Wednesday, December 19, 2012

10 Elements of Reality Not Allowed in Fiction

No one would put book shelves in a cemetery. Cut it.


Realism is allegedly the goal of fiction. It’s alleged exclusively by real people, which seems somewhere between a bias and bigotry to me.

Regardless, realism is cherished in fiction. We coddle F. Scott Fitzgerald for nailing a feeling, or a poet for putting a thought we’ve all had into verse. Meanwhile an implausible romance is shameful, someone walking in at a convenient time is contrived, and nearly every character is accused of being unrealistic. Realism is considered a requirement for good storytelling – except in a million different cases. Here are ten of them.

1. Characters have the same last name and no relation to each other. Happens millions of times every day in the real world; has happened, perhaps twice, in the history of fiction.

2. Coughing, sneezing and hiccupping for no reason. Someone in my family gets the hiccups at least once a week, and never because they’re nervous a dragon is nearby.

3. “Uhm, uh, you know, well, like, it’s just – you know what I mean.” These oral pauses allow real people to gather the best wording for their next point, although it’s a tiny minority of fictional characters who ever use them. I’m most acutely aware of this dissonance when I’m editing novels; I spend hours a day cutting every needless word, and become absolutely irate with everyone I meet who talks like an actual person.

4. Characters notice a conflict between each other, talk over their opinions honestly, figure out a simple compromise, and drop the issue. Half the editors I’ve met would chastise you for squandering conflict if you wrote sensible resolution.

5. A heart monitor flatlines because a node disconnected. This has not only happened to me, but is by far the most common cause of flatlining for every medical technician I’ve ever talked to. People whose business is to save lives make fun of your fiction about life and death scenarios.

6. The “good” political party wins and yet the “good” party members are never satisfied no matter what the new administration does. They become deeply jaded by what they identify as the failings of their leaders, seldom recognizing much of their disappointment stems from their own ignorance over what is plausible. Our real would actually be a great satire about idealism and phony pragmatism.

7. Cold wars. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. spent decades embroiled in one, and the closest they came to blows was psyching each other out over missile placement. You seldom see a Dark Lord who the rest of the world just refuses to trade with, and who fails so catastrophically to lead his giant tyranny that the capitalists have to sneak him loans.

8. The neighbors losing their shit the night after a Horror movie/novel when it turns out eighteen people have been stabbed to death and the mailman was actually a sadomasochistic zombie. I don’t know about you, but if somebody revs their motorcycle too loud my neighbors obsess about it for years. The closest fiction gets is in a sequel, years later (or one year later, on the anniversary), and then those nervous locals are just introduced for body count.

9. The superhero that just does the right thing because it’s right. A pragmatic idealist motivated by his or her own mind, not a personal tragedy or preposterously corrupted city. What’s funnier is our popular misconception that all superheroes are already like this. Actually, even Superman isn’t that anymore.

10. The serial killer who is impossible to catch because law enforcement is incredibly complicated bureaucratically and logistically, not because being crazy is a mental superpower.

That ought to be enough to get us started. Do any others come to mind?

60 comments:

  1. Someone who does X job primarily for the money (not following a dream), but is actually OK with the trade off. No angst, no regrets.

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    1. The best I can summon is that resigned, defeated character who can't do better. That's a good anti-trope, Tony.

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  2. Going to the bathroom. That said, an author friend of mine deliberately includes a quick trip to the loo around once a book, in protest of the fact that it's otherwise never included in fiction.

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    1. I was just listening to Jack McDevitt joke about how no starship has a washroom last night. Weirder, I was editing a character introduction last night along such lines, though he's not in a bathroom. He's just drunk and next to a police station.

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    2. Battlestar Galactica has a washroom. Some pretty crazy shit goes down in there. Also some very mundane shit.

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    3. Was it in the original series, or did it take a reboot to install a bathroom?

      I did like that Mass Effect 2 included one. You couldn't do anything in there, but it was there, just to thwart the complaint.

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    4. I haven't seen the original all the way through, it might only be in the reboot. If it didn't, the co-ed locker room (which I know it had) became a co-ed washroom. With an entire scene filmed while one character is taking a dump.

      The first time I bought a video game strategy guide was because I couldn't figure out how to properly infiltrate Shin-Ra's HQ in FF7. You have to go into the bathroom and climb on top of a toilet to reach the ventilation shafts.

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    5. There are definitely bathrooms aplenty in videogames. Max and I used to hold up in one in Left 4 Dead to survive the waves of undead.

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    6. Season 1 of Babylon 5 had a scene in a washroom - though I think that was the first and last last time it was seen.

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    7. Monster just commented the other night while watching The Bourne Supremacy, "Why does he never shower, sleep, or go to the bathroom?" Me, "because that's boring."

