As a writer I can tell you that your story needs to make sense whereas reality doesn’t have to. When a writing class professor or a fellow critique group member would say something was unbelievable, I’d hear the inevitable reply, “but that really happened” or “but it could happen that way.” And honestly, it doesn’t matter.
I came across a news story about a toddler who was ejected from his mother’s car during a rollover crash. He was shot into the air over a twenty-foot sound barrier along the edge of the highway and into the back yard of two volunteers for the police department, who just happened to be home at the time and were trained to handle emergencies.
(If you’re wondering, the mother was arrested on charges of child neglect because she didn’t have a license and there were no car seats in the vehicle.)
My Patient Husband’s remark was “If that appeared in a story, no one would believe it.”
No, you couldn’t do that. Maybe in a story about a guardian angel who happened to have fifteen of his friends over for a touch-football game and they all noticed the car rolling over and then lifted the child twenty feet into the air to clear the wall and then went back in time to ensure two law enforcement officers bought that particular house and would be home to help the kid.
In a regular story, no. In non-speculative fiction, it’s best to go with the regular way of doing things even if the other way could theoretically happen, or did actually happen. Because in fiction, “it actually happened that way” doesn’t mean anything. If you break the fictive dream with your reader, the social contract has been ruptured. The reader no longer feels like believing you because you as an author are unreliable.
Not the narrator (unreliable narrators are fun) but you the author.
Those little trustworthy moments add up to trusting you on the big ones. A friend of mine wrote an action-adventure SF story that took place underground, in a series of caves. The overall story involved FTL travel, alien races, a terrorist plot, telepathic animals, and even more. But her caving details were so dead-on-target-accurate that the whole setup was ultimately believable.
If on the other hand the details don’t add up, the reader won’t believe the big scene and the big situation and the big stakes you’re setting up. And why risk that? Because something cool actually happened in your life or you found it on Google? But it’s not reality. It’s a work of fiction.
Yes, fiction has higher standards than reality. I think I mentioned before on this blog that in reality, someone may walk into the room, hit you in the face with a pie and leave never to be seen again. But that’s not going to make good fiction.
If something happens one way 99% of the time, it doesn’t matter if it happens another way that other percent: do it the 99% way or you risk alienating all your readers who think, “No, I know that’s not how it works.”
For now, I’m glad reality rules and that child survived his brief flight. But children need car seats, and fiction needs to make sense.