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.

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12 Comments

  1. She is wise, Ms. Norfolk, isn’t she. And so are you.

    Reply
  2. Wow! What an eye-opening post. I don’t write much fiction, but when I do read, it’s my favorite genre. Your examples really do drive your point home. Makes complete sense. I think choice (c) would hold my attention more and give the author more opportunities to shock me as well as retain my trust no matter what he/she decided to do with the progression of the work. If the author were to lead with (a) and then later tell me it wasn’t his wife, I’d begin to feel like the book was similar to a soap opera where people come back from the dead and things of that nature. I really dislike that kind of thing. If I invested any kind of time in the book, that would be a letdown.

    Reply
    • Well, I didn’t necessarily mean that (c) might be better than (a). It depends on what the writer is trying to do…
      Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply
      • Oh, yes. Very, very true. And every story not being for every reader also relates to finding an agent. (I will always go with time travel, because it can be so much fun if you just don’t worry too much about it. My mom, on the other hand, is one of your “That’s just impossible” types.)

  3. Really excellent post. I agree with your take but could never have verbalized it so well. I always tell my husband (during those times I’m bombarding him with writing tips he cares nothing about), that a story can be fiction, it can be made up and implausible to what we know in real life, but it has to be believable in the context it’s in. Go ahead and write about switching bodies with someone else, but if you expect your readers to believe it happened by the characters pushing each other’s belly buttons, then that probably isn’t going to fly.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Carrie, and you’re right. Something like body-switching could be sci-fi, it could be magic, or it could be supernatural (hand of God sort of thing). Each of those would require a different set-up and a different set of “rules” that the story would have to work within. They would also appeal to different groups of readers.

      Reply
  4. This is also a good insight into why no book will “please” every reader. I have no trouble “suspending disbelief” and enjoying a good time-travel story or other sci-fi. But other people cannot do that. I know people who say they won’t read time-travel books “because time travel is impossible.” (I won’t get into the physics that might suggest otherwise…. 🙂 )

    For them, it’s not an area where they can suspend disbelief. But they might have no trouble with a book in which angels come to Earth and interact with humans.

    But yes, we have to keep our fictional world internally consistent and logical for the readers who will suspend their disbelief for us.

    Reply
  5. Great post. I agree with JM’s comments too about a writer never being able to please every reader for this reason. But there is nothing more aggravating than reading a story and the items or people don’t mesh with the setting or something else. Then the reader feels they’re just being handed a bunch of malarkey and might not give that author a second chance. I loved your story scenario and choices in the example. Well done.

    Reply
  6. Oh, this is good, very good. I feel that authors use POV often to lie or keep secrets from their readers in order to maintain what they hope is a surprise ending or a ‘twist’. But if I feel the device throughout the story then I am less likely to respect that twist–which can’t really be called a twist if it’s performed at the reader’s expense.

    Great examples to make your point, too. 🙂

    Reply

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