Ever heard of a film called To Hell and Back? No?
I’m not surprised. The film came out a long time ago. 1955, to be exact. It’s a World-War II movie chronicling the exploits of one Audie Murphy.
Do you recognize that name? Some of you are likely shaking your heads, while a few others are nodding vigorously. You see, Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II and remains one of the most decorated soldiers of all time. Exploit after exploit was attached to his name. Naturally, the kind of man you’d want to make a Hollywood blockbuster about, right? That was To Hell and Back.
Well, here’s the interesting thing about this movie they made. You would likely expect that a story about a war hero (or anyone, really) coming out of Hollywood would be heavily edited and dramatized, right? Hence the “based on a true story” nonsense that usually means that there was probably a person somewhere who did something similar to this, but its so disconnected you might as well be watching pure fiction.
Well, you’d be right. The movie wasn’t exactly like the real story.
It was, actually, less amazing.
That’s right, the movie was toned down. And I don’t mean that they shied away from the violence or the horrors of war, no. It was that they looked at Audie Murphy’s life and said ‘no one will believe this, it’s too fantastic’ and then toned the film down, downplaying some of the man’s heroism and accomplishments. All because they were certain audiences, despite the event’s truths, wouldn’t believe them for the stories they were.
Today, in that vein, we’re talking about knowing your audience, and the challenges associated with the possible.
As an author, your job is to tell your readers stories. Stories of the fantastic, stories of the sad, stories of the amazing. But no matter what story we’re telling, what event we’re chronicling, there’s always the challenge of telling a story that is believable.
Now, some of you might be shaking your heads and saying “Wait, but there are plenty of stories that aren’t believable. Superhero stories, for instance.” And while you’re not wrong … you’re not right, either. Sure, Superman’s is an unbelievable story—but only in a few aspects, which it addresses up front: IE, this man can fly, is invulnerable, has super strength, and is an alien. Thus, Superman’s story, and that of many characters that exist in the pages of comic books works for a collective of reasons, being that it’s up-front about it’s unreal aspects and plays the story around them, and the audience for the story expects that. They’re fine with it. Those who are new to the genre may have to undergo some mental adjustment, but as the story doesn’t hide its stretching of reality (or its exposition), it’s pretty easy for a new reader to pick up what is and isn’t “normal.”
This is fine. It works. But it’s not exactly the topic I hinted at above. Today’s topic ranges on a far more difficult-to-swallow story element: That bit of reality that people don’t realize is real.
This is … more common than you might think. But, like in To Hell and Back, reality itself is sometimes completely unbelievable to the ordinary reader.
It can happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, the world just really is that fantastic. Take the aforementioned case of Audie Murphy, who accomplished so much that it makes the standard Hollywood action hero seem tame by comparison. Or the several, well-reported cases of individuals elsewhere in WWII falling upwards of 20,000 feet without a parachute but walking their landing off thanks to a fortuitous collection of happenstance luck and conditions. The world is full of these sorts of tales, which is why things like Ripley’s Believe it or Not become such hits, or collected works of “mysteries of the unexplained” (some of which are easily explained … others not so much, though we often have general ideas) continue to thrive.
In other cases, however, sometimes the events you write will be unbelievable to the reader simply because you’re counting on your audience having more—gotta find the right word here, so let’s go with—awareness of reality than they actually do. To use a modern example, take the “CSI Effect.” The CSI Effect is the name that has been given to modern juries coming into court cases with completely unrealistic expectations for what the real world works like—everything from court procedure to forensic science—thanks to completely Hollywood (read, fake) TV shows like CSI. This effect has led to dangerously risky court cases, where prosecutors have had to acquire odd evidence in hopes of convincing juries of guilt, or worse, have seen very easily proven-guilty suspects go free because the jury doesn’t believe in real evidence, but requests fake evidence that sounds impressive but both isn’t actually proof of anything and doesn’t exist.
If what I’m talking about sounds like a case of “no easy solution” well … you’re not wrong. Hence the reason for this post. How on Earth do we write about the fantastical—especially the stuff that’s true—when the world is filled with readers who won’t believe even the real stuff (which ignorance, on an aside, comes from a variety of different sources, from people believing they’re “too smart” for things to people who just refuse to be educated)?
