especially when critiquing my chapters).

At any rate, one of their professors used to say, "Just because it's true doesn't make it good." They would throw this in my face when I'd try to justify something I'd written with, "but it really happened."

One of the things I'm teaching in my dialogue class right now is that although dialogue has to sound like real speech, it isn't really "real" speech. Transcribing actual conversations won't work for writing.

Another place where "real" doesn't necessarily work is coincidences. They do happen, but they're problematic when plotting your story.

Characters have to meet. Plot threads have to entwine. Things have to happen to move the plot forward. Often, as authors, we're stretching reader credibility with the way we choose to have things happen. In books, the sorts of coincidences that seem to play out as normal parts of our lives can come across as contrived in fiction.

Examples: Once, years ago, Hubster and I were in New Orleans standing in line outside a restaurant that didn't take reservations. When tables opened up, someone would come outside and say, "Party of four?" or whatever the size of the table. The "Party of two?" calls were few and far between. So, when the next call for a party of four came, the couple behind us asked if we'd like to say we were a foursome and at least get into the restaurant a lot sooner. Being hungry, we agreed.

Once inside, we dealt with the usual "we're total strangers but now are having dinner together, so we ought to introduce ourselves." They said they were from Missoula, Montana. Hubster said he'd been there for a meeting, and there were a few chit-chat moments as common ground was covered. Then, we said we were from Miami. The gentleman started in on the, "Oh, I know someone from Miami…" line, and my immediate thought was … "Do you know how big Miami is, and how many people live there?" But he proceeded to tell us he'd gone to med school with someone who had a pediatric practice in Miami, and it turned out to be our son's pediatrician.

Could I have written that? Probably not.

Or, the time we traveled to my mother's birthplace (formerly Danzig) and she found that a woman who'd written a book on surviving the Holocaust, who also came from Danzig (although my mother didn't know her then, but given that connection, they began an internet friendship) was going to be there showing some of her younger relatives around. My mother arranged for us all to meet for dinner one night. Cutting to the chase, when we lived in Miami, my husband worked with one of the relatives this woman was showing around.

Could I have written that? Probably not.

Or yesterday, when we went to our usual coffee house for Sunday breakfast. It's a friendly place, and we struck up a conversation. They'd never been to the place, and "Where are you from?" is a typical question. Not only were they from Divide, but they live in our subdivision.

But, when we're writing, we have to work to make sure coincidences aren't on the page for convenience. Yes, they happen, but it's the author's job to make them seem "Good" as well as "True."

**image: Parson Weems’ Fable by Grant Wood, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Tomorrow, my guest is author Phoebe Conn, who's going to talk about brainstorming. In addition, she's giving away a book, so please come back and make her feel at home.


Anonymous said...

My life is a series of coincidences and bad luck. In the past I've related happenings in my life to a soap opera. But when one sympathetic person told me I should write a book, my response was "no one would believe it."

Jan Morrison said...

If the writing is compelling enough, the characters engaging, I will accept all manner of stupid coincidences. See John Irving.

E. B. Davis said...

Reality is a great starting place. Fiction must take off from reality. It's the difference between documentary and fiction. Good fiction dramatizes reality in a way that gives it greater meaning, which is often lost or buried in the trivia of life.

Carol Kilgore said...

I don't mind a coincidence or two, but not a book full of them. But they happen a lot in real life. We've met people we know in all sorts of strange places.

Terry Odell said...

Kaye - truth IS stranger than fiction--mostly because we can't write some of the things we see because no one would believe them.

Jan - ah, so true. It's the author's job to make it work. Or at least try very hard. :-)

EB - yes. Chris Whitcomb wrote "Cold Zero" which was true, but to tell the real story, he had to write "Black" (or was it "White?") which was fiction.

Carol - yes, they happen all the time. But in a book, if they seem to be there to suit the author's purpose, they won't work.

Lynne Roberts said...

I couldn't agree with you more. As a writer, you control what happens in the story. In 'real' life, we know we don't control every, or sometimes any, of the circumstances around an event. Because we, as authors, have complete control, coincidences seem more forced... less coincidental.

Terry Odell said...

Lynne - exactly. Well put.

Ilona Fridl said...


I hear you. If we wrote dialogue like people actually speak it, it would kill the smooth flow of the story. Great post!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! I'm rewriting an entire story right now because of a huge, glaring coincidence. Ridiculous that I couldn't see it before!

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Good point! Coincidence sounds too phony to readers.

Terry Odell said...

Ilona - even the best dialogue isn't 'real life' -- it just sounds like it.

Jemi - that's why we rewrite!

Elizabeth - strange how "real" sounds fake, isn't it!

Janice Hardy said...

This is all so true. And your stories are awesome. I think coincidences can work if they're *not* the things that solves the problem. But if they make it an easy win for the protag then they can fail big time.

Terry Odell said...

Janice - you've made an excellent point. Using them to escape a plot hole or to solve the problem won't work. Characters have to solve their own problems.

Carradee said...

In the novel I plan to release next month, the situations that betas have questioned most are the ones that were actually drawn from reality. I had to take a close look and revise a bit, though I've kept some of 'em.

It's kinda weird. Sometimes it seems like: I make something up, I get told "Oh, that's exactly right!"; I pull from reality, I get told "That wouldn't really happen!"