Should truth always be stranger than fiction?

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Photo Credit: Alex Dram, Flickr

Last week I reviewed Star Gazing by Linda Gillard. I enjoyed the book, but criticised it for having a few too many coincidences. Linda wrote a thought provoking comment in response to the issues I raised and I thought it deserved a discussion of its own.

Here is what she had to say:

I’m really interested in the issue of fictional credibility. As an author I’m constantly trying to produce something that is a contradiction in terms: believable fiction. Or if you prefer, true lies.

We all know truth is far stranger than fiction, yet we apply personal criteria to fiction and drama and measure the worth of something according to whether or not we believe it. When a character does something we don’t believe she would do, we dismiss it as weak writing and very often it is. But who do you know who behaves consistently at all times? If someone behaves out of character, we think they must be unwell, stressed or perhaps using drugs. A response to suicide is very often, “He was the last person you’d expect to do something like that! He was always so cheery.” People behave unbelievably all the time, but in fiction we expect and demand consistency.

What about when authors describe events? What makes something believable? Was it believable that all of those Chilean miners got out alive and unharmed? If that was a movie, wouldn’t we have expected a few of them to die, as they do in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN? And what about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash, in Paris of all places, with her lover? If you gave a novel a climax like that, you’d be criticised for going over the top and tying up ends far too neatly, not to mention melodramatically.

So I’m conscious as a writer that I have to “tone down” reality to make my fiction look credible. I teach writing workshops and rookie writers will sometimes present chunks of raw autobiography as fiction. They’re mortified if I say, “I’m sorry, I just wasn’t convinced.” “But,” they exclaim, “it really happened! Exactly like that!” I have to explain there’s a big difference between something being true and something being credible and when writing fiction, it’s more important to be credible than true.

My favourite example of this is the opening page of GREAT EXPECTATIONS where Pip visits his family’s grave. Dickens apparently based this scene on a real graveyard where 12 little ones from the same family had been buried. Dickens thought this number would strain reader credulity, so for his opening scene he reduced it to seven.

As T S Eliot said, “Humankind cannot stand very much reality.”

Linda presents a convincing argument, but I think I must have a lower tolerance for coincidence than her. With the exception of science fiction/fantasy, where these rules are allowed to be broken, I like my fiction to be as realistic as possible. The problem is that I have no idea why this is the case. I know that strange things happen in the real world all the time, so why am I so averse to reading about them? I’d love some insight into this!

What do you think?

Should truth always be stranger than fiction?

Linda Gillard is the author of three books: A Lifetime Burning, Emotional Geology and Star Gazing.
Visit Linda’s website for more information about her writing.

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  1. Jessica says:

    I was watching a review of Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespere andthe reviewer found the concept a little far fetched even though it was based on real events.

    I think with fiction you have to make it become plausable to your readers although whereas one reader might be prepared to overlook something and believe it, doesn’t mean another reader will.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, It is weird when people criticise real events for being too far fetched!

  2. I’ve heard it say before that truth is stranger than fiction! I am writing a story where two people (who didn’t know each other at first) met on two occasions by accident (in their home town) and my husband didn’t think it would be good idea if they went to Spain independently and then ran into each other there, too.

    So yes, I understand the issue. :-)

    I wonder if the credibility of the story partially depends on the main character(s)? If you have people that are very busy with all kinds of weird projects, you are more likely to expect strange things to happen to them, than to people who live a quiet life in which (initially) nothing really happens.

    Also, you have to take into account that yes, strange things CAN happen in real-life, but generally they don’t. People usually don’t get into strange events, but (only) when they do, it’s in the newspapers. We didn’t hear about all the times that Lady Di went out in a car, only about the time that it went wrong.

    Now, it would be very boring if books mimicked real life, i.e., in most books nothing happens and only in some there is a major crisis. So, something interesting needs to happen in a book, but you wouldn’t necessarily describe extreme situations as they don’t happen all that often in real life either.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, I think it is to do with the number of strange things happening to the same people. I don’t mind one unlikely thing happening – it is when lots of them keep occuring that I start to have doubts. I’d have no problem with your couple meeting in Spain – especially if they have similar interests and so likely to visit the same places. I have met people I know abroad before so it isn’t that weird, but having them meet by accident 3 times? I don’t know. There would have to be a good reason for it. Small town?