And the answer … well, there isn’t a great one. There are multiple, smaller, sort-of answers. But there is no silver bullet. You’re just going to have to work with it.
The first thing you can do to help is know your audience. This is tricky to do, especially when you’re working on your first book. But with a few books under your belt, you can work at this easily enough. Read your feedback—the stuff that isn’t crazy, anyway. Examine what people like and don’t like about your books. Look for locations where some readers got hung up and some didn’t and ask yourself “Why?” Then tailor your writing accordingly.
While this is harder with a first book, that doesn’t mean you can’t work towards it in some way. The most common advice I’ve seen is to envision your audience while you’re writing the book. Who are they? What is their equivalent knowledge set? What are they looking to read? Keep that vision in mind—maybe even make a not of it if necessary—and write towards it.
But if you don’t want to do that, there exists another method to try and mitigate this problem as well, some adopted by very successful authors. No offense to Dan Brown or Clive Cussler meant, but their extremely successful books are written to the lowest common denominator of awareness. Yet all are still full of outrageous moments—some of which are, yes, very unreal.
But how do they get away with it? The ones that are real tend to come with expository explanations. For example, in Angels & Demons, one of the characters survives a fall from a helicopter at least 5,000+ feet above a city by using a bedsheet—an act that wouldn’t make much sense if it hadn’t come with an attached explanation from earlier in the story (recounted, IIRC, at the event) that falling with a piece of cloth as large as a bedsheet will reduce one’s velocity exactly enough that if they land in a body of water, they’ll survive without injury.
Cussler and Brown do this all the time. Something fantastical but actually sort-of realistic about to happen? Cue exposition (usually there, but sometimes earlier in the story) giving the reader an assurance that “Yes, this is possible, see?”
Crud, it doesn’t even have to be real exposition, by which I mean set in reality. In-universe hand-waves are a real thing, and they’re something you can use to great effect explaining away unreal situations to your readers.
Now, there is the third approach, which is honestly the more difficult and comes back to “knowing your audience.” But in that approach, you simply present the amazing (or even normal) for what it is and then hold that your readers will be aware or trusting enough to take you at your words.
Risky? Well, yeah, but it can cultivate the audience you want, albeit in a semi-ruthless manner.
Of course, then there’s the “fourth option” of simply not doing it at all. Take the To Hell and Back route and tone things down. Cut stuff out. Ruthless, but again, it works.
Ultimately, however, past those methods of dealing with this issue, there’s not much that I can say on the topic. The presentation of the fantastic, the real-but-almost-unbelievable, is a tough nut to crack. There will always be someone who doesn’t believe something you write, no matter how realistic it is. Some will even call foul if you have pictures of yourself doing said event.
Okay, so you can safely ignore those people. But even so, when writing your book, no matter how steeped in reality it is, you’re going to have to consider that some readers aren’t going to buy what you’re “selling.” Even if it’s real.
The question, then, for you, is what you want to do? What audience are you going to aim for? What level of awareness and capacity for critical thought do you want your readers to need in order to enjoy your story?
Today’s topic, unfortunately, does not end with me offering advice of the nature of “Do this, and you’ll be fine.” Rather, it ends with “You will need to think about this, but I can’t do much past tell you to consider it.”
Keep how believable your story is in mind, but also keep this in mind when working with stuff from the real world that seems fantastic or almost unreal, but isn’t. A lot of readers can’t tell the difference, and that can have surprisingly negative impacts on your story.
In the end, however, the most I can do is draw it to your attention.
2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Unbelievable Reality”
[…] may run into a case of “reality is unrealistic” from time to time. but that’s far better than trying to represent a portion of reality […]
‘Ever heard of a film called To Hell and Back? No?’
Actually yes. It’s about Audie Murphy starring himself. 🙂 Haven’t seen the film, though.
‘while a few others are nodding vigorously.’
I haven’t published anything other than fan fiction but I always enjoyed incorporating real life pieces of information. I learned way more about what happens to bodies that have been left in a place than I ever wanted to really know because I was writing a story that takes place in a mystery series. The forums with police officers offered great first person information!