Saturday, February 23, 2008

Believability in Fiction

Maria and Lawrence have been expressing different opinions about Robert Crais’ THE WATCHMAN and part of their exchange has centered on the issue of believability and suspension of disbelief.

Quoting Maria:
I didn't have trouble with the suspension of disbelief because none of it is supposed to be terribly believable. For me, it was no different than a space story--lots of guns, lots of fighting and action, good guys against bad. Or no different than a completely made-up fantasy novel with a setting that has a lot of sword and sorcery.

Quoting Lawrence:
Why is it not supposed to be believable? It is not like Robert Crais set out to write a satirical take on the thriller novel, no this novel is pretentious in that sense. Sure, if we were dealing with a satire, than I would take everything with a healthy grain of salt, but since we're not I do take this novel serious. Likewise I also expect Robert Crais to be serious about his work, and not throw a mumble jumble of random coincidentally connected events in the gigantic mixer.

Quoting Maria
I probably said that poorly. Let me see how I can explain. I don't "believe" fiction--it's fiction. I don't find a guy having 12 karate belts any more or less believable than a guy who can win a sword fight that is 5'2" and has little practice against a trained warrior. But those types of things exist in these types of books. The underlying theme is somewhat the same--you have to be able to read a certain amount of it knowing that real life is set aside in order to concoct the story--whether that is "little guy finally comes out on top" or "there are heroes bigger than life out there willing to protect the vulnerabe innocent." That's partly why I referred to it as escapist fiction. The reality factor is much less so than in a "normal" thriller type where perhaps your belief is more grounded in more realistic events.

This exchange reminds me of the review criteria discussion I started last month.

Question: Should there be different reviewing criteria for the different subgenres? Within crime fiction, for example, some people do not feel any book classified a thriller needs to be realistic. Thriller protagonists are allowed to display superhero-like qualities - an ability to go for days without sleeping or eating, etc, and still defeat their adversaries.

Now, I do believe that ideally, we assess a book for what it’s trying to be, not what it obviously isn’t. I remember this from some responses to SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, from people who said they hoped my next book would be darker, and hoped I didn’t mind them saying so. No, but I also didn’t take it as a serious criticism of SC. SC was always intended to be a mainstream book. After all, I didn’t want to write sex, didn’t want characters who swore and the nature of the characters I was dealing with had a bearing on the nature of the content I included in the story.

It’s the difference between my very first short story published online,Breaking The Christmas Curse (which I dread the thought of reading more than three years later) and more recent offerings such as Bull’s Eye and Childhood Dreams.

I’d be bored to tears writing the same thing all the time… but this is a tangent. The only point to make here is that a book can be criticized as a failure if it tries to be dark and spooky and isn’t. A book can’t be fairly criticized for not being dark and spooky if it’s trying to be something else.

It seems to me what’s at the root of Maria and Lawrence’s debate is a question of reader expectations, as well as reasonable expectations from any book. Consider my review of Queenpin which produced a similar question about question about believability.

Quoting MattD:
I have not read this book nor indeed much crime fiction, but the signals I'm picking up about this book -- based just on what you included in your review -- all make me think that it's not something that is meant to be believable. It looks like a book that is trying to have a dialog with the mid-20th century pulp fiction hardboilers -- from the cover to the title, the basic plot, even the 1950s prudishness when it comes to sexual description. It seems, in other words, to be thoroughly aware that it is fiction; playing with the tropes, narratives, and character archetypes of the genre's formative past; giving them a twist; and perhaps trying to say something thereby. I wonder if the lack of a name for the POV character and the use of apparently out-of-place details like "Mounties" aren't meant to contribute to that sense of fiction, to signal to the reader that it's not meant to be taken as real by making it impossible to do so. Those are the kinds of signals that, as a reader of speculative fiction, I'm used to having to decode in order to determine how to read a book. Is there any reason to take this book as attempting to be believable as mimetic fiction other than the fact that it is crime fiction?

There are certain books that scream from page one, “I’m just good fun, don’t try to take me seriously.” Within crime fiction there are whole subgenres that rely on suspension of disbelief. What springs to mind automatically is Canada’s love of the amateur sleuth story. Books that rely on idiotic police departments who, though employing all of their resources in investigating this most serious crime, are barely more than keystone cops and thank God we have Sally the baker or Timmy the dog-walker or Pastor Pete or Helen the hairdresser tripping over clues until they have that, “Gosh-darn-it-all” moment where suddenly they snap their fingers and know who-dunnit.