      I try to include mentions of those things (obviously not detailed descriptions) in my novels for the same reasons as above.

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    8. I am so sure that action movies have shower scenes that I feel a little dirty.

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    9. Always dug the toilet/sink slide-away combo in Firefly. I believe there's even a really strange scene in Serenity of Mal using it.

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  3. The weather!

    Stories hardly ever talk about the weather, unless it is a Dramatically Appropriate Weather Event. Like a thunderstorm during a dramatic scene, or a romance where the Destined Lovers get caught in the rain together, or there's a blizzard trapping the characters at home. Or it being beautiful weather for some special event.

    You don't see it being breezy and blowing a character's hair into their face, or there being an unexpected cold front in the middle of the day, leaving them underdressed for the weather, or stepping outside and realizing there was a brief downpour while you were shopping, or one of those days in the summer where it's just grossly hot and humid and you don't want to go outside, or it's below freezing in the winter and there's a windchill of 12F which is annoying but not really Dramatic if you live in that climate.

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    1. Those grossly humid days are something I'm still trying to capture in my fiction. Weather is an interesting one since commonly it's how people open their stories, so much so that there's a rule to not do that. I wonder if the rule hasn't caused people to now avoid writing about weather at all.

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    2. That's an interesting point! I hadn't even thought of the cliche-to-the-point-of-being-a-meme "it was a dark and stormy night" thing leading to over-compensating.

      I've been trying to keep in mind things like seasonal weather and mundanities like catching a headcold with the book I'm working on. Small touches that make the world more "real". (Colds are another thing you almost never see! Hayfever, slightly more so.) It's good practice (and camouflage) for working in setting-specific details as well, I'm finding.

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    3. And I swear I get so sick of rainy funerals. Sometimes funerals are sunny and bright. Or cold and cloudy. Rarely are they rainy.

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  4. Re: #8: I always notice how quickly the kids in slasher movies stop caring about their friends and occasionally siblings who got murdered like ten minutes go. Especially if the last scene is the final girl walking into the daylight, battered but alive, and she looks proud and happy...enjoy it while you can, I guess, Final Girl, because now you get to grieve for the rest of your life.

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    1. Or she'll be grieving until the beginning of the sequel, when she finds a head in her fridge and gets axed. That's a good point. Relieved hugging and kissing between two surviving characters is always at least a little weird when the rest of their families were mauled by a cult.

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    2. But some of us wouldn't mind our families being mauled by a cult...well, certain family members anyway. :)

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    3. Can you imagine how much therapy would be required after basically any action or horror movie ever?

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    4. I thought Scream handled this well with its sequel (I've only seen Scream 2 in addition to the first). You had all the original character dealing with the problems of the first film. When they realized there was another killer, everyone thought they were just reliving traumatic experiences.

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  5. I kind of think items 2, 3, 4, and to a lesser extent, 5 and 7 (which are really both head-fakes on different scales), don't appear often because they don't advance the plot. Actually, I got dinged by someone for putting a couple of head-fakes in White Pickups, although I left them in because they did at least nudge the characters forward. I guess the (non-)grieving survivors add drama to a movie ending or something, "the strong survive" or some such. People who watch slasher flicks aren't going to complain because the last girl isn't melting down over the situation.

    The others could (given a little thought) could add levity to a scene that needs some interest added. For example, combine the head-fake with a gratuitous body noise: the killer is lurking, the intended victims are walking right into her trap, the tension builds -- then she blows a gigantic wet fart and gives away her position.

    The other items on the list could be useful, or even pivotal. Item 1 (two unrelated people with the same last name) in particular could be a hook for a really funny scene or sub-plot. The last item could be a plotline all by itself.

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    1. Wouldn't you think that at least the mediocre novelists would try some of these, just for variety or by accident? Then again, maybe their work is mediocre because they adhere too tightly to publishing dogmas.

      I agree that #10 would make a heck of a piece of fiction. It probably exists and I haven't run into it yet. A shame, since half the law enforcement stories I run into in real life are exactly this.

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    2. Or maybe their editors axe those scenes (or reject the whole shebang). It's likely that they appear somewhere in the ocean of self-pub novels, though.

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    3. This is fun, but I don't agree with the notion that every sentence has to push plot forward or reveal character. They're good guidelines, but even Kurt Vonnegut, the champion of that school of thought, deviated from it constantly. There are so many other things that fiction can do. It really only suffices for the most stripped down boilerplate storytelling, which has its place, but doesn't deserve to be the standard.

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  6. Heck, two people with the same *first* name rarely occur in fiction. I know so many Erics that I refer to my husband by his last name when talking to mutual friends. (An episode of Doctor Who did have two Daves, dubbed Proper Dave and Other Dave.)

