Writing Advice #14: Reality

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on MySpace devoted to writing advice for teens. Over time, it evolved into a general blog on writing advice for everyone. I blathered on and on, answered questions, etc. Since then, I’ve pointed people to that blog when they’ve sent me questions on writing, but I know that MySpace isn’t always the most, uh, reliable repository for such things. Plus, if you’re not on MySpace, you can read the blogs, but you can’t comment on them.

So once a week (probably on Wednesdays), I’ll be reprinting my writing advice blogs here on barrylyga.com. I’ll go through and edit them a little bit, too, and I might make some merges/changes, so they won’t be exactly like they were on MySpace, but they’ll hopefully still be helpful to people who are interested.

Here we go!


Hey, everyone! We’re going to talk about reality today, in two forms.

1. THE NOVEL IS NOT REALITY (or, EMBRACE CHANGE)

Writers sometimes get caught up in a web of their own storytelling. By this I mean that they forget a key rule of writing: The writer is in charge.

Many, many times I’ve pointed out a problem with someone’s work, only to have the following conversation ensue:

ME: This bit in chapter 12 doesn’t really work. Can’t Scampy the al-Qaeda Meerkat get his information from the library instead of from the internet?
WRITER: No, that won’t work. Because back in chapter 4, I established that Scampy had lost his library card.
ME: I see. And is it important that he lost his library card?
WRITER: It’s a really great scene.
ME: But is it important?
WRITER: But…

Look, what you have written is written on paper (or on-screen), not in stone. In the example above, we’re assuming that having Scampy go the library is infinitely more interesting and entertaining than having him go on the internet, OK? In that case — since the loss of the library card is not important, but merely “great” — it’s time to lose that earlier scene.

The most important rule is this: If it makes the story better to change something, figure out a way to change it!

You see this in science fiction and fantasy novels a lot. Writers will get to a tough point and have to play fast-and-loose in order to get out of that tight spot. They’ve created rules and systems for magic/technology and now those rules are hamstringing the story.

But the novel is not reality! Remember: You can change whatever you want! Many, many times, writers say to me, “I can’t change so-and-so.” “Why?” I ask. “Because that’s not the way it works!” they tell me.

You are the writer; you can change anything. Don’t let yourself get caught up in your own rules and restrictions — they don’t apply to the author! If you come up with an amazing idea — and if it works — don’t say to yourself, “Oh, but I can’t do that because the rituals/science/whatever won’t let them.” Change the ritual instead.

No one will ever know, “Oh, that was changed.” They’re not going to read your first draft — they’re going to read your lastdraft.

As we write, we get very caught up in the worlds we create. They become very real to us. We sometimes forget the most important thing, though: We created them. We can alter them. If you establish early on that Scampy’s special musical pistol can only fire underwater (because it makes for a dramatic scene early in the book), and then realize at the end that you need him to fire it while on the surface… Well, then you need to look at both scenes and balance their importance against the overall well-being of the novel. If that final scene absolutely cannot work any other way, then guess what? You need to change that earlier scene and scour the novel for references to it to keep everything consistent. Because otherwise you’re going to find yourself torturing both logic and credulity in order to twist your story into some bizarre permutation that will let you get away with firing that pistol above water this one time…and readers are going to roll their eyes at your pretzel writing.

Now, this doesn‘t mean that you can just ignore the reality you’ve created whenever it’s convenient. You can’t, for example, say on page 12 that Scampy’s gun only works underwater, then have him fire it on page 349 while hanging from the legs of a helicopter speeding over the Kansas plains. What it does mean is that you can reconfigure the reality — either find areasonable loophole that allows for unsubmerged firing or, like I said before, rewrite the portions of the book that made submerged firing the rule. You make this change throughout the book — you don’t just change it at the end. We call that “cheating” and no one likes it. You need to look at those earlier portions and make it work. Either that, or you lose your dramatic helicopter chase in Kansas and replace it with the invasion of Atlantis. You can have one or the other, but not both.

 

And yeah — the tough part is knowing which element in the balance is more important: Page 12 or page 349. I can’t help you there. You’ll have to figure that out on your own, taking into account what you’re trying to accomplish with each scene and with the overall story.

Yes, I know — it’s a hell of a lot of work. Guess what? Whoever said writing was easy?

2. REALITY IS NOT A DEFENSE

This is another one I hear a lot. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it because it’s pretty simple.

We usually write fiction based on something like our own reality. Whether it’s an episode of Law & Order that was inspired by yesterday’s New York Post or even, say, my own Boy Toy, our muses are often in the world around us.

But, inevitably, it happens: Someone reads the story and says, “Well, I like it, but the scene where Mom says that she’s been Scampy’s secret lover since December 2000 just doesn’t ring true to me.”

And the writer screeches, “That’s what really happened! I can’t change it!”

Listen carefully in your writers’ groups, people, because you’ll hear that a lot — “I can’t change it. That’s what really happened.”

To which I say: Tough shit.

You want to write about “what really happened?” Great. Become a newspaper reporter. Write autobiography or memoir or non-fiction. But I’m here to talk about fiction. And I don’t care what “really happened.” I care about a good story. A compelling story. And if something detracts from that story, then you know what I say? Say it with me, kids…

Reality is not a defense.

Reality does not absolve you from lame dialogue, stupid action, nonsensical characterization, or idiotic plot twists. People are plunking down their hard-earned dollars to be entertained by your story, not to wonder why it sucks.

Furthermore, even if reality were a defense (and it’s not!), it wouldn’t matter. What are you gonna do, put a footnote in the book: “* Dear Reader: I know this part sucks, but it really happened this way in real life!” Are you going to stand behind each reader as he or she reads the book and say, “That’s what really happened! Honest!”?

Um, no. You’re not.

What you’re going to do is this: Tell your story to the best of your ability. And realize that reality is fine as a starting point, but at some point you have to let go and go spinning off into the wild blue yonder of your imagination. That’s actually the best feeling. Sure, it’s comforting to hew closely to reality and keep yourself on solid ground, but it’s even better when you don’t feel the need to stick to the facts, when you let your mind wander and wonder… “What if…? What if things had happened differently?”

Example: I based much of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl on my own experiences growing up. But early in the book, I made a decision: Fanboy would have no siblings, nor would he have any step-siblings. This was in direct contrast to my own upbringing. Furthermore, I decided that Fanboy’s mother would be pregnant. My mother never had a child with my stepfather.

The result was two-fold. For one thing, it made me feel freer about having the characters do and say things that aren’t necessarily the nicest things in the world. They resembled people I knew, but they were different enough that I could put words in their mouths without feeling weird about it. Second of all, though, it opened up the story to a whole new universe of possibilities! I was able to explore Fanboy’s fears and feelings about his parents’ divorce and Mom’s remarriage through the device of his unborn half-sister. And for those of you who’ve read the book, you know that that same half-sister made possible a final scene that worked like a kick in the gut to the reader.

None of that would have been possible if I’d gone into the book thinking, “Well, I can’t do X, Y, or Z because that’s not how it really happened.”

So.

Like I said before: Reality is a nice start. But don’t feel the need to stay there. If reality were so great in the first place, we wouldn’t need to write fiction. 🙂

Leave a Comment

*