      1. Yes, small town. :-)

        I see what you mean, it’s the number of unlikely things that happen to one person. Like, the chance that event a, b, c happens all to the same person, has a chance of 1 in a billion. So, yes, it DOES happen in real life (but not often) but what a co-incidence if it happens to happen to the person in your book!

        Sorry, just trying to find the science/psychology behind why we accept real life strangeness more readily than in fiction.

        1. Jackie says:

          Judith, When you live in a small town it is very likely that you’ll meet someone you know – I meet several every time I go into the centre. That seems very plausible to me. Meeting someone in Spain not likely, but wouldn’t be unrealistic. Depends on what else you plan to happen to them!

          I guess I’m a scientist at heart and so always working out those probabilities ;-)

          1. I have bumped into neighbours and ex school friends when I have been abroad in several locations: Cyprus, Guernsey, Greece.

  3. Sandy says:

    Wow. She has excellent points, and I’m not sure I have an intelligent response. I am guilty of criticizing fiction as being too over-the-top to be believable, but I absolutely LOVE non-fiction. I would have flatly rejected a fictional story about the Chilean miners or Princess Diana. Too tidy, too predictable. I just posed the question to my family this morning, and I got blank stares. I’m going to have to spend more time thinking about this.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, It is great when someone manages to challenge your views. Linda has certainly given me a lot to think about, but I am still on the fence about this one. Part of me thinks it is only worth writing a story if it describes a unique set of circumstances, but another part is still thinking about her book and thinking ‘That would never happen!!’

      I love the thought of your families blank stares!! If you come up with any inspiration on the subject I’d love to hear it :-)

      1. I don’t think there is anything a writer can imagine that “couldn’t happen”, outside of scientific impossibilities. (And those with religious faith believe in some scientific impossibilities!) If a human being can imagine something, it can happen – probably has happened!

        The issue is, how do you make a reader *believe*? A lot depends on writing skill, especially preparing the reader in advance for the thing you’re going to throw at them. You can hint at something, or harp on a particular theme or image so when your big revelation comes, it’s not out of the blue, there’s a sense of inevitability, of “Oh no – I *knew* that would happen!”

        They do this all the time in movies/TV by showing you a glimpse of something extraordinary (eg global disaster) then cutting back to “Six weeks earlier”. They do this so you’ll swallow the melodrama when it occurs because you already knew it was going to happen. It creates a sense of inevitabilty. A prologue in a novel can serve the same purpose if Ch 1 starts further back in time.

        TS Eliot again: “In my beginning is my end.” ;-)

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot more since I wrote my contribution above…

    I think readers/audiences will accept coincidence and improbability more readily if those events are what they *wish* to happen. Example: we accept Romeo and Juliet falling in love at first sight, even though they’re sworn enemies. We find it harder to accept that her sleeping potion wears off at the exact moment Romeo dies by his own hand.

    I think this is to do with emotional resistance on the part of the reader. In STAR GAZING something bad happens to the hero and some readers have found this improbable, even though it’s based very closely on a real-life incident. Perhaps readers resist this plot development because the hero’s a nice guy and what happens to him throws a real spanner in the works for the heroine!

    1. Jackie says:

      Linda, I’m not sure it has anything to do with events we wish to happen, but I think you raise an important point about timing. The sleeping potion wearing off is a great example – how unlikely is it to happen at exactly the right (wrong!) moment?

      In your book the event happens at exactly the right moment in the plot – leading to me questioning its likelihood. He also happens to return just in time. The plot would have been more believable (although much less emotional) if he had come back three years later. I guess it is all a balancing act and if you start to analyse anything too closely it starts to come apart. :-(

      1. *Why* is it more believable if he comes back 3 years later? Is it more believable still if he comes back 5 years later? 10?…

        Keir comes back when he comes back because that’s the point at which maximum dramatic impact can be wrung from his return. That’s fiction! It’s the worst possible timing for Marianne, so that’s when he returns.

