Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Are Consequences Unrealistic in Fiction?
For example, she gets a suspicious phone call and goes off to a bad section of town to meet a guy who claims to have some of her sister's stuff. He's a drunk and a junkie, but she still follows him into his apartment. Ah, but he's a nice guy. And she blows a bike tire--late at night--and big tattooed guy offers to fix it for her. She follows him to his back yard, where his big spooky van is parked. He turns out to be a complete teddy bear who really does fix her bike. Oh, and within a couple weeks they are sleeping together. Overall, she's out doing all this stuff, never gets busted, never gets hurt, and even meets the guy of her dreams....
OK, so kids do get lucky. I know I got very lucky during my wild-child days. But if I were talking to teens, I wouldn't tell them just those parts. I wouldn't write out just the cool stuff because, even though I think teens are awesome...I think teens are awesome. In other words, I'm not looking to just connect with teens, I'd want them to learn from my stupidity, so they don't go out and screw up their lives because I care about their lives, which means going past the party days into what the consequences are.
In fiction, that can be hard to do--I get it. But since we authors do have the ability to manipulate the story, don't you think we ought to compact some of it down to show these things, no matter how "real" we want to make our fiction?
Oh, yeah. I used that word: "real." Yep, writers talk a lot about making their stories real. But the truth is, we make them real-ish. Events in books are generally things that would never happen. People are so much more eloquent--even the master of natural sounding dialog doesn't write exactly what people say in real life, or we'd have lots of books filled with rabbit trails and "um..." and repetitiveness. And remember, a book is usually only a slice of someone's life, but readers want resolution. That is what makes a story as story: a beginning, a middle, AND an end.
So tweaking details is necessary, such as having consequences come a little sooner than they might in real life (we know cancer doesn't happen after the first cigarette, but if all you do is show the first smoke, you'll never understand the danger).
On the other hand, you don't want your writing to be "preachy." How gag-worthy is it when the good characters are so perfect and the bad ones are so bad? Only the bad guys ever cuss and drink. Only the sleazy girls are hooking up with guys. Miss Prim-and-Proper studies all day and wins Mr. Popular from her sheer goodness and has a perfect life while the sinners are off dealing with teen pregnancy and broken hearts, or sitting in jail because they shoplifted a DVD.
No, life isn't like that. Good people make mistakes. Sometimes they get caught, sometimes not. Sometimes they learn from it, sometimes not. Bad guys have a history, usually of something painful that makes them that way. And just like good people, bad guys sometimes get away with things and sometimes don't. When you take it to the point of absolute black and white, with characters that have no shades of gray, it starts feeling more like a lesson than a story partly because it just so totally doesn't ring true to real life.
But how do we find balance? How far is too far when it comes to showing reality? Do we owe it to our readers to include consequences?