Writers, readers, and breaking trust

Truth

Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

Among the comments on my recent post about truth in fiction, was one from the norfolknovelist  in which she pointed out, among other things, that if you violate the truth in your fiction, your readers may decide they can’t trust you. This is a valid point, although it’s also clear that fiction writers routinely bend or stretch the truth in some ways without getting into trouble with their readers (not to mention constructing things out of whole cloth). This is because readers of fiction are willing within limits to do something called suspending disbelief. After all, if everything in a fiction story had to be true, it wouldn’t exactly be fiction, would it?

Or, as my teenage son so aptly puts it whenever I start getting bent out of shape over some scientific inaccuracy in a book or movie: “Mom, it’s fiction!

So, what can you get away with, and what can’t you? Well, for the fictitious elements of your story, you can get away with anything from plausible to downright impossible depending on the genre.  You can do angels and demons, magical transformations, time travel – for the right audience. That’s where disbelief-suspension comes in. The devil, however, is in the mundane details – where it comes down to reader knowledge and reader expectations. These, in turn, vary depending both on the setting of your story and on the audience you are writing for. If you’re writing a story involving contemporary life, you’d better get as many details right as possible because your readers are contemporary with your setting and they are going to know details. Every reader may not know everything, but they’re all going to know something. If you’re writing a crime drama or detective story you had better get your forensics right because people who read this kind of story care about that kind of detail. Making an inaccurate statement about the kind of information that can be gleaned from a particular forensic technique is going to lose their trust big-time if they either already know the truth or later find out that you had it wrong. On the other hand, these readers aren’t likely to care if a minor character who is a bird watcher makes an inaccurate comment about the markings of the black-headed grosbeak – unless, perhaps, it turns out to be relevant to the solution of the crime.

BUT, there is another – perhaps even more important – aspect to reader trust.

This other aspect of trust relates more to internal consistency than to consistency with the external world. I’m not talking about saying a character has red hair in chapter 2 and brown hair in chapter 7 because you forgot what you wrote in chapter 2.  That’s an error of continuity. It needs to be fixed, but if it were to sneak through, it would be more likely to make your readers think you were sloppy than to lose their trust. No, I’m talking about lying to your readers. I’m talking about the situation where the writer purposefully tells the readers that A is true in chapter 2 and then has it turn out in chapter 7 that A is not true and in fact the truth is B.

Why on earth would writers do this? Because they don’t want the readers to guess the truth too early in the story! Not surprisingly, mystery writers are some of the worst offenders, but at some level every story is a mystery and so all fiction writers are potentially subject to this temptation.

Here’s the deal: When you tell a story, the reader implicitly trusts that what you say is true is true, within the context of the story. To put it another way, when you are the omniscient narrator, you are the Voice of God – for that story.

So don’t overstate the facts to try to mislead your readers. It’s a lie. It’s a cheat. It’s a violation of the readers’ trust.

Consider your wording carefully to achieve the desired effect without engaging in outright deception. There are important differences between the following examples:

a)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying dead on the floor.

b)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

c)       He looked in the window and saw the body of a dark-haired woman in a blue evening gown lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

In the first case you’ve told us the person he saw was his wife and that she was dead. It had better not later turn out that it wasn’t his wife or that she wasn’t dead. In the second case you’ve told us it was his wife, but while the pool of blood may suggest she is dead, you haven’t actually said so. And finally, in the last case, you haven’t explicitly identified the woman (although the description might match that of his wife), nor have you explicitly stated that the woman is dead.

A skillful writer can have the readers pretty much where he or she wants them to be without ever telling them a lie.

To lay or not to lay… (or, remember the eggs!)

English: Brown chicken eggs

English: Brown chicken eggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help it; “Lay Lady Lay” will always sound to me like someone talking to a chicken…

…a rather fancy, well brought up chicken, perhaps, but still a chicken.

That’s Bob Dylan being ungrammatical there with the chicken lady, and of course what I’m alluding to here is the whole “lie” versus “lay” debacle. This burning issue more or less divides the English-speaking population into two groups: those who have difficulty with these two words, and those who don’t. I’m one of the latter. I take no credit for that fact. It’s just that when I was acquiring language, the people I learned it from (my parents) used the two verbs correctly and so I learned to use them correctly. I’m sure this was reinforced by all the reading I did as a child. (I was an incorrigible bookworm.) While it has spared me a lot of grammatical grief over the years in my own writing, it also has the unfortunate consequence that whenever I read something written by someone else who has gotten it wrong, I notice. It hangs me up. It makes me pause and mentally insert the correction. I don’t like having to do that; it takes me out of the story. It spoils my enjoyment. I therefore have a very selfish interest in keeping lie and lay in their place at least in the writing that actually makes it to print.

There are lots of places to get explanations of lie and lay, but of course I just have to offer my two cents’ worth for anyone who may find it helpful.

Lie and lay are two completely different verbs with non-overlapping meanings.

Lie means to assume a recumbent orientation (generally on some more or less horizontal surface).

Lay means to place an object on a horizontal surface (one on which it will not slide or roll away).

Lay requires an object (something to be laid), while lie distinctly does not want one.

