But It Really Happened That Way!

17/03/11 10:26 AM

I imagine many writers out there have heard a fellow writer say, “But it really happened that way!” when questioned by beta readers or critique partners about a particular event in their story. (I might even be guilty.)

This isn’t an original thought, but I’m sharing because it’s worth remembering: just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean repeating it in your story will automatically make it “real” to the reader. It’s your job as a writer to render the event believable. That might require deviating from the “real” nature of the “real” event in order to make it authentic to your characters, story, and, ultimately, your audience. You might know it’s “for real” since you experienced the event or saw it happen or whatever. But your audience doesn’t know that.

That’s why ripped-from-the-headlines television shows are such a hit, I think. Their almost-unbelievable story lines become believable because the audience has “heard” it before, thanks to the media. (I think many readers would have had a hard time accepting Room’s premise if not for the Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard cases.)

While readers often willingly suspend their disbelief, they’re willing to suspend it only so far. It’s the writer’s responsibility to make even the most unbelievable thing feel real. Not an easy task.

Have you read anything recently that made you go “No way. That never could have happened”? Or have you read anything that seemed unbelievable but you kept reading anyway and the “thing” became believable, thanks to the writer’s skill? Share in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing | 5 Comments »

5 Comments on “But It Really Happened That Way!”

  1. Margo Says:

    THey say real life is stranger than any fiction! People can get me to believe just about anything! But there is a trick to it, that’s for sure. Now there is nothing in the world i WANT To believe in more than unicorns (just admitted a big soft spot there) but recently started to read a book about unicorns that utterly failed to get me to believe. The author could have done it, too, i’m sure, she just… didn’t work hard enough at it, I think.

  2. Robyn Says:

    You mean unicorns aren’t real??? 😉

    That’s too bad about that book (I’m always in awe of well done sci-fi and fantasy — seems like “making it real” would almost be an insurmountable challenge).

  3. Olive Collins Says:

    unless it’s fantasy or horror, i agree, an incredible story needs to be well told. Unicorns, how real are leprechaun’s?

  4. Dawn Says:

    I agree. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction. I’m still thinking about “Room.” i would have bought that without the media’s help because it was so damn good. Some of the phraseology the kid used, however, was a stretch. But i was willing to suspend disbelief because the story compelled me. So, i think the success of that book has less to do with women being kidnapped in reality and more to do with the skill of the writing.

  5. Robyn Says:

    @olive — you mean leprechauns aren’t real either??? 😉

    @dawn — you’re absolutely correct: the writer’s skill is most important. That’s what can take a seemingly impossible situation and make it real. I think Donoghue’s book would have been harder to “believe,” however, despite her skill as a writer, if there hadn’t been cases hyped in the media that showed a kidnapped woman could be living undetected for years in someone’s backyard shed. It would still be a good book, IMO, but I think I would have had to suspend my disbelief even further (and perhaps I would have judged some of the things, like Jack’s language, a little harsher) if I hadn’t known it had happened in real life. I think the true test of a writer is when he or she can take the most implausible of events and make it seem believable (King is a good example). It’s hard. I know I’ve written things with some element of truth that people have questioned and my excuse was, “But it really happened that way!” Doesn’t matter. Whether it’s true or not is up to the reader in the end, and it’s the writer’s job to do his or her best to make sure the reader reads it as true.