Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Continuing the conversation on accuracy and authenticity

Yesterday's blog post about accuracy and authenticy generated this comment from reader Dena Pawling:

>>I see this a lot with lawyers, doctors, and law enforcement who query me about books that "don't take liberties with the facts!" and are thus often short on plot.

I read a book with a female protagonist who is a retired police chief. I did end up finishing it, but I lost confidence in the author when much of the tension relied upon her habit of having the MC go into sticky situations without any sort of backup, which a retired police chief would NEVER do. I don't care whether she's retired. She's NOT gonna go against 30+ years of training and experience to meet someone alone behind the pagoda at midnight, who might be the killer. Some of the situations were laughable, like the teenage girls in horror stories who grab a flashlight (because the power went out on a dark and stormy night) to check on a noise in the basement.

I understand “take liberties with the facts.” Especially if it's not supposed to be a non-fiction account. But it's very different from “take liberties with reality.” I'll throw a book across the room if the prosecutor calls the defendant to the witness stand at trial. And altho I did finish it, the book I just mentioned was the only book I've read by that author.

Give me a good story. But unless there's a good explanation [Carkoon, a dream, etc] don't make me cringe at the sheer unreality of it.

This is a really good point, and I want to steal the line "take liberties with reality."

Someone going into a darkened building at night, alone, after an unknown voice on the phone says "I'll tell you who murdered Felix Buttonweezer but only if you come alone with no backup" doesn't fail the logic test because a retired police chief would never do this. It fails the logic test because no sane person would do this.

There's a phrase for it: TSTL*

If your characters are doing something that's too stupid to live, that's just bad writing. Sure some cheesy horror movies require the trope of the negligee clad co-ed carrying a candle going into the basement cause she heard noises, but no one is expecting authenticity in Halloween 29.

And if your book is a campy send up, sure, tiptoe away.

But mostly, you're writing books that require people to behave somewhat believably.

Which means your characters CAN do things that aren't proper procedure, and might not be what they were trained to do. Who among us hasn't broken a rule or ten? Me me me for sure, and that's just today.

If you know your character is going to do something they shouldn't, there needs to be a reason. Overt or implied, but your reader should believe there's a reason.

Half the fun of Beverly Hills Cop is watching Axel Foley get yelled at for going against the regs. We know why he's doing it. In fact, in the same situation, we would do it too.

Each reader has a different tolerance for what they can overlook. I insist on historical and geographical accuracy, but I absolutely believe dragons can fly.

Bottom line: If your protagonist is doing things s/he shouldn't make sure it's clear why, and that your reader sympathizes. And of course, your antagonist should be doing many things s/he should not be, but just desserts are on the menu!


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"...dragons can fly." Do can Superman.

Unfortunately we live in a world of daily untruths, which are so blatant that I'm beginning to believe that common sense thinking, actions and results no longer matter.
I am not talking politics.

Is the nightgown clad teenager searching her basement during a thunderstorm with a candle any different than the wanna-be jock swallowing a laundry detergent-pod.

Our thoughts spin with the, don't go there, don't do it over and over again and yet she enters the basement alone and he gulps.

Authenticity may get a book on the shelf but will it sell?
Personally the chic walking below ground level to her doom is more appealing to me than the idiot kid raiding the laundry room.

One is fiction and one is reality.
Sometimes, ya just wanna escape into the lunacy of the unlikely.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Jeez, typo alert. "Do" is supposed to be so. The only thing I hate more than typos is when someone tries to explain their typo screw-up.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Authenticity of Halloween 29 - I love it!

I have more to say but my day job will not permit it. I miss you guys

Unknown said...

I wonder if you can debate with editors about stuff like this. They say, "Ridiculous, kids don't eat laundry soap," (or eat live goldfish, or do whatever the adolescent craze of your setting). You say, "Sure do, here's proof." Then, do they say, "Okay, go for it," or do they say, "Doesn't matter if it's true, people won't believe it"?

I'm sure it depends on the topic, but I suspect reality is less important than what readers perceive as realistic.

Steve Stubbs said...

Can you tell us what TSTL means.

The negligee clad coed who goes into the basement does not know what is lurking down there. We find that idiotic because we in the audience do know what's lurking down there.

I say that because I've got up numerous times in the middle of the night to check out strange noises, fully expecting to meet Charles Manson risen from the grave. If Charlie is after me, hiding in bed is not going to make me safe. Having weapons will not make me safe. Someone busted out the windows in my car looking for things to steal and made off with a baseball bat I had for self protection. I assume it has been used to kneecap people since.

