Should Writers be Liars?

There are two camps of people in fiction. Which one are you?

Yes, it’s an oxymoron to debate how real fiction should be, but since fiction does its best when it mirrors reality, I figured it was time to weigh-in on a topic that bothers me a lot.

Similar to the vein of the grammar police, there’s a group of fanatical readers who want their fiction to be as close to 100% accurate to reality as possible. We’ve got medical, legal, firearms (these folks — don’t ever call a magazine a clip), police procedures, animal behavior, psychology, physics, chemistry, biology, and anything to do with space. I’m sure I missed a dozen others, but you get the idea.

Where do we draw the line?

Where does this obsessions with getting reality correct get in the way of writing FICTION. Because, remember, fiction is one, big, voluntary lie to the reader. The fiction author lies for a living. We package the best lie our minds can build, we put a cover on it, and readers knowingly volunteer and pay money to be lied to.

Yet, there’s this large group of folks who insist on facts within fiction.

To be clear, I’m playing the Devil’s Advocate here. For a writer to do her job well, she’s got to put the reader into the story — to make the writing invisible. If she adds details that make the reader go hmmmm? and pause, we’ve interrupted that intimate experience.

Where do I stand?

I believe in loose research. I got this idea from Lee Child, who says we should do our research, but not directly related to the project we’re working on. He thinks book research done during the writing process is too fresh and will be forced into the work, because the author doesn’t want the research to go to waste.

I agree 100%.

I cannot count how many books I’ve read where the author has fire-hosed a laundry list of facts and accurate descriptions, because she just returned from a month-long fact finding mission on-location.

I believe you should SOUND like you know what you’re talking about, but you don’t have to KNOW what you’re talking about.

Save for the professionals who become fiction writers in their chosen genres, most of us make this stuff up as we go. We’re dreamers. This is our gift. We see a story in our heads. We made the whole thing up. And we bang away at the keyboard until the story makes sense.

I believe dialogue must be as real as possible.

This is HARD to do. Many authors struggle with this, including me. Real dialogue includes a lot of behavior and less explanation than many authors give credit. There’s a tendency to put a lot of explanation in dialogue to make it sound credible. But this comes across as amateurish. Here’s a story I wrote about improving your dialogue:

I believe most fictional procedures and professions should NOT match reality.

Most police work is mundane. The legal process is long and tedious, little of which takes place in the courtroom, and most of it is spent talking to clients, reading, and paperwork. Medicine is not sexy — we use saws and hammers. Surgeons play Van Halen and tell dirty jokes in the OR while we’re out-cold.

The reader wants an escape from the mundane.

We want to go on a journey. Sure, we want to learn, but we don’t read fiction to learn more about the legal system, or brain surgery. We read fiction to learn more about OURSELVES. We put ourselves in the characters’ shoes. If the writing is done well we take the journey with them. The type of grip on the pistol, or the lack of gloves on the detective rarely means a tin-shit.

Some will argue this is sloppy craftsmanship.

They aren’t wrong — but are they right? While one person has his t-shirt in a knot, because I used the wrong color paint on a squad car, 5,000 other people saw the story as an enjoyable journey.

Where do you stand?

As a writer, part of your writing style will be dictate by the level of realism you wish to deliver in your work. This may change over your career, but I believe this is a conscious decision you should make as early as possible.

Readers will expect a certain type of writing. Readers who expect a high level of accuracy will flock towards ultra-real writers who use thousands of hours of research in their work. Those who like their journey more loosey-goosey, will gravitate to writers with more flexible pens.

It’s not a good idea to flounder back and forth between styles.

Our readers have expectations of our work. If we don’t meet those expectations we lose the reader. This doesn’t mean you can’t take chances, but you should plant a flag. Develop a set of writing principles for yourself to ensure the best reader experience possible.

The accuracy should match the genre

Your level of accuracy should meet the requirements of the genre. If you write police procedurals, you should have both police and said police officers should follow procedures. If you write sci-fi, it makes good sense that humans shouldn’t be able to breathe in space without some kind of a suit.

I believe your adherence to accuracy should stop there.

I write crime thrillers, and a variety of short stories. My accuracy is very loose. I believe the story should come first. If your interpretation propels the story forward, and the reader doesn’t have to stretch too far to believe what you wrote, then go for it.

This is fiction… FICTION! We made this stuff up to entertain.

If I want my police officer to wear flip-flops, then she’ll wear flip-flops. Maybe my surgeon is lazy and doesn’t use sterile instruments. Maybe my lawyer doesn’t have a law degree, or my carpenter can’t swing a hammer.

Life is too short to be so critical of fiction’s accuracy. There are people who will literally increase their blood pressure and shorten their own lifespan, all in defense of whether a certain type of bullet would do the job, or a specific question would never be asked during an investigation.

Maybe I’m naive.

But when I pick up a novel the last think I worry about is whether the color of the protagonist’s hat would go well with his shoes.

To combat the fact-finders I like to write as vague as possible. I rarely mention models of things. I’ll write pistol, or shotgun and leave the details to the reader.

Put your reader to work.

We don’t have to spell out every detail. Excessive exposition can be a real drag. Readers are sophisticated now. They’ve seen it all. You don’t have to tell them the color of your hero’s hair, or the type of carpet on the floor — unless that detail propels the story forward.

In the end it’s about the reader

We can write for fun all we want, but if we write commercial fiction, it’s all about the reader. If the reader is immersed in the work and gains an emotional response from the story, we did our job correctly.

If our facts are so far-off the reader is pulled from the work, we failed.

An important part of the editing process is to re-read your work as a reader. Try to absorb your story with fresh eyes. Put yourself in the story.

  • Do the details make enough sense to where you can suspend reality?
  • Did the writer (you) give enough information to paint the picture in your mind?
  • Does the story teach a lesson, help the reader escape, or create an emotional response to the work?
  • Does the story follow the Hero’s Journey?

As a writer you carry enough responsibility to create stories that work. Let’s not jump on each other for being loose with the facts of fiction. You must stay within the constraints of genre. You can’t write like an idiot. But, let’s remember, we writers lie for a living. Let’s keep it that way.

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