Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How Far is Too Far?

According to Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

This quote starts to make my brain hurt. I understand the satire, but still, it makes me ponder. If a story is obliged to stick to possibilities, how far is too far when it comes to these story possibilities? Part of me believes that a really talented author can make me believe anything. Yet, anyone who reads narrative fiction has probably had the unfortunate experience of having his or her sense of suspended belief sour into disbelief. This is never pretty. Is this because fiction didn’t stick to possibilities, as the great Mark Twain told us?

I think about all the times someone has said to me, usually after some real-life scene when at least one person has behaved really badly or in an absurd or embarrassing way: “Oh, you should write about that.” Almost as often, I reply: “Readers would never buy it. Seeing is believing.” Truth can be stranger than fiction.

What do you think about Mark Twain’s quote? Is anything possible in fiction? If not, how far is too far when dealing with the possibilities? Can you think of an example?

P.S. Does your brain hurt yet?


  1. I was thinking about this today in terms of antagonists. When I come across evil, real evil, it's nearly impossible to comprehend. In real life true evil is jolting. In fiction, evil can be taken to new lengths and made comprehensible. I think we can take truths and play with them to make them less severe than the truths found in real life. After all, people who read fiction are looking to escape from life. That means embellishing is necessary. : )

  2. Ooh lots of sci-fi, fantasy, magic-realism etc genres all deal with the impossible in a seemingly possible way. too many books to mention - too many!

    Imagination is endless and boundless. Capturing such things in writing intelligently is the key.

    Take care

  3. I think the minute we pick up a novel we automatically, without thinking about it, believe/know/understand it isn't "true." And yet, for the time we are reading it, we pretend it is. Suspended belief perhaps, but it may go deeper than that. When something doesn't sound real/true in a piece of fiction it's probably the fault of the writer, not the subject matter or material. As Old Kitty said, "Imagination is endless and boundless. Capturing such things in writing intelligently is the key."

  4. When I think of this quote I don't necessarily think of things that are too "far out there" I actually think of the things in life that end up working out so perfectly in such unexpected ways that it makes me think "I couldn't have planned this better myself," or "If I wrote this in a novel, an editor or agent or my critique group would say that this scene felt too forced.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, I also think of this as truth not always having a satisfying outcome. Sometimes truth is isstranger than fiction because it is so horrifying and terrible and there's nothing that can be done and no one cares enough to do anything about it. At least in books, things find a way to work themselves out even if it's not a happy ending, at least things are "happening" where the characters have some way that allows them to try, where in real life, there really are some hopeless situations.

    does that make sense, or am I just babbling?

  5. Every day I pick up the paper and have to suspend disbelief at some of the things that really happen. I think when a piece of fiction becomes unbelievable--even if the scenario isn't any different from what has happened in reality--is when the motivations and the backstory isn't clearly there. It just seesm to happen out of the blue, whereas truth there's always a path that got you to weirdness.

  6. Hmmm...I tend to go with the flow when reading but then I sort of lose my trust when things aren't consistent. And then it depends on how far "out there" it stretches. I do have some limits -- but I try to go with it if it's consistent in the novel's rules.

    Ha, some of the craziness that I've seen -- no one would believe it! Truth is crazy.

  7. I think anything is possible in fiction. People pick up novels knowing they would have to suspend belief and forget about reality for awhile. It helps a lot though, if the author has created 3D characters and developed the plot masterfully.


  8. As an absurdist and a literary cubist, I have to say yes, all is possible in fiction. The trick is to make it a worthwhile experience for your readers.

  9. I agree--truth IS often stranger than fiction. But there are ways to make the unbelievable more believable in fiction. And oddly, I've heard one way to do that is for someone in the book, your MC or whoever, to say they can't believe something is happening!

  10. I'm afraid I agree with him. There have definitely been times when I know I can't use something from real life because it's too serendipitous. No one would believe it! They'd say, "Yeah, right," then throw the book down in disgust. :)

  11. Anything is possible in fiction, as long as it's believable. If it's unbelievable, then the writer's lost me as a reader. I'm on to something new.

  12. I agree with Mark Twain. However, just to make your brain hurt a little more, I think if the heart of the story is based on a universal truth, and all the details of the skeleton are accurate, then a good writer can spin a fantastic tale around all that and no one will be the wiser.