Since someone or something tends to end up resting on a horizontal surface in either case, it’s understandable that some confusion might arise. Add to this the fact that the past tense of lie is lay, and confusion becomes really quite forgivable. The most problematic tenses break down like this:

Lie, lay, lain

Lay, laid, laid

(In each case, that’s present tense, past tense, and past participle.)

The problem is simply that many people are mistakenly using lay for both meanings.

If the trend accelerates, we could be looking at language change here, in which English loses one verb (lie) while a second verb (lay) broadens its meaning and become less precise. Would this really be so bad? Well, probably not, since actual ambiguity or confusion of meaning rarely if ever occurs in this case.  I, however, would not be a happy camper. I would feel even more like a dinosaur than I do already, because I will probably keep doing it the way I learned to do it until I write my last word. The other way just feels too wrong.

So, everyone repeat after me:

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

People lie down; chickens lay eggs.

I’ve put “eggs,” the object of lay, in red. If the action is being done to something or someone, then laying is what’s going on. (No sexual innuendo intended.) If the person or animal or thing is doing the action all by itself, it’s lying. So, remember the eggs! If you’re contemplating using some form of the verb “lay,” there had better be an egg-equivalent somewhere in sight.

But be careful; there are nuances. (In these examples, lie is in blue, lay is in green, and the object of lay is in red.)

Inanimate things can lie, or lay. So can things that are not concrete nouns.

The knife had lain so long in the weather that the blade was half rust.

The mist lay like a shroud over the fields. (past tense of lie)

I waited for night to lay its cloak across the land. (present tense of lay)

We never know what lies ahead.

What bounties had providence laid in store for us?

It is entirely possible to lay oneself, or parts of oneself.

Let me lay my head on your shoulder.

Lay your body next to mine. (Compare with: Come and lie down by my side.)

I laid myself down to rest in a little hollow among the leaves.

Now I lay me down to sleep…  (Yes, the object of lay can be an object pronoun: me, us, them, him, her, it, or you).

“Lie” can also mean to be in a place or in a given direction.

The village lies just over yonder.

The road lay straight before them. (past tense)

My heart lies beyond the sea.

Finally, the subject of the sentence can be implied rather than explicitly stated, which can be particularly confusing when “lay” is involved.

Please lie down. (The subject, “you,” is implied here and in the next two examples.)

Lay it down over there.

Lay the timbers straight.

The dead were laid in a common grave. (Someone had to do the laying. We’re not dealing with zombies.)

What about you? Would you be glad to see lie supplanted by lay, or would you become a dinosaur like me if that happened?

On wolves, sheep, and truth in fiction

A while ago, G M Barlean (author of Casting Stones, and story-telling blogger extraordinaire) mentioned in a comment to one of my posts that the nonfiction writers in her writers’ group often asked the fiction writers about truth in fiction and that the ensuing discussions generally came around to the subject of the genres of fiction. The subject has been kicking around the back of my brain ever since, so I’ve decided to post on it.

So what about the idea of truth in fiction? I mean, if a story is fiction, it follows that it isn’t true. And yet I think every fiction writer knows that every story has to contain elements of truth.

, from the title sequence of the Superman cart...

, from the title sequence of the Superman cartoons. Suomi: Fleischerien versio Teräsmiehestä. Français : , à partir de la séquence titre des dessins animés de . Italiano: Superman in posa solenne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Truth has to be in there at some level or the story cannot make sense. Even if it did manage to make some sense, it wouldn’t be a very compelling story if it had little or no truth in it. This is because, if there isn’t enough truth to anchor a story to the reality of our experience, the characters and events in the story simply won’t matter to us. Example: As a child I once discovered that some neighbors had a huge cache of Superman comic books, and I went on a binge. I was young enough and unsophisticated enough in my experience of the world to initially buy into the rather shallow characters and horribly contrived plot lines. Eventually I began to see the glaring plot flaws, however, and the endless repetitiousness of the character interactions. At that point I walked away and never went back because I had just stopped caring about any of it.

So if we are to care about a story, it must contain a certain amount of truth, somewhere. Also, I think more truth generally makes stories more meaningful.

Consider the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It’s a very old story. It’s attributed to Aesop, which takes it back to about 600 B.C.E. (How’s that for immortality?) Everyone (or almost everyone) knows the story about the shepherd boy who gives too many false warnings about a wolf menacing the flock and then isn’t believed when there really is a wolf. To “cry wolf” has come to mean to “give a false alarm.” But was there ever really an Aesop? If so, did he make this story up? Is it based on a true incident that he knew of personally, or one that he just heard about? Does any of that matter?  No: The story stands on the strength of the inherent truths it contains. We all understand, in principle, the behavior of wolves (preditors) with respect to sheep (prey). We all know about little boys who will do just about anything to gain attention or to see adults running around making fools of themselves, and we also know that when there have been too many false alarms, people may very well disregard a real one. The story is positively riddled with truth even though the incident it describes may never have actually happened. The story has become so iconic that “cry wolf” has entered the lexicon, and this is because it uses elements drawn from the real world to teach us a lesson that rings true.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Project Gutenberg ete...

