Tiffany Maxwell Freelance writer and editor


The Writer and Reality

Crossposted to the Lyrical Press Official Blog

From what I understand, most people who are not a) writers, b) actors, or c) deranged (see a & b) live in something referred to as “reality”. In “reality”, I am given to understand, there are no such things as vampires, ghosts, psychic detectives (in any testable sense), or unicorns. Also, in reality, there are other people with thoughts and feelings who spend their days muddling about doing nothing very exciting, and interacting with each other in mostly mundane ways.

I know, it sounds boring. That’s because it mostly is.

Nevertheless, all writers should have a good relationship with reality, and should do their best to understand it, at least in theory. Wine and dine it regularly, and kiss it on the lips, after all, you’re setting pretty much all of your stories there.

As an editor, my eyeballs bleed and my teeth explode every time a writer tries to duck a suggestion I make by saying, “But it’s just a story! It’s not reality!”

Oh yes it is.

I flash back to a lecture given at NASA by noted skeptic James Randi, where he said something along the lines of, “You have to make assumptions every day. If you didn’t make assumptions, you would be catatonic.” This is true. If you didn’t assume that the chair you were about to sit in was in fact a solid chair, and not sponge cake painted to look like a chair, you would have to carefully test every chair you saw before sitting in it. If you didn’t assume that your floor was able to support your weight each morning, and wasn’t eaten away by termites overnight, you would be too nervous to get out of bed.

Readers make the same assumptions about the world in which you’re writing that they do about the world in which they’re living. Until you tell them otherwise, all the chairs you mention in the book are made of hard-ish material that can support the weight of an average human being. Until you tell them otherwise, all your human characters have four functioning limbs that have the same range of motion as that of an average human being. So when you write that your character is performing a physical action that involves a body part independently spinning 360 degrees, while still attached at its proper place, or some other kind of action that would involve the insertion or removal of various major bones or organs to be completed in real life, your reader is left thinking that you either neglected to tell them some crucial information (that all the characters in your book have ball joints, for example), or that your writing makes no sense. Either way, you’ll annoy them, and the last thing you want to do is annoy your readers.

If you’re not sure you’re writing a physical action that makes any sense, I want you to do something for me. Stand up, and try it yourself, as close as to what is in your story as possible. Obviously if your character is hanging upside down off a speeding train in the middle of a gunfight, you’re somewhat limited in your imitative possibilities, but I imagine you have access somehow to things like couches, chairs, and tables. Use those to your advantage, preferably when no one else is home. And I’ll state for the record that I take no responsibility for any humiliation you suffer as a result of this method. The point is, test your gestures. Do the literal words you’ve written translate into a doable action? Put yourself into the mind of your characters, does that action feel natural? If the answer is yes and yes, then congratulations, you’ve written a good action, keep it there. If one or both of the answers here is no, then you might want to take another crack at rewriting. The temptation to say, “artistic license” doesn’t apply here, because for physical actions, you want the reader to be able to picture those concretely, and they can’t read your mind. Artistic license is for the beauty of the stars, or the smile on your romantic hero’s face, or the fabulousness of his haircut, or anything else that is ultimately subjective. The essential rules of your book’s reality, however, much like actual reality, are not subjective, and you’re best served to stick closer to the literal truth of the matter.

Remember, your book is, indeed, our boring old reality, until stated otherwise. Learn to love reality. Without it, you’d have to spend the first ten chapters of every book defining every nuance of ceilings, floors, and dining room chairs, just to give your characters something to stand on. The reality we have gives you the groundwork, and saves you the time.

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