Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You Know It When You Read It

by Hannah

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?


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I love that scene.


Larramie said...

That's why appreciating the moment is so important since it will never come again...not even in fiction.

Oh, Hannah, were you the "smart angel?" ;)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

As to believability, it amazes me that JK Rowling had us going for seven long (long, long) books; the one I liked the least was the one with the least action and most introspection, no matter how cool the rooms in which it took place. (Aha!) As for mistaken identity, I'm afraid we were unshowered, sleep-deprived, and bleary-eyed after a really good party, thus not clearly the misplaced yuppies we were in reality!


Shauna Roberts said...

I remember once reading an interview with Blake Edwards (Julie Andrews' husband, a director) in which the interviewer criticized a scene in an Edwards' movie, saying it was completely unbelievable. Edwards' response was to say it had happened to him. He then went on to tell the story, which indeed was quite bizarre and unbelievable.

In fiction, I guess, sometimes "truthiness" (as Steven Colbert would say) holds more truth than truth itself.

Lisa Marnell said...

Another Stephen Colbert fan? Excellent!

Truthiness does indeed make one ponder. I have a person I work with who could never, ever be a character in my fiction. I can hear Amy, Hannah, and Lynne, firmly telling me that this character, let's call her Gwen, isn't working; she exists, but even in real life, she makes little sense.

Stephen Colbert has tremendous mastery of the English language - my newest favorite word of his is United Statescity, though "absinth-tinence" (remaining absinth-tinent from Absinthe)is a close second of late.

Oh when will the writer's strike be over? The only, only show I watch is the Colbert Report; his cleverness and creativity inspires.

Anonymous said...

I said to my wife a couple of nights ago, as I was deeply immersed in thoughts on my WIP: that true life is certainly stranger than fiction.
I know a few stories from real life that I would need lots of courage to cook up and transpose to my story.

And Hannah, it is the mix. I know, I know. I am in revisions and the mix is such a problem; it's got me in a mess. Me thinks it is a feel rather than any formula.

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