They are what they’re trying to be, Sandra. You said yourself you can’t fault a book for not being something it isn’t trying to be.

Actually, that is why I have a problem with some of these amateur sleuth books. I’ve read all of H. Mel Malton’s Polly Deacon books and thoroughly enjoyed them (Down in the Dumps, Cue The Dead Guy, Dead Cow in Aisle Three, One Large Coffin To Go). How does the puppet-maker get a pass while others have left me rolling my eyes and shaking my head, if not tossing the book against the wall?

Because some of them try to justify themselves to make the set-up plausible. There is a delicate balance here, because every book establishes its own level of believability. It is the job of the author to give signals to the reader to tell them where the book falls on the spectrum. If the author goes to great lengths to justify why we should accept that a hairdresser is investigating a murder, we subconsciously begin to expect there to be a certain level of believability to the story.

Even works that fall in fantasy and sci fi or that have paranormal elements face the believability issue. They establish a certain type of truth about how their society runs, of the mechanics, the laws, the environment, etc. To make a simple but extreme example, a critical element of The Lord of the Rings is the fact that nobody can have the ring without being corrupted by it. It is inherently evil, and from Galadriel to Elron to Gandalf to Frodo, none of them could dare hope to possess it and not be affected by it.

Imagine if Frodo had gotten to Mount Doom and then slipped the ring on his finger and said, “It’s okay Sam. I figured out how to control it.” Then he snaps his fingers and all Sauron and Saruman and all the forces of evil disappear and the earth is restored with grass and flowers and beautiful sunshine, gentle streams running through the land.

I mean… who could take that seriously? I’d feel cheated and irritated, and lose respect for the writer.

Part of the problem with fiction is that readers often pick up on the signals subconsciously, and we’re not always good at expressing why we interpret a book the way we do. Readers are individuals, and there are different things that stand out to different readers as sore spots. For example, my familiarity with firefighting procedures and arson investigation make it hard for me to suspend the level of belief required for many works that deal with arsons. Last year, I read a book by one author and watched a TV episode based off of a popular crime fiction series by another author (that I read) and both made me laugh. When efforts are made to present believable police procedurals that work within the confines of legalities and technicalities in all other aspects of the investigation, seeing obvious mistakes with arson investigations isn’t something you can dismiss. Even Homicide - arguably one of the best network TV shows ever – made mistakes with arson investigation. For one thing, people are not crawling all over the scene within hours of a huge fire, particularly people who are not arson investigators. Structural engineers must determine the safety of the building before anyone is allowed to go traipsing through the building… Not to mention the idiocy of swinging from charred beams and cops entering the scene without protective footwear and helmets. There are usually hotspots and flare-ups can occur hours after a fire is labeled “out”. There’s debris everywhere that can cut through typical footwear.

Where I live, not even the RCMP have full authority at the scene of a fire, even if it’s a suspected or confirmed arson. The arson investigator has the right to order them out and off the scene if they deem it unsafe, for any reason.

The bi-product of my knowledge about arson investigation is that I’ll be less forgiving for slight errors, or attempts to justify the lack of standard procedure in an investigation.

That does not mean that I even aim for every aspect of my own work to be realistic. There’s a difference between being realistic and being believable. The simple truth is, if those of us who write police procedurals adhered to the procedure 100% our books would be ten times as long from writing out all of the steps required to execute search warrants, etc. and the books would be incredibly dull and boring. More specifically, we’ve all seen movie after movie (or CSI) with police dogs in the US having an item of clothing held up to their nose so they can find a scent trail.

The RCMP do not train their dogs this way. They use no item of clothing or a personal belonging. The dogs are trained to seek out the strong scent trails. Someone who’s being chased, been kidnapped, fleeing a crime scene is going to sweat, and leave a stronger scent trail than someone who was just out for a walk. I did my research with the top trainer for the canine unit for the RCMP, so I know how it’s done.

However, over-exposure to a different approach means I have work to do to close the gap between what many people believe really happens, and the actual procedure we use.

