When Fiction Should Not Reflect Reality


When Fiction Should Not Reflect Reality

With really good novels, you know when the story feels like reality and perhaps even how much you identify with it. Just as great novels should.

However, this can lead to the erroneous assumption that your writing should be as real as possible. I’ve already addressed the differences between fiction and life, but I want to focus this post on how this distinction shows up in your choice of scenes for your narrative.

Two characters/people meeting

Here is the introduction of the two main characters:

I opened the door. Elisa was already there.

“Hi, Elisa,” I said.

“Hi,” she said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine.” I sat down at one of the tables.

Okay, I’m bored already. In fiction, the ‘hi’ stuff is almost never needed. Yes, in reality, this is how two people start an interaction. But unless the dialog moves the plot forward, the fictional convention is to leave out these types of exchanges.

Getting characters out of the room

When I first started writing, I couldn’t figure out how to get my characters out of one scene and into the next. So I looked at every novel I had to figure out how to do it. The trick: Just end the scene.

I didn’t know what to say. So I said nothing. (end of one scene)

The next morning, I walked to the store. (beginning of new scene)

No need for extended good-byes or showing the character moving from one location to another (unless of course it is integral to your plot). Easy peasy but different from real life.

Having a sidekick

There are of course tortured novels where the protagonist spends all his time second guessing himself and inquiring into the whichness of what. If you are writing this type of story, by all means carry on.

But for other types of novels, the protagonist often needs to be able to reveal to the reader, a clue, an insight, even a fact she has learned. This can all happen in her head and the reader would have access to her internal dialogue in third person limited narratives, but it tends to be boring over the longer term. Feels very me, me.

However, if the protagonist tells another character what the reader needs to know, it’ll be much more interesting. For one thing, and immediately, you can present a different interpretation of the clue/insight/fact from the protagonist’s. It is also an opportunity to develop a character which can be a foil for the protagonist and interesting in its own right.  

Repetitive actions

In Grantchester, a British TV drama set in the 1950s, an Anglican vicar falls in love with a divorcee and struggles whether to stay in the Church or leave it to marry her. What follows is a series of on-again, off-again affairs.

I have no doubt that this back and forthing is exactly what would happen in real life. But in fiction, more than a couple of iterations lead the reader/viewer to wish they would ___ or get off the pot. Another example where what would actually happen will bore your reader.

So, there are times when, to make your fiction or memoir feel real, you need to make it unreal. And they wonder why writers go slightly crazy.