  13. I like to read stretched possibilities and imagine if...
    But I'm getting told way too much that at times my characters are unbelievable and the reader won't buy it.

  14. True evil is impossible to comprehend, isn't it, E.R.? I really liked what you wrote about making truths less severe than what is in real life. It may not be necessary to try and portray what is often beyond comprehension.

    Great points, Old Kitty and Bish!

    Makes perfect sense, Christy: In books, situations find a way to work themselves out even if not happily. Yet, in real life, some situations are sadly hopeless.

    Newspapers are a great example, Julie. They often don't provide enough of the motivations and the backstory for the reader to understand how an incident could occur. Yet, a good novel should provide that backstory and character motivation.

    Ah, yes, consistency, Karen. Thanks for this.

    3D characters! A must. Thanks, Nutschell!

    Welcome, Mohamed! Great comment.

    That's a great little trick, Carol. Thanks!

    I've had that same sense of knowing the reader would not buy what really happened, Janet.

    Yes, indeed, Stina. Frustration kills a good read. And there are too many books waiting in the TBR pile. ; )

    If the heart of the story is based on a universal truth... excellent point, Carol!

    Interesting, Michelle. So, you're probably wrestling with what makes the characters come across as unbelievable.

  15. I love that quote. It's in my favorites. You know what I find interesting? That people have a harder time suspending disbelief when the character does something out of character than worrying about magic and other things.

  16. I think Twain is right. I pick up a novel fully willing to suspend my disbelief, but if there's something major I can't buy, the story's over for me. A couple of weird things that have happened to me, I'd never put in a novel. Too, too implausible.

  17. Oh yes, that one is certain to make the brain hurt. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, but it's a really good writer who can craft stories in such a way that I'll forget I'm into fiction.

  18. Yep I totally agree with the quote. The main thing in fiction is that we shouldn't have any 'coincidences'. They are far too convenient for the reader to believe.

  19. Yes, my brain hurts.

    I don't like it when I'm reading something, it starts out really good, and then the disbelief sets in. Although, I believe, a skilled writer can make anything work.

  20. That's so true, Lisa. Great, great point.

    I agree, Marcia. Once I stumble over something too implausible, I'm done reading.

    Absolutely, J.L.! Thanks.

    That's a great point, Lynda. Coincidences can destroy a story.

    Ha! I'll send over the aspirin, Medeia. : )

  21. I remember when we read In Cold Blood in high school, and the family had just bought an insurance policy like the day before they were murdered. I remember the teacher saying "truth is stranger than fiction." You wouldn't write about something like that, readers would just go "yeah, right, tell me another one." But it really can happen in real life. Great post!

  22. I know some writers are masters at making us believe in the impossible. Stephen King has a gift as far as this goes. But I think there are always limits to what we can absorb.

  23. I think about this stuff all the time. Some of my favorite books are way out there, but the author made me believe it could happen. I must remember this when I'm questioning what I'm doing.

  24. Okay, so yes, my brain hurts. Now, I have to get out of my head everything that just popped in. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction, but I also think anything is possible in fiction. Fiction provides readers an escape from reality. The writer is obligated to make the implausible, plausible. They have the ability to create what probably would never exist outside of fiction. Writers and readers know the events in fiction are not real, but the emotions can be. As writers we shouldn't give the reader a reason to doubt that the situation is real. We want to touch the reader, provide them with excitement and entertainment. Emotions are truth in themselves.

  25. Susan, that's a perfect example! Thanks!

    I think so, too, Angela. I don't like scratching my head and questioning while I'm reading.

    Me, too, Julie. Sometimes when I'm writing I get an uh-oh gut feeling that something I am writing might not be believable enough.

    Wonderfully written, Maeve! Thank you.

  26. I agree-- fiction (no matter how far-fetched) has to ring true. It has to feel believable. It reminds me of another quote: "Rule one of reading other people's stories is that whenever you say 'well that's not convincing' the author tells you that's the bit that wasn't made up. This is because real life is under no obligation to be convincing." ~Neil Gaiman

  27. Great quote, Peggy! And from Neil Gaiman, no less. Thank you!