        Juliet waking up 3 days after Romeo died would not put us through the wringer. It’s the *simultaneity* that chokes us in the theatre, the element of near-miss.

        1. BooksPlease says:

          You made me chuckle, Linda. Of course, it’s not more believable if he came back however many years later than if he came back when he did!

          I think Jackie is right that if you analyse anything too closely it starts to come apart – and this is a good example of that.

          I have read far less credible events in fiction than any in your book and it all depends on the skill of the author whether I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept them – I had no problem at all with Star Gazing.

        2. Jackie says:

          Linda, I have no idea why it is more believable if he comes back 3 years later! I guess it just makes the plot line feel a bit contrived, but in reality it is no more or less plausible. It would be a very different story if he came back three years later. I think the fact I’ve thought about this book so much just shows the quality of the writing. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to talk about one book so much!

          1. Thanks, Jackie. :-)

            There is a fundamental improbability at the heart of STAR GAZING – the attempt of a sighted author to convey the experience of being blind to a sighted reader. Would SG have read more convincingly if I were blind? ;-)

            Many readers have assumed I have a blind family member. Their faces fall in disbelief when I say I’ve never even met a blind person. I sense that when I own up to having created a novel based on some research but rather more imagination, the book becomes less valid for them. I don’t know why since it obviously requires more skill to write from a blind “point of view” if you’re sighted than if you’re blind.

  5. litlove says:

    I think one of the questions here is what we read fiction for, what we want it to do for us.

    Take crime fiction, for example. Here we want to be reassured that criminal activity leaves enough traces that skilled detectives can ‘read’ them, track down the miscreant and keep our communities safe. So it depends on human behaviour being reasonable to some extent, that we can rely on cause and effect and logic.

    This is known as the ‘rescuing’ function of narrative – it takes our dangerous, crazy, chaotic life and orders it, then gives it meaning. Stories are the places where we make sense of the world, or make sense out of it. And because of that, it’s uncomfortable to think that coincidence, fate, weird unaccountable events might be as powerful and as effective as the decisions we make and the reason we trust. It feels all wrong somehow.

    1. Thank you, Litlove, for this wonderful analysis. I think you just explained my job to me. ;-)

    2. Jackie says:

      litlove, Excellent explanation! I think you’ve just made me realise why I have trouble with this sort of thing. I like to think that I understand the world and know the rough probability of any event happening to me. I like fiction that reinforces this belief and anything that goes against this, (for example by suggesting that I might win the lottery and then be killed by a polar bear) goes against my internal logic. I don’t believe in fate or magic. I’m just a boring realist ;-)

      1. litlove says:

        lol! Not boring at all – sensible, grounded. Very reasonable! And after all, most life IS like that – quite normal and rational.

  6. I am willing to find most plot elements believable except in the case of vicious serial killers who improbably decide to have chats with the hero/detective when they finally encounter one another, instead of just killing him or her. (I so respect mystery writers who let the hero be killed because it is more probable.) Or of course the obvious deus ex machina. But I read a great deal of nonfiction, so very little in fiction seems over the top with me. If you read Holocaust memoirs, for example, or survival stories (Everest, Antarctic, whatever), or even about the machinations of the U.S. Founding Fathers, you soon come to conclude that people are capable of anything, no matter how horrible or heroic. I agree with Linda that if the writer has proper skill, the reader can (and should!) have faith in the writer’s conception.

    1. I agree. I too am steeped in non-fiction because of the research I do and the many years I’ve spent reading mountaineering and survival/adventure books for pleasure. (If you made Sir Ranulph Fiennes a hero in your novel, no one would take you seriously as a writer of fiction.)

      There’s a story that in bloodier Elizabethan times, an already condemned man was actually executed by being murdered on stage during the course of a play. The audience was said to find his performance unconvincing, because overdone.

