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Highly Unlikely

29 November 2015

From The New York Times:

When something extraordinary happens, we often say it’s stranger than fiction. But reality routinely, every minute of every day, outdoes all realist fiction in its strangeness. Recently two women working on the same floor of a Florida hospital discovered they were sisters (they had been adopted by different families in the 1970s). We read this item in the newspaper and accept it as astonishing, but real. The same occurrence in a realist novel, though, would be called unlikely or unbelievable. We’ve arrived at a point where not only is reality stranger than fiction, but we don’t allow our fiction to be even close to how strange real life is every day.

This double standard has consequen­ces: Authors self-edit, making their fiction less bizarre than their own lives — than life itself — for fear that their plots will be deemed unbelievable. The fact that we as readers and writers don’t seem to allow our fiction to be as strange as our reality is, well, strange.

One December afternoon, when I was 21 and living in Manhattan, I took a walk in Riverside Park. “Ma’am?” I heard a man say. I turned around thinking maybe I had dropped something, but I hadn’t. The man had red hair and glasses with delicate frames. His right hand was tucked into his unzipped leather jacket. He kept silent but stepped closer. I turned and continued walking in the same direction but quickened my pace.

“Ma’am,” he said again. “I have a gun. Just do as I say.” He showed me the gun and instructed me to walk to a nearby bench. I looked around to see whom I could appeal to for help, but the only people nearby were young mothers pushing babies in strollers.

We sat on the bench, and the man informed me — twice — that he wanted to die. Then he elaborated: He didn’t want to die alone.

My hands started sweating inside my gloves. I could read the tiny letters on the sides of his glasses: “Giorgio Armani.” I am going to be killed by a man wearing Giorgio Armani glasses was the refrain that pulsed through my head. I needed to get the man to a busy street, I thought. I pictured a bookstore on Broadway, and the phone behind the counter. The man put his gun to my temple. Adrenaline coursed through my body and brain.

“There’s so much to live for,” I said to him. “There’s poetry!” I sounded like a deranged schoolteacher. But I saw something in his eyes, some willingness to hear more. I recited some of Mark Strand’s poems — the first stanza of one poem, the final stanza of another. The man seemed intrigued, or confused. He agreed to accompany me to the bookstore to see what I was talking about. But as we neared the perimeter of the park, he suddenly apologized and ran away.

This event became the opening scene of “And Now You Can Go,” my first novel. Everything that followed was fiction — a medical mission to the Philippines (I have never been to the Philippines or on a medical mission), a ­re-encounter with the would-be assassin (I never saw him again, and the police never caught him).

But while readers assumed I’d traveled to the Philippines, and some even identified with the details of my nonexistent trip, few believed that a character would resort to poetry in such an extreme situation. In a couple of circumstances, the scene was called “improbable.” I wanted to say, “But it happened to me.” Instead I remained silent about the book’s autobiographical origins.

Link to the rest at The New York Times 

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24 Comments to “Highly Unlikely”

  1. QotD a while back:

    The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense …

    • Bingo! 🙂

      • 😉

        That being said, you can ‘sometimes’ get away with getting ‘way out there’ if you first set your readers up for it.

        Zombies aren’t possible, right? But what if there was a virus that took over most of a cell’s properties for as long as there were cells to live off of? One that degraded the cells as it ate them — including of course brain cells … and any contact could spread it, though a bite would get it pumping through the victim’s bloodstream/body quicker …

    • In my creative writing courses in college, it was said not to use real life oddities unless they made sense. And yet, to me, that poetry-saving-his-life thing makes sense. We just don’t know what touches a human being, what makes them change course. Could be a good soup or a song or someone saying “Have a good day” or a really blazing sunset. We just don’t know. So, to me, that scene seemed utterly believable.

      I say be strange and odd and use it. We’ll probably like it. And only folks of very limited imagination or sheltered experience will say, “That could hever happen.”

      Cause, really, I’ve seen ghosts. And I don’t give a squat if most folks don’t believe that. I know what I saw and I was not alone in seeing it. So, if you want to write a story and add a ghost or spirit or angel or whatever the heck that was, well, to me, that’s very, very believable. 😀

      • Good. Nice to know someone might appreciate my WIP. It’s got spirits in it.

      • My grandpaerents are a sensible sort. At once place they lived with a Grey Lady, and even visitors saw her and wondered who she was. So I cannot rule it out entirely.

  2. I’ve observed that if you ever put a snippet of something true that happened to you into a novel, it’s invariably the part that’s picked on by readers as being totally unrealistic.

    Make stuff up if you want to be believed :o)

  3. See the Reality is Unrealistic trope page for a whole lot of examples: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RealityIsUnrealistic

  4. I’ve been arguing on a blog filled with Space Cadets about this very thing. When I read the essay on the NYTimes I instantly wanted to jump online and repost the essay to the blog. Then I remembered the closing points made in the essay and decided against it.

    Basically, when dealing with Serious People(tm) the best thing to do is ignore their comment. Treat it as coming from the Peanut Gallery, where all the hecklers live.

    The minute you turn Serious you lose half your IQ and all your creativity. God save us from Serious men and women. They bring the conversation crashing down, killing a useful thread.

  5. Great article and comments. I think most of us have stories like this; stories that would defy credibility in a good piece of fiction, but in reality make up a part of our lives. I have many, some not so different from the example. Enough that if I were to write an autobiography, no one would ever believe it.

  6. This is really sad if true and impoverished. This is why I would never listen to creative writing teachers in college. John Irving made a career out of stories including a few bizarre aspects of life. Where would China Mieville be without the fantastical? There are too many storytellers who tell stories with fantastic elements that may seem stranger than fiction, and thank God there are.