As a writer, it’s a delicate balance. The question is, for you as a reader, what allows you to fully suspend disbelief? Is it a love of the characters that enables you to overlook an implausible storyline, or is the willingness – and advanced knowledge – that you’re sitting down to indulge in something meant to be completely silly and fun?

What makes you apply a standard of realism to your assessment of a book, and what makes you suspend disbelief and just enjoy the ride?

(I've posted part of this in the forum at MBS and I hope Maria, Lawrence and others chime in with their thoughts. Opinions wanted.)


John McFetridge said...

All I'm gonna say is I can't wait till you go through your post-modern phase... or your magic realism phase... ;)

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's very interesting to see how other people approach books. I've lost count of the number of blog posts I've seen from authors saying that the things they're criticized for as being unbelievable are what's actually true.

Of course, with your books John, I find it hard to believe people can have that much good sex. But I could eventually be proven wrong. ;)

norby said...

I had a big moment at the end of a movie I watched the other night. A guy gets shot twice in the back, from not that far away, say ten feet. You see it happen from the front, so the bullets either come out his chest or close to it.

The guy then runs out, down the street, into another building and up onto the roof where he sits down and has a conversation with someone before he dies. Did I mention that the shots were on the left side of his body?

No. No, no, no. Not possible. The movie actually continues for about ten minutes after that, but for me, it was over right then. I'm willing to suspend disbelief, but don't treat me like I'm stupid.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hey... I think I saw that movie!

Sandra Ruttan said...

(Which is a real first for me, a Hallmark moment of sorts, eh Norby?!)

norby said...

You know, I knew when I posted the comment that you had seen it, but it is strange that you saw a movie before I did!! I want to know when I can send a list of your required viewing so that you can start catching up!

I tried not use character names so that anyone else who read it who hasn't seen the movie won't have it ruined for them.

I've already told you my impression of the film.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Send the list to Bunny.

Hell, he probably has one of his own...

Stephen Blackmoore said...

We all have different criteria for suspension of disbelief and we all have different things that will pull us out of it.

In most cases I think it comes down to consistency. If your world is consistent from beginning to end it makes it much easier to swallow.

In some ways fiction in a contemporary setting has a harder time with that than in a fantasy setting. It's easier to spot the inconsistencies.

Of course, writing fantasy in the first place is difficult because you don't get a lot of built in preconceptions from your audience.

Either way you're fucked.

Friend of mine would go on about some minor detail that would pull him out of the story. Like, really minor. Especially in context of the other things that didn't.

Okay, so let me get this straight. You're okay with the cyborg ninjas with the laser katanas, the DD bimbos with rocket launchers who don't need any kind of armor to avoid being hacked apart by the 80-foot zombie hamster who's singing Neil Diamond karaoke as he eats Manhattan... but you can't get past the fact that the half naked nuclear physicist who flashes her tits every three minutes is named Bambi?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Now everyone knows why I adore Stephen Blackmoore. LOL!

John Dishon said...

A friend of mine told me about a Hong Kong movie he saw once where the hero is in a gunfight and everyone (including the viewer) thinks he is out of bullets. He ends up getting one last kill, however. Later on, the movie flashes back and shows you the part where the hero has hidden a bullet in his mouth and after he ran out of bullets, spit the bullet into the open chamber for that last shot.

I don't know what movie it was, but I would sure like to see it.

Anonymous said...

I've always heard that fiction is truer than reality, but even our fiction needs a smidge of the real in it.

Terry Finley

Sandra Ruttan said...

John, sounds like an interesting movie.

Terry, interesting way of putting it. Multiple possible interpretations.

Anonymous said...

In crime fic, guns are important. Writing about what happens when people shoot and get shot is important. I put this up on Crimespace, where it was met with what I anticipate will be equal incredulity and indifference here:

W/r/t norby's comment: gunshot victims do not fall down dead. You've learned that from tv and movies. Fatal gunshot wounds to anywhere but a 3x5 inch area of the head and a 2x4 inch area of the throat are not immediately incapacitating. Fatal chest wounds can require between 15 seconds and several days to result in incapacitation. See the section "The Human Target" of:
See also Reservoir Dogs's Mr. Orange (Freddy Newandyke, played by Tim Roth) for an excellent example of realistic death by gunshot. For further documented examples of post-chest-wound survival, see:
These are not the exceptions. The only people who get shot, fall down, and give up are those who have learned their firearms mentality from tv and movies.