Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reality Vs. The Illusion of Reality

Hey readers and writers, I know it’s been (quite!) a while since my last post. A combination of the day job flying me all over the country and me writing head-down to make some deadlines got me off track. But I’ve dropped a couple of other projects and hope to focus more exclusively on my own blog. So with that mea culpa out of the way, let’s talk about what makes books appear real to readers and how authors can try to achieve this reality in a way that may seem upside down at first.

Last week I was talking with an author who is writing her first mystery. She’s a good writer, but she was confused by a reader’s comment. The reader told her that having her heroine walk into a dangerous situation (abandoned building, spooky house, etc.) was unbelievable.


“I don’t get it,” the author said. “Isn’t that what always happens in scary movies or mystery novels? The protagonist always goes into the spooky house, even if it’s a bad idea. Why doesn’t my chapter work?”

Here’s where we run into an interesting dilemma I call the illusion of reality. As writers, we sometimes have a reader say, “I don’t believe that last scene. It just wasn’t realistic.” Often we become defensive and respond with, “Not only is it realistic, it actually happened to me/my mom/my best friend/the squirrel that keeps stealing my dogs food.” The problem is that what we are hearing and what the reader is really saying are two different things.

Let me try and illustrate this with an example from a different media. Dave Cebrowski, a friend of mine who actually makes a cameo appearance in a couple of my Shandra books, has a recording studio in the basement of his house. One day as we were carpooling to work, he was telling me about creating sound effects for a new video game. Part of the job included recording the sound of a gun being shot.

This would seem like a pretty basic job. get one of those cool water tanks you see in all the CSI TV shows, fire a gun into it, and collect the round for ballistics. Sorry, that was my inner David Caruso coming out. (Not a pretty sight!) What I meant to say was record the sound. Unfortunately that doesn’t work. because when most people hear the recorded sound of gun shot, it doesn’t sound real to them. In order to create a “believable” sound Dave combines things like breaking wood, a melon being smashed, etc. That is he creates a sound people believe is real.

It is true people do dumb stuff all the time. Just watch a few hundred stupid people YouTube clips. Or better yet, don’t and take my word for it. They try to jump over moving cars, they play with poisonous reptiles, and yes, they walk into abandoned warehouses late at night. So what your reader is really saying is not “this couldn’t happen,” but “You didn’t find a way to make me believe this would happen. Especially with a character you want me to like.”

Writers almost always find themselves in a situation where they must get one of their characters to do something that is a bad idea, or at least out of character. Our job is to create enough justification in the mind of the character to keep the reader from being pulled out of the story.

For example, in one of my recent works in progress I needed to get the main character—a eleven year old boy—to go into a swampy woods filled with alligators behind his great aunt’s house. Earlier in the book, he had a scare standing near the woods, and his parents made him promise not to go in. Now anyone who’s done much reading knows that an eleven year old and a creepy woods must come together at some point in the book. It’s like a law of nature or something. But how do we make the reader believe it?

There are lots of different tricks an author can use. Put something in the woods the character really needs. Have something else drive him, or lead him, into the woods, Have him go into the woods as a way or proving something, getting back at someone, etc. These are all motivations. Readers want to believe in the story. You just need to give them a way to. They want the character to go into the woods. What they don’t want is to feel like they are being manipulated by the author. They can’t be made to feel like the character is only going into the woods because you needed them to.

Another great tool is to have the character think exactly what the reader is. Just as the reader is thinking, “You better not go into those woods. It’s too dangerous,” you have your hero think, “I better not go into the woods. It’s too dangerous.” That is believable to the reader and true to your character, because it’s what most people would really do before trying something dangerous. If your character doesn’t at least consider the dangers, you must have a great reason why not.

In the case of the boy in the woods, I combined a note telling him to trust the cat, the cat leading him into the woods, and his anger about not being able to go trick-or-treating with his friends into motivating factors. I also had him hesitate and think better of it before going in and decide he’d back if heard anything at all.

Delayed gratification is another great tool. In real life, things often work right on the first try. In a book that can feel too convenient. In my first Farworld book, Kyja looks into the aptura discerna and sees Marcus for the first time. The key to using this tool is clearing your mind of any angry or unhappy thoughts. At the urging of one of my critique members, I had Kyja get close but fail on the first attempt. It was a great way to get some insight into the character and also made it that much more believable when the tool finally worked for my heroine.

Remember a tool is just a tool. Not every tool works in every situation. Sometimes things can work on the first try and sometimes characters do dumb things because they just aren’t thinking things through. But remember that as long as you are writing fiction your job isn’t to record a gunshot, it’s to produce a sound that everyone will believe is a gunshot.

Good luck and good writing!


J.N. Future Author said...

These posts of yours really do help with inspiring writers (I'm one of them!)

I can understand the gunshot comparison. After the credits of one of my favorite movies (Titan A.E.) They were talking about how in some of the last scenes, there are ice crystals shattering, and crashing into each other. and how no matter what they tried, they couldn't get the right sound for it. The next morning, there was really crackly snow outside. Thats where he got his noises from - walking through snow.

( - at 1:54)

A very awesome post! Good to have you back!

Tristi Pinkston said...

Excellent post, as always - I love your insights.

Mark said...

Remember: If the only tool you have is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails.

Great post, thanks Jeff

Anonymous said...

Awesome post, Jeff. I wish I had that sound studio :)
Your second interview is up at
Thanks again for doing that with us- you Rock!

Dave Cebrowski said...

Great post Jeff (and not just because you mentioned me).

In my mind, when reading a story, the question that gets asked is not "is this possible" but is it plausible. If the story has built a foundation that let's my mind believe it is plausible that an out-of-the-ordinary event takes place, or character shows up then I will lose myself in the scene. But if there is no foundation for it, while possible, it just won't seem plausible and I lose interest in it.

To carry the sound design example further. For one video game I worked on, I had to provide a number of different footsteps on various materials - snow, mud, sand, wood, metal, and carpet. Go put on boots and walk across carpet and hear for yourself what "reality" is. I had to create a sound using snow, sandpaper, and a bag of flour being dropped in order to create the sound of walking on carpet, something so unrealistic that it was laughable. but it worked in context of the scene.

David Glenn said...

It's always a challenge to make characters and situations sound plausible. Just goes to show that nothing's as easy as it looks.