Friday, August 17, 2018

Reality Versus the Real


It never fails. Countless times I have edited someone’s story and commented that they need to convince the reader about the story’s believability. And the response is almost always, “But this really happened! Everything in that story is true!” And so begins the unwinnable battle.

I am fortunate to have many storytellers in my circles of friends. Plenty of them can tell the same story about something we did thirty-odd years ago, and they never fail to amuse. Sometimes they are requested to tell the “Super Salad” story for the bazillionth time, and it's still funny.

However, I also have friends who try to tell a story but fail horribly. They could tell the "Super Salad" story and actually disappoint their audience. Same story, same set of facts, but one friend gets laughs while another just makes us change the subject. It has nothing to do with the story, the salad, the reality behind it, or anything else. It’s just how it’s told, and no amount of “But it really happened!” will save it.

This is where the writer has the responsibility to convince their readers that the story is believable – regardless of whether it’s fact or fiction – and fact can actually be more difficult. When we write our factual story, we already know all the details. In our mind, the reality is very clear; so clear that we take many things for granted. And when we take such things for granted, it is easy to forget to write down these little details. And that’s where we lose the reader, despite the story being very real.

First off, when we write any story, we have to keep it in a consistent voice so the reader can stay in the moment. If I write about that time playing baseball when I was eleven and hit a triple off the Riegel Farm fence, I need to decide about my voice and go with it. If my voice is someone remembering what I did almost forty years ago, I need to write it as a memory, complete with reflecting on why this was so important at that time and why that event still sticks. But if I write it in the voice of me as a scrawny, eleven-year-old bundle of scrap wood, then that voice better sound like a child in 1979, thrilled to knock one to the fence.

Next, we have to offer the reason this story is so important. If the reader does not understand why this moment carries so much emotional gravity, they won’t invest themselves in the story and they won’t feel like a part of it. In the baseball example above, there isn’t much drama about someone getting a hit in baseball – that’s literally what every batter is supposed to do. However, if I let the reader know that this was my first summer of baseball after breaking my collarbone and I was terrified to even face a pitch or swing a bat, now there is reason to read. There is investment. Even for non-baseball fans, they can see the story as overcoming one’s fear.

Now let’s say something unbelievable happens. Let’s say that the reason that hit was a triple was because I hit the ball through the only hole in the fence big enough for a baseball. Hundreds of feet of fence with only one fist-sized hole, and my first hit of the summer went right through it. Coincidence? Definitely. But if I want to keep the reader, I need to say just how amazing this event was. I remember it as reality, but I need to overcome the reader’s disbelief through emphasis on all the details underlying this.

This step is critical. In the amazing situation scenario, I need to emphasize how unbelievable it was. I need to describe how the pitcher screamed for a do-over even as I rounded the bases, and how my team wanted to call it a home run. At this point, the disbelief of such an event has to be communicated to the reader or they will dismiss it as a useless fiction. As amazing as it is, that energy needs to come across that much more in the written word.

(Full disclosure: I didn’t hit it through the fence. I should be so lucky.)

Lastly, the conclusion of the story – the meaning of it all – should be something that the reader can relate to. Not necessarily agree with, but at least acknowledge. A story without meaning will not stick in the reader’s memory, and they won’t have much reason to discuss it afterward. Our example story could have a lot of concluding points – overcoming my fear could be one, or it could be that the amazing triple I hit was the last hit I ever got in baseball. It could be how I long for the more innocent days when something as simple as a triple could be bragging rights for a week. Maybe I wonder what ever happened to all those kids on the Riegel Farm baseball field that day, and if any of them remember my special moment. But as long as there is something, that is the bow on the package that people will remember.

Most of the time, when a real-life story does not get good reviews or it gets the “not very believable” comment, the issue is not the story, but how it is told. And these steps work for any story – fact or fiction. If these steps are included in a fictitious story, the reader will be just as drawn in, just as immersed, and that much more likely to engage with the story. And of course, the best comment that can result from this is someone reading your fictitious story and saying, “Wow! That really happened?” That’s when you know you got them. When the reader has disposed of true or false and immersed themselves into your story, you don’t need to say, “This really happened.” In their mind, it’s happening as they read it.

And yes, that triple at Riegel Farm really happened.

6 comments:

  1. But...but how did you break your collarbone? Was it baseball related? Did it keep you from key practices? Any additional pressure? (Like Dad played for a team that won the World Series). :) Great points, James, really liking your blog.

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    1. Those are all great points, and any one would contribute to the meaning and gravity of the story. That's the crucial part where a writer uses a little background to generate some drama and some personal tension. When used right, the reader not only follows the story, but the reader then wants to see that hit; they want to see that big win.

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  2. Verbally I am a horrible story-teller, but as a writer I improve because there is an ability to take the time needed to find the most effective words. Writing draft after draft also helps. You should share this post at a September Writers, We meeting. (I suggest printing it out for the crew because it is a keeper.)

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    1. Thank you. Now I have no choice but to print out a few copies and present it at the September 5th meeting.

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