My brother is working on fiction in his spare time. He is thinking a lot recently about what makes fiction believable, based on comments by his own writers’ group, mentioning setting in particular. I haven’t any easy answers to that myself, and have been mulling it over now as well. Description alone, in trying to establish setting, is insufficient.
One long-ago morning, a friend of mine and her mother, her roomie and I ended up in a poverty-stricken section of Philadelphia escorted by the police in search of the remains of a stolen car. Crumbling brick townhouses, weed-infested empty lots. We found the skeletal remains of the mom’s car, and what confirmed it was hers I don’t remember. There were no doors, no hood, no wheels, two seats removed. As we stood there, a slight man wearing jeans and an oversized shirt came out the side door of a nearby building. The cop watched him a moment, then went to talk with him. Before we knew it, there were five more squad cars, a van, dogs, all coordinated to arrest a drug dealer inside who, it turned out, received a large shipment the previous night. The gathering neighbors were both suspicious of and amused by the four white women plunked down in the middle of this crime scene. Three children even came over to chat us up and check us out, asking if we were detectives “like Charlie’s Angels.” (Bless their hearts!)
How’s that for good material? Every line is true. So when I needed to put two characters into a scene that (a) revealed something in terms of how each related to their status in the world, (b) had a city setting, and (c) added action, I transposed fact to fiction. How could I not?
The Group’s reaction? Didn’t fly, didn’t even hop. Even the setting, alone, didn’t wow them enough to suggest changes to the other elements in order to keep the setting. No, the whole thing was a yawn. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the story, a thoroughly invented scene in a completely fictitious bar hit the mark dead-on. Not only did they like how the plot and character were revealed, they made comments on how much they enjoyed the setting itself.
It seems in the odd alchemy of fiction, believability is not earned element by element, but in how the pieces join to a whole. The story knows how it wants or needs to be told, and if you don't do it all in the right measure, it doesn't work. The setting has to be described, and the characters need to reveal themselves just so, and the plot must push forward, and so on. Or not? Your thoughts?
Wednesday, November 28, 2007