reality doesn’t have to make sense

As a writer I can tell you that your story needs to make sense whereas reality doesn’t have to. When a writing class professor or a fellow critique group member would say something was unbelievable, I’d hear the inevitable reply, “but that really happened” or “but it could happen that way.” And honestly, it doesn’t matter.

I came across a news story about a toddler who was ejected from his mother’s car during a rollover crash. He was shot into the air over a twenty-foot sound barrier along the edge of the highway and into the back yard of two volunteers for the police department, who just happened to be home at the time and were trained to handle emergencies.

(If you’re wondering, the mother was arrested on charges of child neglect because she didn’t have a license and there were no car seats in the vehicle.)

My Patient Husband’s remark was “If that appeared in a story, no one would believe it.”

No, you couldn’t do that. Maybe in a story about a guardian angel who happened to have fifteen of his friends over for a touch-football game and they all noticed the car rolling over and then lifted the child twenty feet into the air to clear the wall and then went back in time to ensure two law enforcement officers bought that particular house and would be home to help the kid.

In a regular story, no. In  non-speculative fiction, it’s best to go with the regular way of doing things even if the other way could theoretically happen, or did actually happen. Because in fiction, “it actually happened that way” doesn’t mean anything. If you break the fictive dream with your reader, the social contract has been ruptured. The reader no longer feels like believing you because you as an author are unreliable.

Not the narrator (unreliable narrators are fun) but you the author.

Those little trustworthy moments add up to trusting you on the big ones. A friend of mine wrote an action-adventure SF story that took place underground, in a series of caves. The overall story involved FTL travel, alien races, a terrorist plot, telepathic animals, and even more. But her caving details were so dead-on-target-accurate that the whole setup was ultimately believable.

If on the other hand the details don’t add up, the reader won’t believe the big scene and the big situation and the big stakes you’re setting up. And why risk that? Because something cool actually happened in your life or you found it on Google? But it’s not reality. It’s a work of fiction.

Yes, fiction has higher standards than reality. I think I mentioned before on this blog that in reality, someone may walk into the room, hit you in the face with a pie and leave never to be seen again. But that’s not going to make good fiction.

If something happens one way 99% of the time, it doesn’t matter if it happens another way that other percent: do it the 99% way or you risk alienating all your readers who think, “No, I know that’s not how it works.”

For now, I’m glad reality rules and that  child survived his brief flight. But children need car seats, and fiction needs to make sense.


  1. Ivy

    In fiction, that would be a cool first scene actually.

    In the next scene we see the baby as a young man, or maybe a teenager. He has luck powers. He always lucks out. He can cause good or bad luck to befall others. His luck runs out when he finds himself unexpectedly facing the price of those powers.

    Or that stretch of road is watched over by the spirit of a mom who lost her children during the Trail of Tears, the last falling right on that spot. Days later, construction trucks roll into the site where her children are buried, planning to convert it to a strip mall. One by one, those workers start turning up dead, and it’s up to the protagonist to stop the killing.

    Or the “baby” that went flying out was just a doll, to be substituted with a real child as part of a human smuggling operation. Or what was being smuggled wasn’t the baby, it was whatever was in that doll.

    1. philangelus

      In those cases, you’re building the implausability of the scenario into the story in such a way that the reader is concentrating on the question of how such a wild thing could have taken place.

      But if your story is about a police officer who is working on a trouble marriage while his wife is having an affair, and this is the story he’s investigating, your reader is going to call BS.

      1. Ivy

        It’s funny when the audience will or won’t call BS.

        In Night at the Museum 2, we get a pharaoh who speaks, not only English, a language that didn’t exist during Egypt’s pharaonic period, but modern English with an American accent. Because the story is so out there, the audience is fine with it.

        I think it could play in a farce, or if things are at an emotional climax, and the two volunteers are the husband and wife. Detail the scene carefully. The way they respond to the crisis in sync. They can second guess each other. They can act as one. Then, in the aftermath, as they talk about how crazy it all was, they begin to find their way together again.

        Just as a side scene it carries too much weight. Dogs run away all the time, but to have the police officer’s dog just up and leave one day, without it somehow being built into the story, wouldn’t work either.

        1. Kaci

          Ivy – That’s just because most people don’t like watching movies in subtitles. 0=) Btw, I found your podcasts. Nice.

  2. Ken Rolph

    I recently watched the two versions of The Parent Trap movie. I was interested in the way audience expectations had changed over my lifetime. These movies are both engaging, but if you sit and think about them logically it just all falls apart. I can’t believe a situation like this would actually arise in real lie. Even if it did it would probably be a bad thing.

    Somehow the writer and actors can bring verisimilitude to the piece and their conviction can carry the audience with them.

    Did I mention that I’m still waiting to see a book or movie which opens with the statement: “based on a false story”.

  3. lbdiamond

    Great point, Philangelus. Well said!!!

  4. Sky

    The book you are talking about in the blog about the telepathic cats ect ect. Can you tell me the name of the book?

    1. philangelus

      Star Commands: Mission Underground by PM Griffin.

      The telepathic animal is actually a wherry (I’ll have to double-check the species name later) that is similar to a bird, and I loved it. Her name was Bandit. 🙂