Differences between reality and fiction

by Intermittent Rain ~ February 14th, 2019. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


Writing a story is not the same as experiencing reality.

For one thing, fiction is more interesting than 99% of most people’s reality.

Even creative non-fiction and memoir take reality and reshape it for presentation so it’s not boring, doesn’t include irrelevant moments, and has a coherent story or point.

There are some basic differences between good writing and reality, and reasons why those differences exist.

 

Dialogue

Fiction or even creative non-fiction rarely use actual dialogue. Too many ‘um’s and shortcuts and unclear wording.

A fictionalized version carries dialect and character traits and is clear when the character is intending to be clear and obtuse when the author needs the character to be obtuse.

Setting descriptions

When you walk into a coffee shop you carry a plethora of background or assumptions. What country are you in? City? Time of day? Previous times in this location? Previous experiences in this chain? How do you know what you want? Where is the menu? You expect the smell of coffee, display cabinet of snacks, sounds of canned music, or do you? Are they there, or are they missing?

The writer needs to give the reader some of the details that the writer may not think about when they walk into a coffee shop. The reader is not actually there and needs extra description to compensate.

Use of the seven senses

I’m not very Zen. I pay little attention to the feel of my clothes, the sound of my shoes on gravel, the flavor or temperature of my coffee, the smell of my toothpaste, the spin around our spiral staircase, the change in air pressure from 100 meters above sea level at my home to almost zero where my office is, the taste of my food. As long as these experiences are close to my expectations or previous experiences, I barely notice.

If you walk in the snow you sense the softness under your foot, hear the crunch, feel the cold, but if you were in this situation yesterday, why pay attention? The reader does not come into a situation with your expectations and background and previous experience. They need the information that you take for granted to help them understand, to help them to be there with you.

Time

Time is pretty constant unless you are an astronaut traveling at significantly different velocities than the rest of the planet.

In stories, time is presented at different speeds: important moments have lots of words, some internal narratives exist almost outside of time, and large chunks of irrelevant time brushing teeth, opening doors, driving, are skipped entirely. Most writers don’t have too much difficulty with this, though the balance between words allocated to crucial and less important moments is something that we all struggle with.

Detail

Two lines from a draft of a memoir read, “We stopped at Normandy, where my father had fought in the war. It was an emotional experience,” and then goes on to talk about the next stop. This is either an example including material simply because it happened even though it plays no part in the point of the story, or, more likely, an example of the writer failing to understand the difference between what they experience as they read the words to what the reader gets from those words.

As a reader, what do you sense is missing? Description of Normandy, past and present? Backstory about the father? Actual things the author saw, heard, thought? Explanation and description of the emotions so the reader can understand and experience them?

Now, try to get into the author’s head and understand why this writer wrote what they wrote. For them, all the missing context and backstory and memory of sights and emotions are conveyed by the words as given. ‘Normandy’ brings up sights and experiences. ‘Father’ and ‘fought in the war’ have many meanings and stories. ‘Emotional experience’ sums all the feelings their depth and flavors the sentence with it.

It’s all there. For the author.

But for no one else.

 

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