Mystery author Lawrence Block has written, in addition to many novels and short stories, several extremely useful books on the craft of writing. In one of those he mentioned the fact that "fiction is just a pack of lies." But, as Block of course knows, there's more to it than that. Successful fiction--lies though it may be--must ring true to the reader. We have to believe this is happening.
And Sometimes We Don't
For today's column I've put together a couple dozen things that I've noticed on the page and on the screen that always stretch my believability. Or, I should say, these are things that limit my ability to suspend my disbelief. I don't mind being lied to, you see--it's just that I expect the writer to make me enjoy it, and not make me think more about the lie and the liar than about the story he or she is telling me.
NOTE 1: Both Leigh Lundin and I have written about this kind of thing over the past few years, but I'm going to dive again into that same pool and see if I can come up with something new. (If I do surface with a find I've already shown you before, please forgive me and mark it down to overenthusiasm. Or maybe senility.)
Note 2: Some of these observations were stolen and paraphrased from one of the chapters in Loren Estleman's outstanding book Writing the Popular Novel. It appears that Estleman is irritated by the same kinds of mistakes I am, which makes me like him even more.
Anyhow, here are some things that I believe to be true, as opposed to what I've seen as a reader and viewer.
I'll Take Bloopers for Five Hundred, Alex . . .
1. Cartridges are loaded into a gun; bullets come out the other end. You shouldn't dig a cartridge out of a victim or load a bullet into a clip.
2. People on foot being chased by cars probably don't always run down the exact center of the road.
3. There's no such thing as a town sheriff. Sheriffs are officials of the county.
4. Not all space aliens and ancient civilizations speak perfect English.
5. Witches aren't burned. They're hanged.
6. Cars don't always burst into flame as soon as they hit something or plunge over a cliff.
7. Some hotel rooms in the Old West were not located on the second floor, overlooking the street out front.
8. Most people don't usually say things like "periodically," "frankly," "perhaps," "how dare you," or even "whom" in casual conversation. Unless maybe they're English professors, or mildly constipated.
9. When someone is shot riding a horse, he falls down. The horse shouldn't fall down too.
10. A parking space directly in front of the hero's destination is not always available.
11. Some people actually say "goodbye" when they finish phone conversations.
12. Western streets were probably not spotlessly clean. It's hard to picture Ben Cartwright with a pooperscooper.
13. Gifts aren't usually wrapped such that the tops can easily be lifted off without first unwrapping the whole thing.
14. Your P.I. hero shouldn't get knocked unconscious from a blow to the back of the head in every single chapter or episode, the way Richard Diamond did in the late 50s. That causes a concussion each time, and . . . well, you get the picture.
15. There are very few mafia hit-women. Tony Soprano & Associates held political correctness in low regard.
16. Most drivers watch the road ahead (at least occasionally) while talking with passengers.
17. Not every character in a given town attends the same church.
18. Revolvers don't use silencers, and they don't automatically eject shells. They darn sure don't eject bullets.
19. People do confess to crimes--but it doesn't often happen in the courtroom.
20. It is theoretically possible to climb all the way to the top of a chain-link fence without being shot or dragged back down.
21. Chairs in saloons shouldn't always break apart when used to hit someone over the head.
22. Some travelers actually get on their plane/bus/train before the final boarding call.
23. Starships and space stations, when they're destroyed, don't explode in a thunderous fireball. If you boldly go where no man has gone, there's no oxygen there, so there's also no sound and no fire.
24. Most gunshot wounds don't instantly kill the shootee.
The Audacity of Untruth
To quote Mr. Estleman, "Suspension of disbelief is a high-wire act, requiring plausibility on one end of the balance pole to counter the pull of audacious invention on the other." It ain't as easy as it looks.
This also applies to incorrect locations or dates, in your story or novel or screenplay. Near the end of the film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest states that his wife Jenny died on a Saturday. But I read someplace on the Internet that the date on her tombstone was March 22, 1982, which apparently was a Monday. (The guy who posted that fact mentioned that he probably needs a hobby.) And when I think of funny mistakes, I'm always reminded of a movie I saw in college called Krakatoa: East of Java. Why? Because Krakatoa was west of Java.
A Burr Under My Blazing Saddle
Rob Lopresti is always kidding me about my fondness for making lists, and he probably has a point. (Maybe I'm the one who needs a hobby.) But whether they're in a list or not, these kinds of story misfires and inaccuracies are one of my pet peeves. Be honest: Have you ever seen a movie where a bartender actually made change, or a rope was hard to cut with a knife, or the good guy's dog didn't growl at the bad guy? Surely that should happen, now and then.
Can you think of anything you find particularly annoying, when you encounter it in your reading or movie-watching?
Except lists, I mean . . .
P.S. Since Rob's column about emailed rejections/acceptances the other day, I've received two: a rejection from Woman's World and an acceptance from AHMM. In terms of the music one hears in one's head, I went from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally" to John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare" in a very short time. Is this a crazy business, or what?