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Friday, February 21, 2014

Reality vs. Fiction

Granny Kat says fiction is lies. Okay, well not lies, exactly, but it's not true. Granny Kat's older daughter used to ask "Why would I want to read about things that are not true?" Good point. So, why do we read fiction? Why don't we just read fact-based books like a how-to on golf, a fascinating mathematical book on Fibonacci sequences, or great time-saving tips on sewing? If we're really desperate to read about people we could always read biographies, right? So, why do we humans like to hear stories, and why do we seem to particularly enjoy reading stories about heroes, conflict, battles, fantastic worlds, amazing feats, and bizarre occurrences? Because they seem real to us? Or maybe because we have imaginations? What use is imagination? Dogs don't have imaginations. They live in the moment. Sure, they are pretty clever, they can learn lots of things: they learn commands and tricks, respond to our emotions, they can even anticipate events based on previous experiences. But they don't sit around contemplating the past and imagining the future. We do. We can project the present reality forward or backward. In fact, while we're at it, what is reality?

 In philosophy there are two views on reality. On the one hand reality can only be perceived through our senses. Whatever we cannot see, hear, or touch is not real. The other view is that our minds create what we hear, see, and touch and therefore everything we perceive is an illusion created by our minds. In essence, nothing is real. Both views are interesting and if you combine either of them with the concept that we can think ourselves into the past or into the future all while living in the present, reality becomes a vast playing field. And I haven't even mentioned emotions!

How can we use this information as storytellers and authors? We must realize that we are playing with reality. Playing. Keep that in mind. Your story's reality is created entirely by you. Or is it? You are presenting story details, but your reader is reacting to them. Some readers will like your stories and want to read more. Other readers may not like your stories and may put them aside. This does not mean your stories are bad or unworthy, it only means that not all readers will connect with your story. Have you ever gone back to re-read a story that you read when you were a child? Try this exercise. Go to the library children's section, or young adult section, find a book that you know you read as a child, or one that was read to you. Sit in a quiet place and read it again. Does it seem familiar? In what ways? Does it seem different? How? My best guess is that it will feel somewhat familiar, but that you will interpret things in the story differently now that you are older. You may not remember some parts at all. Other parts you may re-read and say to yourself "I didn't realize the author meant that." It's not because you've forgotten parts of the story (even though you might have), or that you remember the story differently. It's that you are a different person now that you've read that story and many others and have had many experiences since then. And it's also because our memories change over time, but that's a topic for another day.

As a writer who plays with reality you are going to connect with some readers, but not all readers. I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who wrote, "“You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time." Granny Kat's question to you is: How can you maximize the number of readers you please? Granny Kat's Answer: By making your story world's reality vivid, engaging, and compelling. How do you know it's compelling, especially after you've read it so many times you can practically recite it? You can send it to some critique partners and see what they say. You can also put it aside yourself for a time and come back to it. Or at least move on to writing new chapters so that some time passes between when you drafted chapter one and when you come back to revise it. And, of course, you can submit it to agents and editors and see what they say about it. If your writing is coming along nicely, and your ideas are interesting many editors and agents will give you specific feedback rather than the disappointing form-letter response. Keep trying!

Here are some ideas about fictional reality to keep in mind as you present readers with your story world.

Reality doesn't have to make sense, but fiction does. In our real world the way people behave, the events that happen, the results of actions we take, etc. often do not make sense, or may take many, many years to figure out. This is not acceptable. However, in our own lives there's not much we can do about it except carry on. In fiction, however, this is plainly not acceptable and if it is allowed to go on unchecked, readers will generally be dissatisfied with the story. Your fictional story may have mysteries, questions, and possibilities, but by the time your story ends, all of these should be resolved (except in the case of a continuing series where some questions may remain open).

Avoid the boring aspects of life. Do not fall into the trap of providing a blow-by-blow setting description of everything the character does during his day. Skip the shower, breakfast and commute to work unless something important happens along the way. Don't mention how people living in the woods manage to go to the bathroom, or how they take care of their other bodily needs unless it is central to the story. Readers will not give it a second thought if you don't mention it. Along with this is the caution that characters are not people, so don't treat them as people. You will want them to be well-rounded of course, but you do not have to explain every aspect of their lives or recount, or even summarize, their whole previous experiences. Mention any part of their background that is necessary to move the story along and to provide a sense of where they fit in the story world and no more. You do not need to explain the circumstances of their birth, their heritage, their childhood, career training, etc. Present those setting details only as needed to set the stage or to fill in a detail needed for the reader to understand the characters thoughts or actions.

Above all, entertain and give an emotional experience for the reader to enjoy. The reality you create for the reader should feel real as the reader lets himself slip into the story world. Feed him small bits of setting detail that helps him feel the real experience of the characters. But don't load him down with so much detail that he's distracted from being entertained by the story itself.

For you to work on: Try to look at your words from a reader's point of view. Will they understand the reality you are presenting? Will they connect emotionally to what is happening? Will they be entertained?

Granny Kat

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