For Real?

Someone I know lost a very close friend this past weekend. He was only 43 years old and left behind a wife (the love of his life) and two kids, one a 4-yr-old diagnosed a few weeks ago with a rare form of cancer. The child had come home last week from his first round of chemo and a follow-up stay at the hospital, and over the weekend, the father had a massive heart attack in his sleep. In the real world, this is tragic. Extraordinarily tragic.

In the world of fiction, would a reader believe this story?

Ever had someone read your work and say “I don’t believe it happened that way”? I have. And that means I didn’t do a solid job of constructing the fictional dream that draws the “buy in” from readers. I put on the hard hat and built the house with some old rotten planks I found lying around, ones that had seen better days, but it’s a house, right? For some people, the structure may hold, but many will find the whole thing too shaky to be willing to walk through the door.


I wouldn’t go in there

And it doesn’t matter that it really happened if you can’t make the reader believe it, right?

I just came back from a writing conference where John Gardner, the author of “The Art of Fiction,” got slammed once again. But it’s funny how everyone objects to the “voice” in that book—he’s soooo snotty!!—but few ever refute his points. On page 22, where he explains how to get buy-in, he categorizes three types of writing:

1) The realistic writer makes events convincing through verisimilitude, real world, real details, real responses. This is Alice Munro’s bailiwick.

2) The tale teller writing of ghosts, shape-shifters, or characters who may never sleep depends on confidence and authority, the “quality of voice” to charm the reader or distract the “critical intelligence,” what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” I’m thinking right now of a recent read called The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper. The narrator’s voice begins powerfully and stays strong throughout the story, and he’s also a master of the “telling detail.”

3) The yarn writer, the one whose lies are so outrageous and entertaining that the reader is pulled along by the brilliance of the falsehood. This one is easy. Think Mark Twain.

Gardner goes on to explain that all three types of writing depend on precise detail. Hmmmm, what details? Well, if your character walks into a bar, your reader knows what a bar looks like:


NOOOOO!!!!!! Not that kind of bar! This kind…


Get the point? Fill in the pieces that MUST be known and let the reader fill in the rest of the fictional dream.

If the reader is moved to ask the dreaded question: “Would ____ really have said/done that?” we know the reader has fallen out of the dream and on to the floor.



And readers don’t like such a rude awakening.

Pay attention to what is real, the emotional core of the moment. Write from that center of authority and—yes, I’ll use that overused word—authenticity. So that is craft, right?

Now comes the “other” part of writing.

One of Gardner’s points that often gets glossed over in this “detail” business is that fiction is not meant solely to entertain or distract us from our personal concerns, but “helps us know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”

To do so, we must move beyond craft. Gardner says:

“No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details he (she) should include.” Everything must be chosen “by feeling and intuition. And one of the things he (she) will discover, inevitably, is that the images of death and loss that come to him (her) are not necessarily those we might expect.”

He goes on to suggest that in order to tell the truth, one must empty one’s mind of those images that instantly come to the forefront. Or as Karen Joy Fowler suggests: “I find that if I go with my first ‘gut response,’ it is the easiest, most facile, most seen before image. I have to work harder to figure out what should really happen.”


Keep throwing the darts until you hit the bulls-eye

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes how her husband died, chatting with her and drinking a cocktail while she prepared dinner.

“I only remember looking up. His left hand was raised and he was slumped motionless. At first I thought he was making a failed joke, an attempt to make the difficulty of the day seem manageable.

I remember saying Don’t do that

When he did not respond my first thought was that he had started to eat and choked…In the kitchen by the telephone I had taped a card with the New York-Presbyterian ambulance numbers. I had not taped the numbers by the telephone because I anticipated a moment like this. I had taped the numbers by the telephone in case someone in the building needed an ambulance.

Someone else.”

The details she selects to describe the event and her specific response—she had difficulty eating for months afterward because the trauma occurred at mealtime—leave the reader with no room for disbelief.

But one more thing: She sets the scene with thoughts that everyone has:

“Confronted with sudden disaster, we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames…”

Again, we are right there with her. We know this happens.

But how do you find that magical intuition that knows what details are necessary for the story? Spin a sticky web, and go to sleep. See what you’ve caught in the morning?


If that doesn’t work, try practice. Just like meditation, you’ve got to show up and do the work of emptying your mind before you fill it up. Think “Zen mind, beginner’s mind.”

So when a young father with a child who’s just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer shows up in your fictional world, find the details that only you can provide, the ones that “make it real” for you.



Filed under Rants

4 responses to “For Real?

  1. Great post Jilanne! As a Fantasy writer I struggle with this topic all the time, I definitely fall into category 2 so it’s a constant effort to keep the reader in suspended disbelief. I usually think in terms of character, if the character is believable the reader will be willing to follow them anywhere. But even that is a matter of detail. Thanks so much, this post was really helpful and timely as I fill in the details in book 2! And I love your line about spinning a web, going to sleep and seeing what stuck overnight. It’s amazing how well that really works, although for me it sometimes takes a few days. : )

    • Thanks, Selah! If your web takes a few days, so be it. At least you’re open and “catching” those details. Hope your work on book 2 is going well. Maybe sometime down the road, you can give Dogpatch readers a “taste” of your new work. Good luck!

  2. Thanks for a post that made me think. I really appreciate the point illustrated about how unthinkable things happen in remarkable circumstances as well as the visual for ‘not that kind of a bar.’ It’s so easy to assume that the reader is seeing the same thing we are when spinning tales, and often it’s just cobwebs.

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