    • China Mieville has the advantage of writing science fiction and fantasy.

      (Although come to think of it, he does have the bad habit of writing extremely unrealistic, magical powers into allegedly hard science fiction. The magical linguistics trope is particularly strong with him.)

  7. I remember reading about the production of one of the big WWII movies of the 70s (or maybe it was a DVD commentary track?), where the screenwriter said they’d had to leave out most of the best stories they heard from the veterans who were actually there, because no-one would have believed them.

    Reality is usually stranger than fiction.

  8. I ended up saying the following in one of my writing classes back in the day: “There is a such thing as believable lies, and unbelievable truths.”

    We were supposed to write stories about ourselves, it was supposed to be creative non-fiction. Yet this situation of not believing the truth cropped up from time to time. I cited the first time I’d learned this fact of life: I’d always heard my parents and my grandmother say, “Turn off that TV! Study! The people on the TV already have their education!”

    I assumed this was How All Adults Think. Then one day, in eighth grade, I was studying for a quiz while “Channel One” was playing. That was a 15 minute news program featuring a young Lisa Ling, Anderson Cooper, Serena Altschul and others you would have heard of. It played for the first 15 minutes of whatever your first class of the day was. Teachers couldn’t turn it off.

    That morning, my teacher was running late, so another teacher, Mrs. D, stepped in. I’d heard she was mean. I thought it meant that she made kids do their homework.


    “What are you doing! Put that book down! NOW!!!!”

    It turned out she was talking to me. I stared at her like she was crazy. She wanted me to stop studying? And watch TV? I knew about the bearded Spock universe; I didn’t expect to be in it.

    She glared at me. “You can go to the principle’s office if you don’t like it.”

    “Ummmm.” I decided not to ask if there was an anti-crazy pill she’d missed taking that morning. The other students muttered in shock that she was yelling at me, since I always kept my nose in a book and didn’t get into trouble.

    “I told you she was like that,” muttered the ones who had the misfortune of having her for a class to the fortunate ones who’d never had her.

    I slowly closed the book while keeping an eye on Mrs. D for any sudden movements. Eventually the real teacher arrived and Mrs. D zoomed off on her broom.

    I never told my parents. The whole incident was too incredible for me to believe; I figured it would make even less sense to them. I found out from other kids that Mrs. D had a fanatical insistence that students watch Channel One; they couldn’t read or do homework or anything else while it was on. Who would ever believe a teacher would insist on watching TV over reading a book? No wonder she got away with being mean.

    This is one reason why I prefer writing tales of the fantastic. I can carefully set up writing a character like Mrs. D, where readers might take her actions as proof that she was really an alien. Whereas in regular fiction readers would insist I’d gone over the top.

    • Channel One was awesome, mainly because it was the start for people like Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling. Without it’s pre-21st century 21st-century journalism, we’d pretty much only have Gawker, Salon, and Fox News.

      So I’m with Mrs. D on this one. Channel One frequently had news of the world far more relevant than whatever quiz the next period had planned.

      • If I had been one of those kids who don’t like to learn things outside the class, then it might have been worth my time. I’ve always been an autodidact, though, so I didn’t need Channel One.

        Without it’s pre-21st century 21st-century journalism, we’d pretty much only have Gawker, Salon, and Fox News.

        Mystifying. Absolutely mystifying. I’m in the industry and I have no idea what you’re basing this on. Especially since Channel One’s target audience was adolescents, who did in fact have other shows to watch. Channel One was nice, but it never topped anything I watched on the Discovery Channel or PBS or TLC, A&E, etc. And they had more than 15 minutes to explore topics, sometimes (as with PBS) using “mini-series” formats over a couple of nights or a week. And that was just for the TV medium.

        All Channel One did was give Cooper, Altschul, Ling, etc. handy clip files so they could get jobs elsewhere. Think of it as more of an internship, except perhaps they were paid (not common in TV internships).

      • Without it’s pre-21st century 21st-century journalism, we’d pretty much only have Gawker, Salon, and Fox News.

        Fox News was founded after Channel One was broadcasting.

        CNN existed before Channel One was broadcasting.

  9. This happened about my book “The Pregnant Pope.” The Pope is a man and very pregnant. But one reader said “It was well written but way off the beaten patch for me.” This book is a paranormal thriller and when Satan appeared in the story it should not have been unbelievable. Oh well, some people don’t believe that the devil exists, but believe in vampires and zombies. Works for me, but Satan has so much more potential. 🙂

  10. There are lots of people with limited life experience and even less imagination. Who cares what they think is realistic? Do we have reason to think they are a representative sample of readers?

  11. The autobiographical anecdote from the OP terrified me. My heart is still pounding!

    I borrowed from my own life for a central event in my novel Troll-magic, but I haven’t heard any murmurs from readers. I think it fits the story so well, that they never suspect it happened IRL. Unless they see the blog post I wrote about it. 😀

    For the curious: http://jmney-grimm.com/2013/12/visitors-surprise/

  12. The way I think about this, and what I’ve read, is you can have one big improbable thing in a book, usually to start out with – the two co-workers who discover they’re sisters, or magic, or zombies, or the would-be killer, or whatever. But everything else needs to grow out of that and make sense *in that context*. Don’t pull magic out of nowhere to fix things if it hasn’t existed earlier in the book, don’t bring in the separated-at-birth sister or would-be killer out of nowhere just for the sake of plot twist.

    • You can foreshadow a separated at birth sister, though.

      I’ve heard it opined that you have to subtly foreshadow something like this two or three times, and then “post-shadow” it again to point out that you did warn people.

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