The Boy Who Cried Wolf – Project Gutenberg etext 19994 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story wouldn’t work if the boy were standing on his head when a sheep came out of the forest and ate a wolf that wandered by, after first running around in circles whistling Dixie – because that story doesn’t contain any truth to speak of. It may be extremely creative in an off-the-wall kind of way, but  its elements just don’t connect – to each other or anything else.

I’d like to return for a moment to the image of our story-telling hunter-gatherer ancestors from my earlier post (Why we create fiction). In that post, I explained that I believe storytelling is fundamental to our nature as a species. It’s fundamental to our ability to pass our understanding of the world on to others (cultural transmission), and it’s fundamental to the nurturing of imagination and to creativity.  I’m sure it didn’t take our story-telling ancestors long to realize that stories could teach valuable life lessons and provide models for behavior. They would also have realized that, while true stories can serve this purpose, fictional ones can work just as well, provided they ring true for the listeners. And fictional stories have the advantage that you don’t have to wait around for an appropriate event to happen that will illustrate your point. So was born the fable and the parable, the epic or hero’s quest that illustrates noble behavior, and any form of mythology that seeks to explain why the world is as it is or to justify a culture’s customs, values, or beliefs. Also heir to this legacy would be any modern work of fiction that serves as a cautionary tale. (A legend, on the other hand, began life as a true story but has been embellished and tweaked to such an extent over time that its relationship to the truth has become obscure or uncertain.)

At this point I’d like to digress a little bit to talk about the relationship between history-keeping and storytelling. I just attended the first annual LitFest Pasadena this last weekend (a nice little book fair held in a Pasadena park). There was a panel discussion on “History, literature…..and the truth.” My husband and I arrived too late to hear the discussion, but since I had already been thinking about truth in literature, it jogged some more brain cells. So here goes…

It’s like this: Out of the human propensity for storytelling are sprung two broad fields of human study/endeavor: history and literature. I use both terms broadly here and don’t restrict them to written forms. “History” deals with the factual recording of past events (and other aspects of human life) for the edification of posterity and includes biographies, memoirs, journalism, and documentaries. “Literature” includes all forms of creative storytelling, from comic strips, to novels, to drama and motion pictures.

Both activities are concerned with truth, though in different ways. To put it in a nutshell:

History deals with the art of truth; Literature deals with the truth of art.

(Yeah, I know. Way too cute. Feel free to groan.) I use the word “art” here, by the way, more in the sense of artifice (something constructed) than of artistry (the creation of beauty).

History as the art of truth:  I know a bit about what historians do, since my father was a professor of English history and I currently have a college age son who is majoring in history.  There is an art/science to uncovering what is true about the past, to preserving the information, interpreting it, presenting it in an understandable and meaningful form. It is important work, and the day we cease to value it will mark the beginning of the decline of our civilization. (The majority of Americans are already far too ignorant of history – and unconcerned about the fact – for my comfort.)

Literature as the truth of art: I don’t have any specific credentials here. Mostly I’ve just experienced literature in all its many forms – what I’ve sampled of each, that is. (Remember, “art” here is the artifice of the constructed fictional story.) Basically, any story you construct has the potential to expose some truth or truths about people, life, the human condition/predicament, etc.  The more important (non-trivial) that truth is, the greater is the story’s significance. The more broadly the truth is appreciated across people of different cultures and times, the greater it’s universality.  Of course, stories are valued by humans for the entertainment they provide as well as (or instead of) for the factual information they contain (a point from my previous post), but either way, they must contain elements of truth. Authors writing solely to entertain their audiences need not be particularly concerned about things like significance or universality, but they still need settings that feel real, events that are plausible, and characters whose actions, motives, and responses are believable.

And now, finally, I’m going to get around to the subject of genre. Genre relates to the writer’s purpose, which in turn relates to the interests and expectations of the intended audience.  Writers of literary fiction are concerned with the kinds of truth that yield significance and universality (and also with artistry – the other kind of “art”; the one that means beauty in language.) This is what their audience is looking for. Writers of historical fiction that is entertainment-oriented may not be concerned with significant or universal truths, but need to be very attentive to the accuracy of its depiction of the chosen time period. Authors who write romance must focus on the inevitable convolutions of boy-meets-girl, but (presumably – I don’t read in this genre) still need plausible characters, settings, and events. Mystery writers need those things too and also have to reveal their plot in a way that keeps the reader guessing right up to the end without pulling any hat-tricks. (At least that’s what they should do if they’re doing their job right. I hate hat-tricks.)

Speculative fiction is a category that is considered to include both science fiction and fantasy. One could argue that these authors have the fewest limitations on their creativity. They can take you anywhere. They can create alien creatures, new technologies, whole future societies, or entire worlds. They can dabble in magic and the supernatural. But still, still, they need to tie their tales to truth. Even in the far future, the laws of physics must prevail (or if not, you have to plausibly explain why not.) Even in a fantasy world that is entirely your own invention, you must have characters whose actions, thoughts, and responses to events ring true.

So, you can’t get away from truth any more than you can get away from grammar. At least that’s the way I see it. What do you think?