As a mystery/thriller writer who tries to write within the existing conventions of science and law enforcement, I want to write the world as accurately as possible. But when does that authenticity actually become a detriment to the story itself?
As fiction writers, we need to write plausible as opposed to authentic fiction. Authentic fiction is starkly realistic—yes, it really can take a minimum of six months for DNA results to come back from some state labs—but that kind detail can get in the way of writing a gripping story. Worse, if we wrote realistic details like a private investigator on surveillance duty for twenty days straight without a single lead, it would be boring for the reader (and the author). This is where plausible fiction comes into play.
Plausible fiction is realistic writing where the rules are bent just enough to allow for good storytelling. It’s been said that police work is 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror. Plausible storytelling concentrates on the more exciting aspects while downplaying the mundane.
As a crime writer, there are many aspects of real police work that impede drama:
- Cases that stall for long periods of time, or, worse, go cold.
- Charges that are withdrawn, or suspects who plead out to lesser charges before trial.
- Cases that are transferred to a different officer so the originating officer never knows the resolution of the case.
- Physical confrontations that end almost before they begin, with a clear winner that allows for almost no dramatic action.
- The reality of handgun accuracy in real situations—the shooter that is 95% accurate at the range will be only 18% accurate in a crisis.
One of the keys to writing mystery/crime fiction for me is the opportunity for a resolution that delivers dramatic emotional justice. But, in real life, there are many times when cases close with no closure for the victims. Emotional justice is important to readers, and it’s important to me as the writer. Writing plausible fiction allows us to craft a satisfying ending.
Authenticity isn’t all bad. There are ways to use the dictates of authenticity to give your story a heightened dramatic moment—guns that actually run out of bullets or wounds that put your hero at a serious physical disadvantage. These are opportunities to allow your protagonist to really stand above his or her disadvantage, all while remaining realistic.
Plausible fiction is not just for crime writers. There are many aspects to everyday life that never make their way into novels simply because they are too mundane to advance the plot at a rapid pace.
A question for other writers: Have you had to cut some authenticity from your own work to allow storytelling the advantage over realism? Did you feel you were successful?
Photo credit: Mythbusters