Thursday, January 09, 2014

Stories and Realism

Cory Doctorow’s column in this month’s LOCUS, titled “Cheap Writing Tricks,” begins with some observations about plot:

Cheap Writing Tricks

He contrasts the randomness of events in real life with the “tidiness and orderliness” of stories. A plot is what you get, as he puts it, when you “draw a line around a set of circumstances” and designate those events as part of a single story with a beginning, middle, end, and climax. Although the “line” that marks the boundaries of a story is “completely arbitrary,” yet “a story that lacks this arbitrariness feels arbitrary.” We don’t get pleasure from reading about a miscellaneous succession of things happening with no apparent point, even though “reality” seems to work that way.

Doctorow’s comments remind me of a well-known line from classical literary philosophy, Aristotle’s principle that a writer should choose a plausible impossibility over an implausible possibility. When I brought up this quote during an oral exam in graduate school, one of the professors asked something like, “What if Oedipus had dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of OEDIPUS REX?” Clearly, such an incident would make an unsatisfactory tragedy, even though random, sudden death happens all the time in our mundane existence. But we want a larger-than-life figure such as Oedipus to receive “poetic justice” for his misdeeds.

When a writer does something like that in an apparent attempt to make fiction or drama more “realistic,” we typically aren’t pleased; we feel cheated—at least, I do. In the HIGHLANDER series, for instance, Duncan and his sidekick, Richie, rescue Duncan’s beloved Tessa from kidnappers. In the final scene of the episode, while Richie and Tessa wait for Duncan on the street near the villains’ hideout, she gets killed by a mugger. Probably the script was trying to show that nobody is safe and disaster can strike out of nowhere at any second. What it actually did, from my perspective as a viewer, was pull a “twist” ending out of thin air, with no organic connection to the rest of the plot, robbing Tessa’s death of the dignity she “deserved” as a major character.

“Anybody can die” books and TV series produce an illusion of “reality” by refusing to grant any character immunity from the hazards of the fictional world. Usually, however, writers of those series kill off characters in ways that feel meaningful. Tara’s murder on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER came as a surprise, yet it did arise logically from the conflict between Warren (the killer) and Buffy’s Scooby Gang. When Ned Stark died in GAME OF THRONES, I was shocked at losing a central character so early in the series, but his fate made sense in plot terms; it grew out of the choices he’d made.

If I want “reality,” I’ll read nonfiction or watch a documentary. And even in those kinds of works, the creator imposes a shape on his or her material. Human minds have a deeply ingrained need to make sense of the world through narrative.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. One of my literature professors told me, "The major difference between reality and fiction is that fiction must make sense."

    Good words for an author to consider.

  2. Yep -- I was once told that "It actually happened that way" is no justification for including an incident in a book.

    When I met my husband, he lived on a street with the same name as my mother's maiden name. His brother and my half-brother have the same first name, which is also the name of one of my step-cousins. Who'd put coincidences like that in a novel?