Monday, April 18, 2011

Reality vs. Drama redux

So when you're writing, what do you do when reality is less dramatic than you want?  What do you, as a writer and as a reader, think is too much modification for dramatic effect, and what's acceptable?  We talked about how Sorkin made a character named Zuckerberg who founded a company named Facebook, and that this invention gets resonance from the actual reality but is made into a more entertaining experience than the reality (Harvard is way more fun, Z is way more evil, than reality). But let's go into your own authorial inclinations. When you're faced with the question of more precisely replicating reality or modifying it to suit your dramatic needs, how do you decide?

For example, let's say the protagonist is prosecuting a capital murder case.  Cases like this might drag on for months, and the preparation might also take months.  However, "months" isn't dramatic. Also, the prosecutor might be working on several cases at once. All the tension could go out of the book if the protagonist has months to prepare, and has to keep switching to other cases.  Drama is in focus, after all.

So if you were writing this, would you stick with reality (months between arrest and trial) or go with greater drama (more unreality-- the judge says, "Trial in 2 weeks!")?  Is there some mechanism that will make whichever you choose work better (like something that causes the judge to limit the amount of prep time)?

What about when there's a contradiction with fact?  Like maybe this case is taking place in NY state, which limits the death penalty to a few types of cases (killing a cop, I think). What would you think of ignoring that to make this a death penalty case?  Is that too far?

What is the dividing line for you?  What have you been willing to modify about reality, and what would be too far?



Bren said...

I think it depends on the genre. In science fiction and fantasy, I can maintain suspension of disbelief as long as there is consistency throughout the book. In a real world genre, bending reality annoys me and I lose the ability to ‘buy into’ the plot. (Very left brain.)

As a writer, I stick to the reasonable accuracy in terms of setting (no palm trees in the arctic) and situation (no death penalty for shoplifting). I love research and find the challenge of creating plots enhanced by reality exhilarating. In the above death penalty example, I’d move the venue if it wasn’t important, or add the threat of death via attempts to kill the defendant during the trial.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Ben on this.
Fiction is fiction to a certain extent, but if the story takes place in the 'real world' I try to stick to facts.

Now, when it comes to paranormal romance or as Ben said, science fiction and fantasy, the world is our oyster :) Anything goes, as long as rules are consistent.

Lucy V Morgan said...

I think it's about finding the right angle. There's a difference between something being realistic and something being plausible; so long as something *could* happen (even if it hasn't previously) and you set it up right, you're good to go.

E.g. a character being especially unpleasant. They're an extreme; we don't meet them often. So we develop them enough to make them believable (Dexter is a good example) and they become fascinating in the process.

Ditto situations. So Harvard probably isn't fun. But if a "fun" person ended up there, the story behind that would definitely be something worth writing about.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to use a certain amount of dramatic license as long as you don't go overboard and it's all very subjective. Maybe someone else could stretch what I won't try even further and make it believable.

Using your example, I might condense the amount of trial time because stretching it out would be mundane and boring. It could be done by having the judge on the take, or being blackmailed by an interested party. But the death penalty angle would tip the dramatic licence, at least in my book, because it would have readers scratching their heads and going "Wait a minute, I thought...."

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Huh. Sounds like the exact literary device that Greg Mortenson is now being vilified for.

Yes, Memoir and fiction are different. Yes, it's easier to get away with in fiction. Yes, we're not talking about the possible financial mismanagement (which really ought to surprise no one who read the book. He pretty much comes out and says he sucks at finances).

Still, sometimes, these devices are needed in order to make a story that much better.

Which answers your question even without bringing the controversy into things.

Lance C. said...

As Bren et. al. said, it depends. If you're writing a police or courtroom procedural, you'd better get it right, because that's the whole point of the exercise. If you're writing a conspiracy thriller a la Dan Brown or Clive Cussler, you have a lot more license. Fantasy or SF: it's your world, you make the rules.

What really irritates me is when the author gets something wrong that isn't a plot driver, but just looks like cluelessness. KAOS is going to explode a pink NERF bomb at the Super Bowl to ensure the right point spread? Okay. But a 25YO Army colonel with long hair and ten years in combat? Come on, give me a break.

Edittorrent said...

Bren, I like this observation: "I love research and find the challenge of creating plots enhanced by reality exhilarating."

There is a challenge in that, isn't there? And I see your point about moving the venue. It's a big world out there, and if we really need palm trees, why set the story in Alaska?

Lance, LOL. I'm always amazed at the nubile 25-year-old astrophysicist single mom of a teenager on TV. It just seems like you have to make some concessions, right? A character can't be all things-- can't be in the Army and have shoulder-length hair.


Edittorrent said...

Lucy, yes-- "reality isn't the same thing as plausibility." If we're departing from reality, we should make it seem plausible.

I'm thinking that sometimes reality won't seem plausible. I remember Jo Beverley listing some professions in the 19th Century: Typewriter and computer. Well, of course, if you use those (printing and bookkeeping), they might be "real," but the reader would object!

Anon, that's true-- what will make the reader scratch her head? "Huh?" I wonder if we can feel a sort of departure, a stretch, when we go too far as we write. And of course, almost anything can be motivated, as you say, and that might take care of it!

Susan, LOL about poor Mortenson. I kind of shrugged about that-- I mean, is it really a surprise to hear that memoirists don't tell the exact truth all the time? Wow! Big news! The whole point about "creative non-fiction" is that it uses fictional techniques (such as selection and compression) to achieve greater drama. But 60 Minutes I guess is still flabbergasted by that.

Selection, compression. Not that extreme an action.

Murr Brewster said...

It needs to be believable. It doesn't need to be true. At least, for the sake of my historically inaccurate major geologic event, I hope so.