January 7, 2013

Excitement or Plausibility?

Back during the blog party in November, Joy asked me to write a post on the balance between fact and fiction in historical novels.  The result was fairly brief, a quick summary of my thoughts on the matter; this post, and probably a couple to come after, is something of an extension of those ideas.

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.


  1. Awesome post! I've never struggled with these before my latest novel, now I am so stuck I don't know where to go. The setting is fictional, and story is fictional, and yet it is in America - and I want them to sense that, know that, and I had to make up a fact about the government. (This is late 1800s) Seem totally wacked to you?
    Thanks for this - I want to read it over again better, when I can do more then skim.


  2. Well of all the well-written posts you've ever come up with, this one is tops in my book. You nailed the thing. And furthermore, you let Thorin off easy which I was concerned about when I read your little blurb on Facebook. If you'd dissed my Thorin.... ;)

  3. Lovely post! Such a fine fine line...one never quite knows when she's landed upon it, or if she is falling in thin air! For this reason I've stuck to fiction more recently, but even fiction has to have an element of truth. I suppose we'll all come to the conclusion at one point that writing will never be easy. ;)


  4. This very topic was on my mind last night, while watching (the rather implausible) Downton Abbey. I think what makes "epic battles" and "happy endings" work is that they do happen in real life, if infrequently. That's the kind of excitement a reader could accept, especially if the tone of the book lends itself to it (e.g. the Horatio Hornblower series).

    Now, as far as I know, Thorin Oakenshield's story has never existed in real life, but the tone and setting of The Hobbit is already fantasy. We can take the oaken shield symbolically, if nothing else, and it's plausible in that context.

  5. I think to a certain extent people do rather like fiction to be stranger than fact. Eh, who am I kidding... I shall now quit with pretending to Know the Mind of All Other Readers: *I* sometimes like fiction to be stranger than fact. There. Yes, I want reality in my books (both those I read and those I write) because I want to feel as if that happy ending COULD happen. Or could HAVE happened in the case of historical fiction. I think growing older has something to do with the dissatisfaction that inevitably comes when faced with the blah-de-blah "and they got married and lived happily ever after" but I don't think anyone outgrows the desire to see things end well. You put it perfectly when you said we want to see things through rose-hued glasses for a little while.

    Me, I was always (and still am...) the girl who pretended she WAS Anne Shirley and Christopher Robin and Mary Lennox. I wanted to see exciting things unfold before my eyes because I wanted to pretend I was living them. And of course even as a little kid there was still that element of sifting the plausible from the implausible--accepting as fact the idea that Eeyore's tail could just be nailed back on when it fell off, and scornfully rolling one's eyes at the idea of a kiss counteracting a poison apple (yeah, I was always a bit cynical when it came to Disney princesses... rather a pity).

    Anyways. Maybe that made sense. Maybe not.

  6. Randomly, this made me think of a fanfiction I read once where the author strung the readers along only for the character to kill himself in the end. I know I tend to go more for the excitement and a happy ending even if I have to suspend my disbelief some.

    (and technically as a total tolkien nerd, and I had to look this up on encyclopedia of Arda http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/o/oakenshield.html) Thorin did fight of foes with a oak branch, but it doesn't mention a large enraged orc. (But then again the scene was awesome!)

    I also think Azog was killed somewhere in time before " out of the frying pan and into fire scene" (but that's all moot because that was another cool scene and I liked Bilbo tackling the orc to save Thorin!)

    This was an awesome, thoughtful, insightful post.

  7. Becca - Hmm. I usually think it a better idea not to invent aspects of government or what-have-you in a real setting, though if you make it clear that it's make-believe, it would qualify as historical fantasy. That's a tricky problem!

    Rachel - Glad you enjoyed it! And no, I couldn't diss Thorin, but it was amusing...

    Marian - "I think what makes 'epic battles' and 'happy endings' work is that they do happen in real life, if infrequently. That's the kind of excitement a reader could accept, especially if the tone of the book lends itself to it..." Well said. I haven't anything more to add!

    Miss Dashwood - No, I thought it made sense. I don't think we should ever outgrow the desire to see things end well; maybe that is part of the Imago Dei, but certainly it is an outworking of hope in our minds. Realism and modern literature would like to remove that, an extremely dangerous thing to do. But on the other hand, as Marian said, happy endings also work because they're true: to look at life as perpetual doom and gloom where everyone dies and that's the end is not at all accurate. Happy endings can be as plausible as sad ones; sad ones can be as implausible as happy ones.

    Lilly - In general, I'd rather have a happy ending, too. There have been a few instances, though, where the story needed a sad ending...and the writer gave it a happy one at the last minute. It's really just as frustrating! But I do agree with you on that; it's disappointing to travel along with a character for 300 pages only to have them die in the end. "Whatjusthappened...?!"


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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