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The Greater Logic of Fiction
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
October 16, 2014
What do I mean by more sense? How can that be, when it is trying to depict events in the real world? Well, I would argue that the world has a certain amount of nuisance and disorder that is deliberately excluded from fiction. This means that fiction often seems to make more sense, even when it does not reflect reality.
In the real world, people are inconsistent all the time. They contradict their own words; if you don't believe me, review some political speeches! But inconsistency is not reserved for politicians who may have huge incentives to be duplicitous. Many people just forget a lot, and when they do remember, they recall events differently from the way they recalled them before. There's a good reason that eyewitness testimony is considered less reliable than forensic evidence. People tend to recall what they think should have been there, rather than what actually happened. (For an example of how the mind reorganizes reality into what makes more sense to it, visit this optical illusion site: http://www.illusions.org/dp/1-5.htm)
Even though our minds play tricks on us in real life, in novels, characters frequently recall details perfectly -- or at least with far more accuracy than real people do. In fact, authors need to make sure that they, too, recall everything perfectly; novels are not supposed to contain mistakes such as Hilda wearing a red dress on page one and (without changing) a blue one a few paragraphs later. Woe betide the author who errs!
It is not just facts and the recollection of facts that are more consistent in the fictional world, but the personalities of the characters themselves. Characters who are praised for being well done are also consistent in terms of attitude, speech, and supporting traits. This is so expected that "OOC" is a TLA (three letter acronym) for "out of character" used by many readers in forums discussing stories. To have characters be OOC is a black mark for an author, unless the uncharacteristic behavior can be explained or excused by something such as hypnosis or possession. Yet in the real world people do not always behave consistently. Inconsistency occurs in the real world in part because the real world is more complicated. People behave differently when they are tired, depressed, forgetful, sorely tempted, or simply because there is something that the world does not know about them.
In many respects, fiction is easier to understand than real life. Let's start with dialogue. Fictional characters tend to speak more intelligibly and in more complete sentences than we do in real life. Record some actual conversations, transcribe them and then compare them to what you usually find in novels. In real life you will discover many more misunderstandings, hesitations, and other incomplete communications than you will see on the written page.
Some TV shows and movies include occasional garbled dialogue. The intended meaning comes across from context, gesture and intonation, as it does in real life. However, these props are not available to words on a page. The medium of your story affects your artistic choices.
Another reason for the greater clarity of communication between characters is that confusing conversations and paragraphs are not tolerated well by readers. If readers have to go back repeatedly to previous passages to make sense of them, they grow impatient. There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes scenes, when readers have greater knowledge, will be read again with pleasure as the words take on a different meaning. Other sections are deliberately misleading or deliberately create questions in the readers' minds. But in these cases the readers continue with the story eagerly, expecting to find explanations in future chapters.
People repeat themselves all the time in real life, far more often than they do in fiction. Advertising, recounting old stories, old arguments, insults, reproaches: these are all examples of repetitions. How many times do you stop listening when someone tells an event for the umpteenth time? How often -- be honest -- do you think the same thing over and over yourself, whether it be a goal that you have, a piece of praise that you received, or even that you are hungry or tired or that your back hurts? If stories repeated themselves as often as real life does, I don't think they would sell well.
The amount of repetition in novels is ideally just the right amount for readers to know what they need to know to enjoy the story. It becomes a delicate balance of judging what readers need reminding about and what they are likely to remember easily. Too much repetition is boring, but insufficient amounts can confuse the reader. Of course, individual readers differ in how much repetition they need and how much they will tolerate.
Beginnings and Endings
Stories have beginnings and endings. Of course, people are born and people die, so we can argue that their lives have beginnings and endings as well, but even then it is possible to journey backwards, and consider the parents of the child, and their parents, too. Some stories, such as David Copperfield, imitate life and begin with a character's birth. However, this approach doesn't work for many stories, including most genre fiction. Could you imagine detective stories featuring Miss Marple beginning with her birth, seven or eight decades before her adventures in St Mary Mead?
Unlike most lives and other real life events, stories have more flexibility about when they start. Authors can choose to begin them just when things are getting really interesting for the audience. In fact, there are many articles written about how to hook readers with an exciting beginning. Noah Lukeman, an agent, even wrote a book titled The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile.
Stories also have endings that usually make more sense than real life. In stories, most plots are deliberately constructed so that everything resolves near the end. The characters accomplish their missions; they grow and they learn something. Furthermore, the most important questions are answered. We find out what happened to Joe, and to Mary, and not only that Ted destroyed the petunias in the flower box but why and how he did it. Readers receive the explanations they crave, and most loose threads are tied up. This is not like real life where information does not always come together in a complete and timely matter and in which some individuals never seem to learn anything.
Happy endings happen often, and are actually de rigueur in many genres. Harlequin is not publishing romances in which the couples don't end up together! Even if happy endings are not required by a genre, many readers prefer them. Of course, some readers enjoy sad endings -- sometimes tearjerkers can be cathartic -- but even then, there is usually the sense that someone, if only the reader and not the main character, has learned something.
Beginnings and endings generally make stories more entertaining, and certainly more convenient. They also give readers a sense of order that is often lacking in real life. In real life, questions are not always answered. It may be difficult to determine when an event began, and even when (or if) it has ended. In real life, questions are frequently not answered. We never do learn what happened to the petunias. (This is a real mystery in my life right now – a bird? A cat? I do not know but I have taken down my flower box.)
Exceptions to Every Rule
As always, there are exceptions, both in real life and in fiction. Some people in real life are consistent and intelligible and don't seem to repeat themselves. Some fiction is inconsistent, hard to understand, and repetitious. Maybe it is even good fiction, although from this description it doesn't sound like it, does it? Perhaps these aspects can work in moderation.
I believe reality is often messy and confusing and plagued by entropy; fiction is not. Even though the hero may suffer and die, the sense of order that people get out of reading fiction is one reason that they turn to it. You will have to decide how much order you want in your own story.
Thanks for reading! Until next time.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.