      Is this true? Does it matter?! I for one can believe it happened. I certainly believe it *could* have happened, which for me as an author is almost the same thing.

    2. Jackie says:

      rhapsodyinbooks, I hate it when the villain starts talking to the hero! The ‘I’m going to kill you as soon as I’ve explained my motives to you’ scenes are VERY annoying!

      I don’t read much non-fiction. Perhaps that is my problem!

  7. Violet says:

    I think this is a valid point, I like certain twists and unbelievable scenes, only in moderation. If coincidences started happening after every 20 pages, I tend to get critical. I think it’s a matter of choice.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, It is good to know I’m not alone!

  8. Amy says:

    What an interesting point and great conversation Jackie! I think the author is right that it has to be credible, but we all have a different line. And this is where I pull out my whole ‘thank goodness we all like different things and have different lines and so we have a variety of books’ line :) What I might find ludicrous, someone else might find common and everyday, especially when reading about other countries.

    That being said, I know my line. If it is supposed to be realistic fiction, too many coincidences just doesn’t work for me personally! Also, maybe in some books it’s not that it’s too many coincidences but that it’s also not written credibly enough?

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I have seen these personal differences a few times recently. For example, David Mitchell wrote about a plant flowering in the wrong season and so some people found they couldn’t trust any of the other facts in Thousand Autumns. I’m not a gardener so didn’t even notice this, but I know that when I have spotted flaws in the factual accuracy of a book everything else becomes a lot less credible.

  9. Dorte H says:

    You have raised a really interesting discussion here. I know that weird coincidences happen every day in real life, and I don´t mind one or two in a novel. But if I can live with more than that depends on the book. The great Scottish writer Kate Atkinson uses quite a bit of coincidence in “When Will There be Good News”, but it is so clear that she does it on purpose that I just loved it. So it all depends on the book and the author´s ability to pull it off. In crime fiction it is extremely important for the author to show that he or she knows how to create a proper plot and investigation; if we have accepted that it is okay with the occasional coincidence.

    1. Jackie says:

      Dorte, I had trouble with all the coincidences in ‘When will there be Good News?’ too!

      A train just happened to crash behind her house?!!

      That just proves that it is all down to personal taste and what one person finds clever plotting another (me!) will find a twist too far!

  10. Like you said in an earlier post, Jackie, maybe it is the scientist in you? I was never interested in science – I’m a dreamer; that’s why I am OK with incredible coincidences in fiction. I don’t mind things that the logical side of my brain says is implausible; I can get past that. I think I am a bit of a romaticist and therefore, for the sake of a good story I can get lost in, I often overlook things. I like books to take me somewhere else.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I have never been a dreamer. It is interesting to see these differences in people as I hadn’t really thought about it before. Perhaps books should come with warning stickers on them ‘WARNING: THIS BOOK IS NOT SUITABLE FOR SCIENTISTS!!’ I bet that would grab the attention of people in shops!!

  11. Jenny says:

    I don’t think I’m intensely picky about the probability of what I’m reading, but it irks me when a book lacks internal consistency. Like, if it’s a book where coincidence is a theme, I’m okay with having coincidences, but I’ll still get annoyed if a character acts in a way that’s different to how s/he’s been acting all along. I am willing to go along with whatever rules the book sets out for itself, as long as it’s got rules and continues to follow them.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, Good point! Although it could be argued that only a good author could have built up a character so well that you think you know how they should act….

  12. mee says:

    I think real life experiences really affect how you read. I’m a programmer so logic is really my day to day thing. But my life consists of a series of coincidences, things that wouldn’t have happened without the external factors or “divine intervention”. So my tolerance is really high for highly improbably things to happen in fiction. Another example is if in real life you’ve known and met many people with miserable, tragic life (or have such life yourself), you’d develop much higher tolerance for sad and tragic fiction. I often heard people complain about how sad a book is and how they feel they’re being manipulated to be sad. Then I thought, well but these things really happen! They’re not just make-believe!