My paranoia about burglars is not unreasonable because I used to know a man who was always saying he was going to break in late at night, smash my head in while I slept, and score electronics to sell for drugs and alcohol.

I know a fellow in New Jersey who confronted a burglar while carrying a samurai sword.

I used to work at a crisis center where I took a late night call from a woman worried about crime. She hung up because people were climbing in her window while we were talking.

Houses are full of goodies people can sell for drugs.

That's reality. It may not work in fiction because as Mark Twain said, "fiction has to make sense." The upshot is, the author has to make realism believable.

RosannaM said...

Steve Janet explained TSTL in her next line. =Too Stupid To Live.

I think it's important to realize we all sit down to read with our own particular life view, which necessarily biases us, even when we think we are unbiased.

I brought a few pages to a writer's group and in a scene my teenage girl protagonist was cooking dinner. Stir fry. And the character commented something about how she loved cooking stir fry as it was easy. And the critique I got from a middle-aged woman (scornfully) said, "I wouldn't call that an easy dinner. An easy dinner is a microwave burrito or a can of soup." This was in very early pages, so would this woman have thrown my book across the room in disbelief, or would she have waited to see the character develop?--she's an athlete, grew up with health-conscious parents (probably even ate kale!), doesn't own a microwave, etc.

I think it all comes down to why some books and movies speak to some of us and leave others utterly unmoved. We connected. Or didn't. As writers, we do our best to connect as we are telling our story, but sometimes stir fry will cook our goose.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I tune out of movies/TV shows a LOT because of TSTL syndrome. Books--not so much. Maybe because we get a more intimate look at a character's motivation in books, so the unbelievable actions are, at least, a little more sympathetic.

Of course, I also watch a lot of murder mysteries, and TSTL is a pretty necessary trope there.

JEN Garrett said...

I call them "yeah right moments" - like when the branch doesn't break until after you've just been saved. Or when you're in danger of getting caught in the most obvious places, but it isn't until you're hiding in the spot no one would ever look that you're found. Or if you're wearing headphones and a Walkman while driving. Or you're an 18th Century Woman calling a man a wuss. Or a teenager whose first kiss is passionate and not at all awkward.

Craig F said...

I am going to have to amend my writer's rule number 796.

It says that you can sell anything if you are consistent with it. You can only do that if it isn't stupid enough to kill off your MC in the first Chapter.

Unknown said...

OT: Ugh, I apparently clicked a link somewhere, to win a book. This connected me to something called BookSweeps, which put me on dozens of mystery and thriller mailing lists. My inbox is clogged like, well, like a toilet. When I don't open the link to free books, the authors follow up. ("I see you haven't read my book"). Please, don't click the BookSweeps link. It stinks like, well, like a clogged toilet, and will be just as burdensome to clean out.

Adele said...

Janet? - "Just deserts". No double s.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

STEVE, I didn't know TSTL either and didn't catch it in the next paragraph. Thanks for asking because I was TCTA.
To chicken to ask is my problem. Hey Steve did ya catch that?

Lennon Faris said...

Yes! TSTL characters drive me absolutely batty. At least when the author doesn't intend for them to be.

I read a book last year where the whole country was trying to find a beast that was killing everyone. The main character, who is supposed to be very intelligent but has no battle training (and so does not join in the hunt), hears a strange sound and a 'dead' smell coming from an abandoned shack. Does m.c. report this to the hunters (who are by the way within eyesight)? No, m.c. goes to investigate. Oh, and yes m.c. does get caught and gets quite a few hunter maimed in the rescue.

At that point I am hoping the beast gobbles m.c. right up.

Joseph S. said...

People do do stupid things for absolutely no rational reason. I could list in more than my 100 word limit the ways I’ve injured myself or nearly killed myself.

And almost daily I read a news story of people doing things I wouldn’t believe if I read it in a novel. I found three or four in the local paper’s website this morning. Here’s a summary of one. I’ll bold the “Oh really” part that I may have done too:

A candidate for a county commission was attacked in the night while walking her dog. She suffered a broken arm, knee and elbow abrasions, and injuries to her face. Her neighbor said he and his wife discovered the woman in her garage, "covered in blood and screaming in pain." Nearby, her truck was running with the door open.

"I was in the garage with her for maybe one second as she said she was pushed while walking in front of her truck," Butler said. "I immediately ran to the dark backyard looking for a possible suspect while Connie rendered aid to Lana."

Beth Carpenter said...

