Thursday, September 19, 2013

Realistic content by Terry Burns

I just read an article about a bunch of PETA activists who showed up at a motorcycle event throwing water balloons filled with red water to protest them wearing leather. Bikers are sensitive people and protective of their leather which they consider the only attire that can truly handle the wind and cold when riding. The title of the article was "When you mess with the bull - you get the horns." I don't know what they expected to happen but police found them wrapped in duct tape and thrown in dumpsters, and one hapless soul was duct taped to a tree and used for a urinal. I'm thinking that they just did not think this through before protesting this group and should have stuck to little old ladies wearing animal fur.

Why am I talking about this? Because it reminded me how often I see things in real life that simply would not be believable if written into a book. It happens all the time.

Getting the realism right without becoming unbelievable to readers can be a problem. Back in my early writing days I had a New York editor reject me because the western-themed book I was pitching that had some rodeo scenes in it was "just not how cowboys would talk in a rodeo." When I asked if she had ever been to a rodeo she said no. I've ridden in them, and even put one on for five years as the event manager. Which one of us would you guess would know more about appropriate dialogue?

I was, of course, but actually she was right. As I learned more about the craft I learned that we should never try to 'reproduce' dialogue but should hint at it. Large stretches of dialogue in a heavy brogue gets very tiresome to read very quickly. I would have gotten that explanation, but telling me I didn't know how they talk was not the right way to put it. But again, too much realism can put editors off and cause a project to be rejected.

I would love to see some feedback on this. What have you seen in real life that people simply would not believe if we made it up and wrote it into our books?


ChuckTyrell said...

Hi, Terry. So very true. I don't even like to leave the "g" of my gerunds when speaking Western. But I will mix up the grammar a bit, use ain't and cain't once in a while (well, maybe a little more, depending on the education of the speaker). Certain slang words from the appropriate time can help a lot, too. Thanks for bringing up the point that truth is stranger than fiction, 'cause it darn tootin is.

Timothy Fish said...

It sort of goes both ways. I'm amazed at some of the things that seem believable in fiction that simply wouldn't happen in real life. Think of all those villians who have gotten past a retina scanner by killing the guard and holding his eye up to the scanner. Vaults are better protected than that in real life. Or what about someone being able to decrypt a file by guessing the password. It doesn't work that way. Television loves to enhance photographs, reading a license plate off of the reflection in someone's glasses. Impossible. But people put these things into stories because it is more interesting than the truth.

Steven Hutson said...

I read too many books that describe religious conversions that are very shallow. These, I believe, could use a bit more detail.

Linda Glaz said...

One thing in dialogue that makes me crazy is for a character to speak with ain't, etc., then suddenly speak like a college professor. There has to be a happy medium. If you're going to 'sprinkle' dialect throughout, be consisted with 'intellectual' level of your character. If he say goin' and ropin' all the way to the end, and then suddenly says, I shall be going to the ranch and roping our dinner, dahling. Something just smells wrong.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I think you hit on a very difficult subject. Conversions ARE hard to write about. My current work is going to have something like a conversion, and I am wrestling with the best way to convey it.

I think the credibility gap comes when the emphasis is on the point of conversion and not the process afterward. Going from sinner to super saint, while certainly possible with God, is hard to believe and too convenient of a device at times.

Diana said...

Truth is stranger than fiction. Dialog is the trickiest.

Timothy, I think of that every time I watch CSI. They say a lot of what they claim to use in their forensics lab has not been invented yet.
I also read though where fiction has spawned inventions.
Great post Terry.

David Stearman said...

I remember writing a scene where a surfer rode the front edge of a tsunami until he was pulled under by the expanding wave. My then-agent-who will-remain-nameless (since he's one of the most famous in the trade), said the scene was unbelievable. And he had a point. It was unbelievable. Even though it had actually happened and I could prove it. "Truth is stranger than fiction" is a valid proverb.

Timothy Fish said...

I’ve seen several conversion scenes that came across as contrived, but I’m not sure I see a reason why we should think they are difficult. The thing that kills a conversion scene is when it is rushed. A character says, “I want to tell you about Jesus,” and explains the gospel. “I see what you’re saying,” his friend says. “You want to ask Jesus into your heart?” “Yes.” Rushed.
While that may be what we imagine sharing the gospel is like, it rarely goes like that. Conversions are often years in the making. In the rare case where we’re able to share the gospel and see immediate results, there may have been a lot of stuff that happened to prepare the person’s heart before we became involved. If the story is about the person who is converted and we don’t show some of that stuff, we are not showing the conversion accurately.

Karla Akins said...

Oh my goodness, those PETA folks had no idea what they were getting into, did they? Sorry if I chuckle at their expense. I love animals dearly, don't get me wrong, but sometimes the protesters for them are so misguided. I don't know, Terry, I think that'd be hilarious in a novel. (There I go laughing again!) Urinal aside, I'd sure like to know what the PETA folks were thinking when they ended up in the dumpster. So much worse could have happened to them. Thank God they are okay. As far as writing realism goes, walking that tight rope isn't easy, but I'm learning!

David B. Smith said...

The reality is that unreal things do happen! I’ve got a scene in Love in a Distant Land where a Bangkok teenager with some emotional issues gets a weird fixation in his mind. Out of nowhere, he takes offense at an innocuous remark, and brutally attacks Rachel Marie, the protagonist, with the jagged business end of a beer bottle. Realistic? Back in ’73, I was a student teacher in Bangkok. A bunch of us were on a field trip; during a fun little worship, I was playing the guitar for everyone. An hour later we were heading for lunch when a deranged young man suddenly charged out from behind a tree and absolutely creamed me with a sock on the jaw. I was bruised and literally bleeding while other staffers grabbed the kid and pinned him down. Why was he foaming at the mouth? Somehow he’d gotten it into his head that I should have played some other song, some personal favorite that the angels hadn’t warned me I should play. I still remember picking up the guitar, blood dripping from my chin, and placating him with a trembling version of the song he wanted. It was a weird, one-in-a-thousand aberration . . . but if that boy had a knife in his hand that morning, I’d be dead now.

As far as the writer of fiction is concerned, plot lines or story endings can be unusual or even fluky, but they do have to be plausible. It can’t appear that the author simply gave up and dodged the hard work of finding a satisfying conclusion because he was lazy or wanted to titillate his readers with a “pull your chain” freakish twist.