    The movie Zodiac pretty much is #10. That's probably why it's one of my favorite movies.

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    1. That's true about names. Particularly in prose, we're kind of terrified of audiences mixing characters up.

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    2. I recall getting dinged by someone reviewing a chapter of my novel for having two characters whose names began with the same letter. It might confuse the reader!!! (The three exclamation points were conveyed in the tone of the margin note.

      I have higher expectations of my readers than that. The names weren't even similar beyond the first letter.

      Yet, *scuffs toe sheepishly*, I changed the name of one of the characters. *sigh*

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    3. The ABC's of naming conventions are compelling, Kevin. I'm conflicted...

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    4. I have two people named Ben in one of my books. The others refer to them as Big Ben and Little Ben when there might be some confusion. There's also two Bobs, who are alike enough that the confusion is deliberate. They die together, too.

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    5. I will admit to commenting on crits about too many names with the same letter, but the last one I remember had four "J" names in a row. It was a lot for one chapter.

      But it's so true how many people have the same name. Monster has three Noah's, two Cameron's, two Seleste's, three Jessica's, in her classes. She's constantly saying, "I was with Cameron, not THAT Cameron,...."

      Heathers is one of my favorite movies. I need to show that to Monster.

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    6. I always think about the "two character's with the same first letter of their names" as a screenwriting thing - when you figure how many people that gets handed to, distilled through, removing unnecessary confusion at all possible corners is a pretty good idea.

      I'm always a little surprised when I don't see more people with the same last names that aren't related, though I don't encounter it in my day to day as often as I come into contact with folks with the same first name.

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    7. Before I was married I was Katherine Miller. When I went to pick up my college loan checks (eons ago before direct deposit), the lady that handled the LMNOs always commented that she had a niece with the same name, and we looked a little alike. I also lived a couple of apartments away from a Katy Miller. Even after I moved I kept getting some of her mail.

      Now, I'm a Nabity. All Nabitys are related.

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  7. I'm always surprised at how little eating/food prep is part of most stories (I noticed this, for whatever reason, with Batman Rises. Which you know I laughed at much of the plot of.) It's present in much adventure fantasy, but that's about the only genre where you'll see anyone caring about where their next meal is coming from, when in reality as life as humans and with this annoying metabolism we have, this is a simple survival mechanism.

    Much of early human experience on earth was the struggle to obtain enough calories, period. It's one of the reasons I like authors like Michelle Paver, who writes into her stories the kinds of details about food prep or trap setting or even basic weapon manufacture (sharpening of a spear, the working of a net) that help you believe this is one person relying on his/her knowledge, wisdom, and guts to get by. Instead of deus ex machina after deus ex machina.

    but I think I made three points there instead of the one I meant to, lol.

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    1. Have you ever read Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow? He has an amazing sequence on a banquet that trumps most lust scenes. Might be up your alley!

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    2. While it's certainly not along the lines of "how do I not starve" for the most part, Brian Jacques' Redwall series (regardless of being children's books) are famous among their readership for the inevitable Feast Scene. There is always a feast, with food and drink described in loving detail and preparation details discussed amongst the characters. Cooking and brewing come up frequently and gathering food for the meals/feast often lead to plot or at least character development in excellent ways.

      That's aside from your aforementioned adventure fantasy aspects, which also occur in several of these books. I wonder if that's related? Their being largely adventure/quest fantasy, and the author's attention to food details.

      Relatedly, Julie of the Wolves is another good YA book which by my recollection had a good detailing of surviving and food - but it's about wolf pack relations, so it would be exceedingly strange if it didn't.

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  8. Two passionate lovers having sex for the first time, and it's really effing awkward and it just goes horribly and they have to talk about it and stuff.

    The hotshot computer hacker can't get through the corporation's security system, not because their operator is a wicked Badass, but because the hacker has no idea what the fuck is even going on, why is it goddamn segfaulting, I hate computers, this doesn't even make any sense, what the shit does that error even MEAN?

    Someone who has never fought with two swords before picks up two swords to fight a large group of enemies, and cuts their own arms off.


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    1. Your second one totally cracked me up. I can't remember this ever happening in any prose or movie I've watched that included hackers.

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    2. Hah! XD

      Now I want to see a scene where the hacker is trying to surreptitiously nab some information from a high-level security database and accidentally types a command wrong, crashing the entire server. (Typos! The bane of any programmer's existence.)

      Note to self: do this.

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    3. The third one made me laugh. Although it's more likely the swords would be much heavier than the person anticipated, they would lose balance and impale themselves.

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    4. In an unpublished draft of one Fantasy story I did have a guy slit both his own wrists trying to dual wield. Need to bring that gag back in a later story.

