January 7, 2013
Excitement or Plausibility?
At the same time, though I identify to this most as a writer of historical fiction, the topic applies just as much to other genres. Whether writing fantasy or mystery, historical fiction or romance, there's a constant tension between what readers will find exciting, and what readers will find plausible. On the one extreme you have old DC comics - Superman beats up all the bad guys again! - and on the other you have "realism" - everyone dies, loses their minds, is crossed in love, or in some fashion meets a depressing end.
Most of us like to write stories that land in the middle, because while people are drawn to the hopefulness of a happy ending, they are also quite capable of picking out absurdities. The quote about truth being stranger than fiction is quite accurate; truth is certain, no matter how crazy it appears, but fiction is subjected to the grueling test of the reader's credulity and can get a failing grade. To a certain degree, it doesn't matter whether or not a far-fetched detail in a novel is true, if the reader cannot be convinced that it is so. This is something that has stood out to me while reading Operation Mincemeat, an account of an Allied effort to convince Germany that British and American troops were invading Europe, not through Sicily, but through Greece. The deception hinged on truth, half-truth, and lies, but it also hinged on perception and bias; and as the enemy had to be manipulated, so, in a sense, must a writer manipulate his reader. (It is not at all surprising that many top-ranking intelligence officers were also novelists - Ian Fleming, anyone?)
In this little work of espionage, the key is maintaining a balance between the plausible and the exciting. If we tell the reader exactly what he wants to hear up front - that Superman defeated the bad guys by bashing their heads together and escaped without a scratch - well, that is all good and exciting, but is it credible? No. Is it credible that Odin should conveniently discover a way to send Thor to earth just when S.H.I.E.L.D. needed him most? No. Is it credible that Thorin should be able to defend himself from a large enraged orc while wielding only an oak branch? Uh, well, yes, because he's awesome. That's pretty self-evident.
These are all exciting scenes, but if we were making them into plausible stories, Superman would be captured, Thor wouldn't be in "The Avengers," and Thorin wouldn't be Oakenshield, he would be dead. The question then becomes, would it be better to tilt the scale toward the other end, make the story realistic, and wipe out all this melodrama? Would this be the right formula for convincing our readers of the "truth" (and in a way, as readers we should be brought to accept the reality of both characters and plot) of the tale?
We might convince a few people of the "realism" of the story (whatever that is supposed to mean), but I can bet you nine out of ten will still be severely ticked off. These all have a common denominator: they're adventures and fantasies, and there are certain expectations attached to them. The excitement-plausibility scale will tend toward the former, because they are by nature fast-paced and high-stakes stories. Disbelief is more willingly suspended.
Matters are rather different with historical fiction, where fact and imagination mingle and readers can see the lines. When the setting is real and limitations are clearer, I know I start to look more closely for elements that stretch credulity too far or snap it altogether. We can say glibly that fact is stranger than fiction - but when something strange in fiction tries to pass itself off as fact, we still eye it with inveterate suspicion.
Still, even in historical fiction where we expect to see more strictures, I think it is accurate to say that the majority of readers will always tend more toward excitement - because the majority of readers approach books with something of an escapist mentality. We want to see things through rose-hued glasses for a little while; we want epic battles and happy endings, we want Superman and Thor. We do not want the boredom of reality. In my case, this realization gave me the necessity of relieving the monotony of blockade duty in the Sea Fever books; it was, frankly, a humdrum sort of thing, and nobody wants to spend pages reading about it. But back on the other hand, there are a half-dozen sticky points where a story's critical points must be made credible enough to convince a reader.
The success of espionage is frequently a matter of sticking oneself in the enemy's proverbial boots, seeing things the way the enemy sees, then crafting the deception to pander to it. That is what writers do: stick themselves in reader's boots. Perhaps it sounds underhanded; perhaps it is underhanded. But I think it is also the reason why writers must also be readers, so that we get a feel for such tensions as these.