The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

The Writer’s Problem

Posted by BigWords on December 12, 2009

Most (if not all) writers would like to think they are able to conjure the unlikeliest of outlandish plots, dialogue and artifacts, and then insert them into their work so well as to obscure the ridiculous nature of such things. But… Real life (as is always the case) is stranger then any fiction. There are very good reasons why the phrase “You couldn’t make it up” exists. No matter how strange the things we invent an industrious idiot will have managed to do it first. We’re always at least three or four steps behind the wave of monstrous stupidity which is unique to our species. You only ever have to remember one thing when you are trying to weave fiction that is believable:

It’s already been done.

Not only has it been done, it’s probably been done a few times. Pulling a Stretch Armstrong doll until it bursts? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? Wow, a bit behind the times, aren’t you. Checking to see if the room really is too small to swing a cat? Don’t even think about it…

Some of my favorite books are non-fiction, but they read like fiction. They contain the stuff that would make great storytelling if it wasn’t for the annoying fact that they were real. Take a look at the Darwin Awards if you think a plot twist (which sends a character to an untimely end) is too far-fetched. Whatever the means for dispatching a character, there is someone who has shuffled off this mortal coil in a similar manner. The awards are a litmus test for any OTT element wherein a character is killed in a manner that feels too outrageous to be believed. People can display incredible ingenuity in killing themselves.

Here’s a story from The Fortean Times Book Of More Strange Deaths which illustrates this point:

PASTOR Michael Davis, of the Larose Christian Fellowship Church in Louisiana, finished his sermon, stripped down to his bathing trunks, exhorted the faithful to prepare for rebirth and stepped into the pool where he intended to baptise a dozen of his flock. Unfortunately, his microphone was badly earthed; the resulting explosion left the pastor floating belly up and melted the microphone.

How can I compete with that?

And if you think that you would be safe making up a comedy epitaph to go on a gravestone in your story, you might want to take a look at some real ones out there. From Awful Ends: The British Museum Book Of Epitaphs by David M. Wilson:

Here lies the body of John Shine,
Who was no Jew for he ate swine;
He was no Papist for he had no merit;
He was no Quaker for he had no spirit;
For forty years he lived and lied,
For which God damned him as he died.

There’s nothing I could make up that would even come close…

And it continues through every other aspect of life. Coincidences? There was a story a while back about two guys who had worked their entire lives together finding out they were brothers. That would be laughed at in fiction, but in real life? It is treated as a feel-good story, regardless of how cliché it is. ‘Predictable’ is looked at so differently in fiction that I’m almost tempted to use the above as a continuation on my argument that real life isn’t represented properly in fiction.

If real life was to interrupt every aspect of fiction, then we would be writing soap operas rather than anything meaningful. Wait. Did I just insult everyone working in soap operas? Sorry. I meant to insult every soap opera except Dark Shadows, because at least that had an excuse.


5 Responses to “The Writer’s Problem”

  1. rachelhamm said

    This post actually makes me feel better that I don’t attempt to write crazy scenarios and outlandish plots! My “book” is an attempt to write a relationship as close to real life as possible. I think that good fiction should put you in a place you could easily visit, with characters you could easily know. Of course, good fantasy and science fiction should put you in a place you could in no way visit with characters you couldn’t possibly know, but you should still feel like you could. Am I making any sense? haha

    Good, thought-provoking post, thank you for sharing!


  2. bigwords88 said

    I was thinking about the scene in The Thin Red Line where Woody Harrelson (I think it was him anyway) gets blown up after pulling the pin on a grenade. That, I assumed was completely overblown (pardon the pun), but it turns out to be not so outandish.

    Not, at any rate, compared to the ironmonger who used a live shell to work his metal on, and finally (years of hammering later) blew himself up. I’m at a loss on how people can say a story is unrealistic when real life is so unrealistic…

  3. You’re right in that the stories have been done but there are new angles and new ways of putting all the elements together that can make old stories feel entirely new and be accessible to a new audience.
    I totally agree that life throws some bizarre stories at you sometimes. Thanks for this post.

  4. It may have been done before, but as best I can tell I am the world’s only physician bluegrass fiction writer. My story didn’t happen, but it is all true.

  5. bigwords88 said

    Thanks to all for dropping by. 😀

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