Storytellers of the world bring us the greatest and worst fiction we have ever read. Part of the difference is how one decides what is fiction and what is not. In this case, we will agree with the tomatoes. Fiction is a story about imaginary people, places or events. It is complete license to lie, within reason.
Just as we discovered yesterday with the editor, fiction needs to be a plausible lie. The agreement of the characters to their setting strikes a balance, or the story topples. Likewise, when using elements of the real world (places, especially), the fiction needs to adhere to some common sense rules.
How you tell your story bears directly on how much leash you have in terms of sticking to just the facts. For instance, if you are writing a third-person-omniscient set in the simple past, discussing the ancient ruins of Tour Eiffel will make readers wonder what is in your coffee.
If your novel is set in the far distant future, references to 1980s pop culture are going to cause your reader’s eye to twitch. If your first-person historical fiction pits Sitting Bull against Tenskwatawa in a philosophic debate over the best materials for tomahawks, readers will want to scalp you. (Bonus if you can name at least three things wrong with that sentence… without Googling.)
Is your protagonist-narrator an average zombie-chasing teenager? Having her monologue to her party about the physics of shotguns versus crossbows in tornado conditions is more of a stretch than teenagers hunting zombies in the first place.
The elements you use to ground your reader and make your story realistic need to be realistic.
Research Make Believe?
Absolutely. Research the settings or people in your story so as not to offend your reader. Never had a teenage girl? Read about them. Didn’t live in the 18th century? Crack a book. Missed the European train tour? Google (responsibly).
When you are marketing your book, you will use those elements to entice readers you have the epitome of literary genius on their pet subject. Disappointing them with your blatant making it up as you go along will result in bad reviews.
If your world building is from the ground up fiction, you are not off the hook for being plausible. You are welcome to name inventions, mystery elements, countries and corporations. You are free to portray science we believe to be possible and some we wish was possible. What your reader does not want to have is a book which is so alien they need more than a glossary to understand it.
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a good example of a piece of fiction which made the reader work for the story. With a language between characters outside the reader’s native (or subsequent) tongue, allusions to devices not readily available (then or now) and a scathing social commentary, it stands as the accepted border for making it all up from scratch.
Traditionally, science fiction gets the most leeway with fiction, as its primary setting is the future where we all desire to be free of the limitations we now have. Its challenge is to present obstacles to overcome in a world presumably better than the one we inhabit.
Debate continues over whether good fiction is the product of calculated plotting or free-flowing stream of consciousness writing. In fact, based on the author, both produce equally good fiction. How can that be?
Getting the ideas out of the author’s head and into a form where others can consume it works with both methods. Only in the final steps of birthing a book do all the lines connect.
The plotting writer more often comes out of beta with notes to make the characters more (personable, identifiable, imperfect). The free-flowing writer gets handfuls of notes about juxtaposition, time line and pesky factual details. Either way, both end up with a book which can be outlined.
Know enough about your setting, characters and plot to make your fiction believable and desirable.
Which type of writer are you – plotted or free-flowing? Which book made you scratch your head and wonder what was in the author’s coffee?
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