Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Foolish

I’m an avid reader. I wish I’d kept track of all the books I’ve read, but it’s in the thousands.

When one has read that many books, one sees patterns, one figures out what works and what doesn’t from plotting, to pacing, to setting, etc. Sure, I have particular genres that I’m more interested than others, but I can tell if a story is well crafted or not regardless of that.

Walter Jon Williams points out something that’s irritated me for years:

What finally broke my patience was the author’s method of building suspense, which was to have one of his characters do something bone-stupid in order to get into jeopardy.

He goes on to put that into a rich context, but he’s absolutely right. We all understand that conflict is what drives a story. We get that having a car with one working headlight hurtling along the dark desert interstate outside of Vegas creates conflict when the driver runs into someone (or whatever situation one would like to create/pick) but it has to make sense with reference to the time/place/characterization which make up the story.

Authors, even authors of fantastic fiction, have constraints. The rule of “don’t do stupid things” applies to them as well as the rest of us.

If an author is going to create a world, give it rules, people it and then bring those characters together to make the story, it still needs to hang together, to make sense, to not let the reader down or rip the reader out of the story because of a character’s nonsensical behavior, or inserting something which jumps out and says “Hey, I’m special. I don’t really belong here, but the author is making a point. So there!”

I started reading a book recently which was a fantasy set in a European Middle-Ages culture (towns, guilds, kings, etc.). The writing was not excellent, but it wasn’t bad. However, I was violently ripped out of the story when a conflict was set up with the town ruler wanting workers in the town to have a minimum (living) wage, but the guild leaders being vehemently opposed to the same. I believe the term “minimum wage” was actually used in the story. My willing suspension of disbelief evaporated in a heartbeat.

If you are an author, don’t do that. Realize that even when you create your own universe, it’s probably going to be grounded in reality in some way (otherwise, you won’t be able to come up with the right words in whatever human language to write the story). And, to the extent it is grounded in reality, it has to make sense.

In short, if you are writing about something you do not know intimately, but you are getting into the minutiae, get help from someone who does know. If you don’t know what that means, then you have no idea what it does to the story to have the hero checking, flipping, or otherwise interacting with his/her Glock’s safety before the big showdown.

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