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    5. I've had some hilarious conversations with software developers I work with about stuff like #2 -- one guy had a whole list of them. Hrm, I think I know what my Friday Flash will be drawn from two weeks from now :-)

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    6. Talk to any professional in field X about the actors portraying their field in a film or TV show. See how fast they get some rage going. Because writers write; they rarely live in the world of field X. (Computers, medicine, military, etc.) Plus, it's so much easier to say "guy knows computers. Therefore he can do ANYTHING with computers in 10 seconds flat." than "guy knows Windows. He can, eventually, with enough time and Google, solve some things in Windows with a hairline overlap into other IT fields."

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  9. 10 made me think of a true story that happened here in Germany a few years ago. There was a suspect known only by genetic fingerprint connected to over 30 cases, IIRC murders, scattered geographically, not otherwise connected.

    Turned out that that person worked in a factory for something (cotton swabs?) that was used to collect samples...

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    1. That's so incredibly depressing and funny. One of those things even a good author would have to jump through hoops to pull off in anything but a Comedy.

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  10. In my manuscript I got called out because the reader said one minute the guy was an ass and the next he was nice and she wanted me to write which it was... my point is people aren't just mean or nice, they're complicated, but in fiction, too much complicated is apparently too confusing.

    The other thing I got called out on is all the references to icky bodily functions (my heroine gets the stomach flu at an inopportune time.) They said they like the character less because she was so "gross." Wot, and she's never puked? Puhleese...

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    1. Characters who change from minute to minute, or everyday mood and attitude changes, can be really tricky. Even my instinct is to narrowly define the characters I encounter because their existence is limited and I want to understand them in the systems of a fiction. Being able to pull it off is usually the mark of a master craftsman.

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    2. Speaking of puke, I've noticed that 99% of the time if a woman throws up, it means she's pregnant because women apparently never get sick.

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  11. I always thought the earlier parts of the Lord of the Rings was very Cold War-like.

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    1. I can see that, but in my readers it's all really the lead-up to a Hot War, and certainly belongs it an inevitable Hot War. Even its Cuban Missile Crisis analog exists to explicitly nuke the evil Eye-landers, you know?

      Do you see the Ring Wraiths as being on espionage?

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    2. Yeah. But I don't know that the fact the Cold War turns into a Hot War makes it less of a "cold war." Unless you want to make the distinction that our particular Cold War was a unique, one of a kind style experience.

      But I think with the Wraiths, there is an espionage element, and Mordor was sending out spies all the time. The ring stuff isn't entirely unlike an arm's race, and we have a few other objects of power people are trying to find, control, remake. These guys have the weapon we want, we need to go into their world to take it. You could argue that sending the Fellowship was, in and of itself, an attempt to prevent an all-out war.

      Then you have all the little squabbles, the long war on the border, you have battles with more intricate, region specific politics [Isengard] that are being sort of influenced by a power outside of that area. And even though it's a little bit of third grade simplicity, an embargo and a siege aren't that different.

      There's an argument to made here, at least in a not-awful Freshman Thesis kind of way.

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  12. I'm on re-write twenty of my first go at a graphic novella and I'm going to really try to include as many of these points as the story allows. Thoroughly enjoyed this post.

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    1. Haha, that's great! Would you please link me here or on Twitter when it comes out? Love to know what survives to the last draft.

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  13. No-one ever has a truly boring day, or meets a truly boring character. And yes, I think either of these could be the catalyst for change so they COULD advance the plot.

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    1. I disagree. Catcher in the Rye is exactly what you just described. (I'm biased, as I think it's a horrible book)

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  14. Could be going way off topic, but its been bugging me...How come people in most zombie films act like they've never seen a zombie film? Does Romero not exist, or in those universes Hollywood has decided to keep it less bloody and scary? It seem awkward to exclude that people know these monsters, but that could be taking the fun out of the first emotions during the outbreak. Still it's weird.

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    1. It's ridiculous at this point, I agree. I liked that Zoey in Left 4 Dead survived because she'd seen Horror movies before. You might like Justin Cronin's The Passage or Mira Grant's Deadline - both have their survivors consciously studying media (one about vamps, one about zombies) to foster the right attitudes.

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    2. Sounds good! I'd be sure to check them, John thank you!

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    3. Karen Hayes-MitchellJanuary 18, 2013 at 4:06 AM

      I'm writing a vampire novel and they actually mention that some of the information in the movies and books are true, and how far off they are on other points. I tried to make it sound as if the people who write vampire books and movies did so with intimate knowledge of them. Like they are servants or something.

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  15. If the police come to interview a character with regards to even the most heinous crime, he/she must answer questions while continuing to do what they were doing without missing a beat, and act a little bit miffed that the fuzz is wasting your time.(This is generally more a TV or movie screenplay rule, I guess).

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