How Real Is “Reality” ?

I originally wrote about this topic in response to an online discussion about things “not ringing true to readers”—and suggesting the solution was more exacting research.

Obviously research (or the proprietary “research” known as “the stuff you know”) aids verisimilitude, but the point of this piece is that it has its limitations, or that truth and fact are not the same thing and writers need to be aware of it. You can’t pile up enough facts to build Truth, and that whole “ringing true” thing is an even slipperier thing to herd into the corral. Because it fact, “fact”—what actually happened, what the legitimate observers reported, what’s in the official abstracts—is often rejected by readers for not ringing that bell, and many times what rings true is actually, provably false.

This is a tough problem for writers, not only because it’s so contra-instinctual, but because it comes right out of an unavoidable blind spot. If you know absolutely and positively that something is true and for real, how do you modify it based on what other people might think is more real? How do you even know what will and what won’t get rejected as not ringing in?

Worse, there is an inherent chagrin factor involved that make you reluctant to pander to readers’ concepts, even if you are aware of them, than to stick to your guns.   It’s really no fun realizing that your research, which might have cost you hours of work or even exposed you to personal sacrifice and risk, could actually be damaging to your credibility with your readership, perhaps the most serious lapse in that vital relationship.

I have had readers get downright indignant over scenes I’ve written about cops, prison, smuggling, street dealing sort of things. Every single reader of one of my scripts took harsh exception to a scene in which an inmate borrows a hammer from a prison guard, then walks over and uses it to bludgeon another inmate unconscious. Even though the scene really happened, exactly as described. What do you think? Obviously guards don’t just hand an inmate a hammer, right? You know that, right?   Well, how do you know that? From your experience living in prison? I used to be disgusted by the fact that critics praised the “gritty realism” (is there any kind other than “gritty” any more?) of the show “Oz”, which I considered an absurd fantasy; a view shared by every single guy I know who has done time or worked on cellblocks. So how does some TV critic know what “realistic” prison life is like?   A question I’ll return to. A more pressing question: what matters most, the “real” reality, or what the critics are telling viewers? Or to shift down to our own reality, does “real” reality matter more than what an agent or editor or intern at Houghton Mifflin think reality smells like? I think you know the answer to that one.

Here’s another one that affects me. What do you call a person who smuggles illegal Mexicans across the border into the United States? If you said “coyote” you agree with almost every single gringo writer of border books I’ve ever read.   But not my border books. Because I have never, in twenty years of living in Mexico, much of it right in the middle of that traffic and even involvement with it that I’m sure as hell not going to discuss here, and writing for Mexican newspapers, have I ever heard a Mexican use that term. They say “pollero”, a “chicken trader”, because the illegals are called “pollos”. So am I right and everybody else wrong? Actually, I could go on and on about fictional fallacies I see in books about Mexico. But does that matter? Even if I can prove it? No, it doesn’t. If T. Jefferson Parker or Joseph Wambaugh or Paul Levine use coyote (which they all do) are they wrong? Then why are they rich? What matters is what the readers accept, pure and simple. So, do I cave in and use coyote? Well, no. I might say something about how my terms are the correct ones, but you can only do that so much.

And not using a word is a far cry from saying something that people won’t believe. You see this selective reality all the time. John Kerry stepped onto a stage and said something about Viet Nam being “Nixon’s war” and thousands cheered, hundred of commentators repeated it approvingly. Maybe you, yourself, said, “Wait a minute, that war started under Kennedy, got out of control under Johnson, and was ended under Nixon.” But that didn’t matter, did it?

I’m going to talk more about film here because what I’m saying is more easily observed there. But it goes for fiction, as well. (And, as hinted, in newspapers as well.) There is more suspension of disbelief on stage and screen, of course. We accept that stagecoach wheels turn backward without any cognitive dissonance. At a less credible level of credibility we accept that a hand grenade will blow a truck up in the air. Or catapult a man unharmed through a door. Actually, it doesn’t work that way: it just shreds him. But how many people have seen that? Compared to how many have seen Arnold Schwartzenegger flying over a fence in flames of glory?   But if asked, most people would probably have the proper idea about the effects of grenades.

