Saturday, April 21, 2007

Knockout Moments

Some dead French guy once said something along the lines of, "A writer tells lies to reveal the truth."

Or if he didn't, he should have. Cause that's what we do: we make stuff up, left, right and center. But the stuff we make up has to ring true to hold up our end of the story contract. For her part, the reader agrees to put aside some skepticism to play make-believe with us.

Until we drop the ball.

I'm not talking about the obvious suspects:

Info-dumps ("As you know, Bob, these caves are rumoured to have been...")

Eye-crossingly bad dialogue ("If you dare to move I will shoot you," he threatened menacingly.)

Hackneyed story tropes (A needlessly complicated serial killer makes fiendish puzzles out of his victims, and a moping vampire crimefighter needs to stop him before the innocent love interest is next. Yawn.)

Those are all style problems, and bad style can be unlearned. I'm thinking today of those times we tell the reader the wrong lies and knock them out of the story. CS Harris did a couple of great posts on man-stuff and women-stuff that strains story credibility.

Or on Killer Year, Sean Chercover put up this post on fictional firearms gaffs. My personal pet peeve is the hero giving us the make and model of the gun the bad guy's pointing at him. I've had guns pointed at me, and never once did I think, "Why, that's a Colt Python .357 Magnum," or "Hmm, now is that pistol a Berreta or a Sig Sauer? Sigs have that slim line, but I think it's the Berreta has that particular butterfly safety."

Or whatever. To be honest, I can't remember what the hell I ever thought in those moments. I'll buy James Bond or Jack Reacher being disinterested enough to think about these things. The rest of us? Not so much.

It goes back to the writer's sense of the world, and of people. When it differs too much from the reader's, the reader is knocked out of the story. Naked women admiring themselves in the mirror, men commenting on their own chiseled jaws and sensuous mouths, teenagers who talk like the Scooby Doo gang, all are at odds with life as I know it. And probably the reader, too.

It's not always the writer's fault, either. I rented the first season of The Wire recently. I was riveted. The Dynamo watched maybe five or ten minutes before pronouncing it unbelievable. "Those kids dealing drugs, why aren't they in school? And nobody curses that much, especially not cops."

Widely different experiences of the world. I lent the DVDs to another Kiwi who *loves* The Sopranos. He brought it back the next day. His comment?

"People in the US don't really curse that much, do they?"

Fuck no.


Charles Gramlich said...

The last part of your post really hits home on the topic of what is "realistic" to one person but not another. Readers (and watchers) bring their own sets of stereotypes to the work. Their judgements may be based on those instead of what is in fact realistic, like your friend with the cursing teenagers. However, at other times it is damn obvious what is realistic and not. I saw a movie not long ago about a boy who was addicted to internet porn and how none of his male friends on the swim team even considered wanting to look at such "filth." Yeah, righttttt.

Sean Chercover said...


Good point - the fine details of a gun are not usually "top-of-mind" when you're staring down the barrel ... although sometimes in times of extreme stress, your brain focuses on the strangest little details about something.

The Wire rocks. And yeah, we do curse a lot in this part of the world.

Congratulations on getting an agent!

cs harris said...

Oh, dear. Guilty as charged. My heroine has a gun shoved in her face and it's a Glock. At least she has the background to recognize one, although you're right, would she focus on that at such a moment? (Do blog about your personal experience some time!) I guess we do it because adding details is supposed to make a story more realistic, the same way we talk about a Suburban or Explorer rather than just calling the thing an SUV. Personally, I can't identify cars any better than I can identify guns (that's what I have Steve for). It never occurred to me that details could yank someone out of a story rather than adding a sense of realism.

Steve Malley said...

*lol* Charles. I want to say more, but I laugh every time I think about it!

Hello and welcome, Sean. And you're right. Their are still all sorts of scrambled but vivid details about that moment. But even after years of concealed carry myself, I couldn't say more for sure than the gun was a pistol.

CS, at least a Glock is super-distinctive. It's the gun that looks like a toaster. :-)

I put a lot of effort in Poison Door into not saying more about uns, cars etc. than the character whose head I was in would know. hopefully, I didn't make too many mistakes there...

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Sorry I'm so late jumping in here, Steve. I was interviewed by Kathe Koja once, and she used a phrase I said for the opening line, something I had said in passing. "It's real because I made it up." And my buddy Charles has it straight up, too. I'll try and get into this on time next entry...

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