Truth and Fiction

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” –-J. Frank Dobie, American folklorist

I deal with students and student writers everyday. Most of them are interested in writing fiction; many of them want and do write fantasy. In the mind of the common reader, fantasy is one of those genres that requires only imagination to get the story done.

Well yes, if you want to write bad fantasy.

Imagination is an important first step, but in every genre there are expectations by the reader. As I have said many times, the first chapter of your novel involves a social contract between you and your reader. You, the author, present the premise of your story, say, a steampunk adventure set in the Old West. The reader either says, OK, I’ll buy the idea, or passes and moves on to another story. That’s the big reason why back cover copy is so important.

This social contract is not limited to fantasy, though. I am reading a historical novel set at the battle of Gettysburg. If the author were to start spouting information that I knew was untrue, say, that General Grant was in charge of the Union forces, I would consider that a break in our social contract. I expect the author to be knowledgeable about the setting, more knowledgeable even than me. After all, that’s why I am reading the book.

Another genre that requires knowledge and research is science fiction. Many “science fiction” books have been written that fly in the face of science that says their story just won’t work. That is likely to set a devoted reader into apoplexia. There is a looser genre that breaks rules of physics called “space opera,” but even when you have spaceships that are whooshing through space and making loud explosion noises, there have to be rules. Try arguing with a Trekker about how the warp engine works; they will set you straight.

The bottom line is that you have to have a universe with rules, and you have to follow those rules. If you don’t, the readers will abandon ship.

That being said, I have one caveat: most novels are written to do one thing, that is, entertain. Sometimes the author can spend months and even years researching their novel and feel like they have to share every thing they have learned in their book. Not a good idea. Remember, your first job is to share an entertaining story. Second is to make it plausible. Plausibility and exposition aren’t always the same thing. I encourage my student writers to keep many of their tricks inside the bag and only use them when necessary. And please, please, don’t fall into the trap of explaining everything. That gets old, and the best stories just launch into the action and dialogue and expect you to tag along, most of the time without any explanation at all.

My Narrative Writing class is in the process of graduating from short stories to novels. They are about to learn that length is the least bit of their worries. Novels can be easy to write; good novels are a lot harder.