    1. I think my tolerance of both coincidence & tragedy is high, Mee, for similar reasons. I’m 58 and I’ve been a journalist, actress, teacher and novelist. Over the years, I’ve heard some interesting stories. I grew up with a war-disabled father, I’ve run a miscarriage & still birth support group, I’ve known 4 women who’ve been raped and I’ve taught children who were being abused by their carers. None of this has encouraged me to think of the world as generally a safe and happy place.

      What *I* find improbable in fiction are rom coms & romances where love conquers all and right prevails! ;-)

    2. Jackie says:

      mee, Very true! I also think that the more you read tragic fiction, the easier it is to deal with it. If you are used to happy stories it can be a shock to suddenly read something very dark. I saw a few people criticise Beside the Sea for being unbearably depressing, but then checked what they normally read and saw that it contained nothing dark. Perhaps I read too much tragedy and so happy stories shock me?!!

  13. Dan Holloway says:

    This is a fascinating discussion. It’s something my last novel was criticised for, and one reviewer (who didn’t think the ending too coincidental) made the very interesting observation that some of the actions didn’t feel like they flowed from the characters. That stopped me in my tracks. I was writing about an impulsive, bohemian 17 year-old. I don’t know any fo those who DO act consistently. For me, consistency would have stretched credibility more than the occasional act of randomness, of “let’s see what happens if”.

    But there’s a more important question about truth in fiction. It’s best illustrated thinking about writers like Haruki Murakami. He writes worlds that are like ours, and presented as real, except cats talk and people split in two, or disappear into parallel realities. It’s not SF, it’s not Fantasy – it’s a very particular kind of magic realism, and for me it’s more “true” than any of the hyperrealism that’s so popular today (there was an interesting article on the Guardian Books Blog a fortnight ago about truth in fiction – ). I’m firmly rooted in a confessional tradition, and for me truth is the most important thing in fiction – an author telling their own truth. Because I believe all truth is, if it’s not an oxymoron, absolutely relative, I see any attempt at conveying universals, or issues, or principles as not only destined to failure, but fundamentally starting off as a deceit. But that subjective truth has nothing to do with “facts” or “credibility” – and it can be dressed up in any clothes the author chooses. I find Murakami so compelling because his world is just strange enough that you know he has no intention of conveying facts. He is far too interested in truth.

    Which brings me to a full circle that sort of agrees with you, Jackie – when an author appears to be dwelling on facts and realism, our minds as readers are too much drawn to questions of believability – and as a result they are pulled away from the really important question of the writing’s truth. When the world a writer creates is just awry enough that we could never mistake it for our own, our minds as readers are much clearer.

    1. Wonderfully thought-provoking post, Dan. Thank you! I think you’ve just explained to me why I’m now trying to write a (non-sensational) paranormal. This had felt like an instinctive decision on my part but I can now see that, if nothing else, it will at least get the credibility police off my back. ;-)

      1. Dan Holloway says:

        I shall look forward to it! And thank you for answering so many comments here – the things you’ve said have certainly piqued my curiosity to read Star Gazing. It’s also an interesting, er, coincidence, that I’ve just interviewed an author whose forthcoming first book, the Alchemy of Chance, has a blind mapmaker as its central character and deals above all else with the subject of synchronicity.

    2. Jackie says:

      Dan, Very good point! A fantastic author can make you believe that anything is true. Murakami is a great example as I never questioned the talking cats etc. I also came to fear triffids – something I never thought Wyndham would manage. Effortless writing means that you don’t stop long enough to think about whether something is plausible – you just get dragged along by the flow of the words.

      1. Dan Holloway says:

        Don’t even go there. My wife and I both have deep-seated fears of walks in country lanes thanks to Day of the Triffids!

  14. sakura says:

    I actually don’t mind the bending of truth since it’s ‘fiction’ I’m reading. However, if there are glaring factual mistakes (ie historical names, years, places which I am knowledgeable about) it may bother me a bit. But it doesn’t have to be realistic for it to be good fiction for me.

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