What’s more important to us here is that same difference between what is known and what is accepted, but at a much deeper level, at which we actually hold two different versions of reality, one to apply to our lives, and other to the lives or film characters. We make very different assumptions about the results of actions in film than from what we’d predict in daily existence. And prediction of effects is probably most basic keystone of “reality”: the consequence of actions.   We apply two different standards of belief on matters as deep-seated as economy, politics, ethics and morals, sexual behavior, all aspects of life.

If your neighbor’s kid told you he was going to drop out of law school and follow his dream of being a musician to win the woman of his dreams, you would know it’s crazy and hope he came to his senses. But the same situation comes up in a movie and you know that it’ll work out. He’ll get the girl, be a hit musician and avoid crippling his soul with school. You know that for certain sure, because you’ve seen it. And that’s what reality is based on.

So to return to what people think “realism” in prison is—they know because they’ve seen it. They’ve seen it in movies and TV shows and books.   They know that inmates live in stone cells in walled compounds, surrounded by daily violence where rape is the standard form of interaction. They know a great deal of detail of what daily life is like. Most of which doesn’t even resemble what I experienced myself.

This can spill over. The lockpicking expert in the Doc Savage novels always refers to a certain lock that is the hardest to crack. I’ve heard that lock referred to in real life, though it’s an invention of fiction. I would bet that over half of science fiction readers believe that Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics are real-life parameters, and have seen them mentioned as such in magazines. And so it goes. The important point is that readers/viewers have different expectations and “laws” they apply to fictional work that often are at odds with the reality we experience in real life.

And the even more important point is that it’s more important. There is nothing—typos, punctuation mistakes, grammar errors, even bad or sloppy writing—that will break the vital lifeline between writer and audience quicker than violating their sense of what’s “real” and how the world works.   It certainly doesn’t matter if it actually happened that way. You can’t stand there and argue them out of their reactions: you are stuck with them.

And you are stuck with the fact that it’s very possible for you to know something cold, to have researched it obsessively, to have debriefed the world’s leading experts… and still be “wrong” and violating your writer/reader compact. And since it’s possible, it’s of utmost gravity, and it’s something you might not even be capable of being aware of,,, what the hell do you do about it?

More research is not the solution, obviously. Having “rabbit ears”—obsessive sensitivity to your effect—can be debilitating. The best solution is enhanced feedback, even more so than in hunting out mechanical or style errors. One advantage is that it doesn’t take expertise or education for a typical target reader to spot these things: it jumps out in their face. They can’t wait to tell you you’re wrong. So you harness that.

When I first started writing screenplays, I workshopped them extensively on structured feedback sites like Zoetrope and Triggerstreet, as well as some of the less formal crit forums. That’s when I started running into people hooting at things I knew were real. And a main reason it was useful to keep doing it, even after I’d mastered the technical aspects of format. We are fortunate to have the advantage, in indie publishing, of feedback from readers out there who can sound off to us, enabling us to change our work if it needs it. Some know I generally challenge the idea that we need to pay “experts” for editing. I do not oppose the idea that more eyes that see your work and tell you about it, the better. And this is probably the area in which that objectivity is most helpful, because it is a blind spot. You could read a thousand times and catch all the typos, eventually.   But you’d never catch the fact that most people think what you’re saying actually goes on in a submarine command bridge or firehouse or Chinese factory sounds phony and think you are either ignorant or conning them.

Which comes to the biggest irony in all this: what if the only way you can get by this “separate realities” problem is by conning the readers? What do you do?   Well, that’s up to you, and whatever solution you come up with will probably work: the important thing is knowing the problem exists and being flexible on solving it, rather than insisting that something is true just because you know it is.