I've been looking for a news report I remember from about 25 years ago about an eagle snatching a chihuahua at a gas station to see if it was in Valdez or Seward, but all I can find is some expert saying it's a myth because eagles can't lift dogs. He's wrong though; they lift fish heavier than chihuahuas, and there were several witnesses. I'm mentioning it in a book, but have decided to leave it a vague story, in case readers agree with the expert.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

I have this worry that people won't believe what my characters are doing. They do some very odd things since one of them has OCD.
They pour shower gel directly into their mouths/eyes/noses for decontamination when they go through a 'transformation process'.
They move from country to country in order to find new clean places to live, as the old ones have become too dirty.

A beta-reader (who is the only 'neutral' person to have read my whole manuscript) said they wondered whether moving around like that can really be caused by OCD. They said they didn't have too much knowledge of OCD, but knew about germs being a problem and that washing was involved.

I'll have a problem if people won't be able to believe that I moved 'all' over Europe to escape 'the dirt' :/ !

I even left some of the most crazy REAL things out, in order to make it more believable.

DK said...

I think some of you guys are missing the point a little. This sort of thing only matters if the character's actions cause the reader to disengage. In other words, if the reader isn't drawn in to the story, it doesn't matter if what happens to the character actually happened in real life. If the reader is drawn in, it doesn't matter that Reacher gets shot, point blank, in the chest but his massive chest muscles keep the bullet from causing any real damage.

Put another way, if the movie viewer shouts, "NO!" when the coed creeps down the stairs, it's fine. If the viewer shakes her head and turns off the TV, then not so much.

John Davis Frain said...

I have a son who is certified in TSTL. My wife has a theory on where it comes from, but instead of telling me she only rolls her eyes. Whatever that means.

Anyway, try not to encourage TSTL in your family. It wreaks havoc on insurance rates.

CynthiaMc said...

A lot of teenage girls are TSTL, especially at slumber parties. I can't tell you how many times (as a teen) I said "Don't go out there. Didn't you see (insert horror film)?" The response was usually "No."

Watch horror films, people. It may save your life.

Re: bird-snatching dogs. Our bowling leaguw secretary lost her min-pin puppy to a hawk in their back yard.

A friend I hike with brought her Yorkie (3 pounds). She let him off-leash. I said "I wouldn't do that." She said "Why not? There's no one around." I said "Because we're in the wilderness and he's snack size." A Harris hawk came out of nowhere and was annoyed when she grabbed him up.Those suckers are FAST.

Steve Stubbs said...

DK said...
If the reader is drawn in, it doesn't matter that Reacher gets shot, point blank, in the chest but his massive chest muscles keep the bullet from causing any real damage.

Read the history of the Boxer Rebellion in Peking in the early twentieth century. Kung Fu stylists who practiced the Iron Shirt mistakenly believed it would protect them from bullets. Iron Shirt training is only useful against blunt force trauma, useless against sharp weapons and bullets.

Massive chest muscles have nothing to do with it.

Thanx to Kathy and RosannaM for explaining TSTL.

Stacy said...

Oh wow. Thanks for answering this question, Janet. And Dena, thanks for your comment. I'm not the OP, but your comment brings to light an issue I didn't even realize I had in my opening scene, and gives me an idea of how to fix it.

Gah. It sucks realizing just how much I don't know about police procedures.

Stacy said...

Also, whenever I see a horror film with the obligatory TSTL scene, I think of the year my bestie's dad dressed up as Jason from the Halloween films during a slumber party and spent 15 minutes peeking around the corner of the living room window while we watched the movie. One of the girls would whisper she saw someone, she SAW it, and then it would go around the room like a game of telephone. Cue things reaching fever pitch, and "Jason" leaps through the front door with the mask, the outfit, and a real chainsaw. He fired that thing up and... well, you can imagine the reaction of a gaggle of eleven-year-old girls. Good times.

AJ Blythe said...

Bethany said "I also watch a lot of murder mysteries, and TSTL is a pretty necessary trope there."

I don't think TSTL is necessary (I stop reading/watching if it is a straight TSTL moment). In a mystery novel, if you need the heroine to go into the dark alley on their own there are ways of making it happen that are believeable, for example, making it an heroic moment (she believes someone else's life is in danger if she doesn't). It's all in how you build/scaffold to the moment.

Of course, in real life TSTL happens all the time. Often, they are TSTL...the Darwin Awards anybody?

Elissa M said...

Beth Carpenter, I just did a search with the words "eagle catching prey" and came up with video of eagles catching everything from fish, to deer, to foxes. Your eagle can fly off with as many chihuahuas as you want.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I may have shared this with you guys before, so forgive me if I am repeating myself.
And Janet please excuse the length.

Authenticity and believability became a huge stop sign for the novel I am now querying. I wrote the book ten years ago, loved it, and was told by a creative writing teacher (college level) that “this book will make you famous.” Yeh, well, that comment still fills me with hope.

Anyway, the problem was that a surprise happens in the story which is so unexpected, and so miraculous that even as the author I found it hard to believe. I researched, found a few things to sort-of back up what happens but not enough in my own mind to make it believable for the reader.


A few months ago I discovered, by chance, a memoir written by someone who experienced EXACTLY what my character experiences. WOW, I Kindled a copy, read it in a day and went back to my manuscript with renewed fervor because “the surprise” and so called “miracle” has actually happened.
I really think that if the writer writes the story as a believer, the reader will believe it too.

Joseph S. said...

Most famous last words in the South, "Hey, y'all. Watch this."

John Davis Frain said...

"Hold my beer, Joe."

Timothy Lowe said...

OT, is it messed up that my son was watching a YouTube video yesterday where some Shaolin monks were throwing a needle through a plate of glass and I thought, "oh cool, how can I use that in the book I'm revising"?

How about the fact that I routinely worry about FBI agents coming to my house because of my Google search history?

The line between believable and outrageous is good fiction.

Timothy Lowe said...

Beth - I once witnessed a seagull snatch a red squirrel from a lake not 5 feet in front of me. I was in a canoe, the squirrel was swimming.

I didn't witness whatever fight ensued, so I don't know who won. But it was pretty crazy to see.

The Sleepy One said...

DK, I agree with you. I also read the book in which Reacher was shot in the chest and I didn't care that it was a stretch of the imagination--because I can suspend disbelief in Reacher novels because of the way they're written. I can believe Reacher is the closest thing possible to a superhero. The logic always works within the story.

But I've put books down with characters TSTL or books that get certain details wrong that anyone with the ability to do a tiny bit of research--like a prosecutor calling a defendant--should be able to get right.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Oftentimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Janet Reid said...

Adele it was supposed to be a clever pun, but clearly, not too successful. And since I had to verify how to spell successful, no one hear can be faulted for thinking something of mine is spelling error.

Dena Pawling said...

Wow Janet liked my comment! Well, shucks. Thanks =)

>>I want to steal the line "take liberties with reality."

Sure, steal away!

>>doesn't fail the logic test because a retired police chief would never do this. It fails the logic test because no sane person would do this.

This is true, but it was blatantly, glaringly, shockingly, slap-your-face [is that too many adverbs?] obvious because she was a retired police chief. If she'd been a regular Jane, it would have simply been obvious.

>>DK – Put another way, if the movie viewer shouts, "NO!" when the coed creeps down the stairs, it's fine. If the viewer shakes her head and turns off the TV, then not so much.

Agree 100%

>>CynthiaMC – Our bowling leaguw secretary lost her min-pin puppy to a hawk in their back yard.

My mother lost an 8 pound cat to a hawk last year. Yep, those things are FAST. And invisible until they're already flying back up with their talons full.

>>Stacy – And Dena, thanks for your comment. I'm not the OP, but your comment brings to light an issue I didn't even realize I had in my opening scene, and gives me an idea of how to fix it.
>>my bestie's dad dressed up as Jason from the Halloween films during a slumber party

Glad I could help, especially since you also have an idea of how to fix it. And OMG! Not that I would have ever voluntarily watched a horror movie, not when younger and not now, but if I was at that slumber party I think I'd have had a heart attack. My heart is racing just reading that story!

From yesterday's comments:

>>Mister Furkles – Hey, Dena, are those skinny teenage girls in skimpy attire? If so, Wes Craven Jr. may want movie rights.

I can believe it LOL

>>Julie Weathers – Right about then something stuck me square in the middle of the back. The dogs were barking more furiously than ever. I screamed as well as any horror queen in any movie.
The neighbor's Charolais cow was out. Moooo.

Yikes! I'd scream in that situation. But why are the dogs barking so much about a cow on the loose? Hadn't they ever seen a cow before? Or maybe it was armed?

Beth Carpenter said...

Elissa, thanks for verifying. So much for the wildlife expert.

Timothy, a swimming squirrel is shocking enough, but to be carried off by a seagull--what a day that squirrel was having!