“Ben Gerrard’s been on this earth for 18,913 days, yet he’s never shared a room with a man capable of tearing another person limb from limb.”
All right, shame on me for using a line from my first book, but it seems as good a place as any to talk about selling reality–the task that fiction writers must do best. (This is similar to world-building, as a writer must sell the reality of the world he/she builds. I’ll get to that in another post.)
The above line, from my debut novel Watching the World Fall, is about power and fear. The reality of the situation is that Ben Gerrard–a 52-year-old architect and former football player–has kidnapped a demigod of a college linebacker. MacReynolds Galtier is a famously huge man, 7’1″ and 310 pounds of quarterback-eating madness. Someone strong enough to push SUVs around certainly poses a mortal threat to other people–particularly an adversary. I may have made him a bit unrealistic in scope, but it works for the exchange of power and powerlessness at the heart of the story. Gerrard, my antihero, has numerous reasons to fear Galtier getting loose in his house.
How to sell it
They say “the devil is in the details” and that seems most accurate for fiction-writing. We have to get down to the granular level and put our reader in the room, in the character’s head. Sensory feedback is key. In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees we’re withering in South Carolina heat. It makes you antsy and flattens you with exhaustion at the same time. In Krakauer’s seminal Into Thin Air, we are right up there in the so-called death zone, dizzy with fatigue and lack of oxygen. Any false step could mean a desperate rescue via ice axe or belay, or simply death.
My job, as a professional writer, is to put readers in that room, on that mountain. If you’re not there experiencing what my character experiences at that moment, then I haven’t done my job well. You’re not going to buy into their situation or their story. You may not even care what happens to them, which means I’ve lost you as a reader. That equates to failure.
In the opening scene of 1984
, poor Winston Smith recalls seeing a propaganda film in which a refugees’ boat was blown apart–it “went all to matchwood.” Along with sounding like a very British observation, Orwell’s detail (one of many) sets the tone of the hate-filled, tyrannical world. That Smith lives in Victory Mansions, a drab dump among a war-ruined city, is both satire and, simultaneously, un-funny.
Among Pat Conroy’s elegant details and yarns of The Prince of Tides
is the vengeful joke played by the Wingo kids on the wealthy Newbury family. Hero Tom Wingo and siblings sneak a deceased, 200-pound loggerhead turtle into the Newburys’ master bedroom. They tuck it into the expensive bed, crank up the heat and flee. The Newburys don’t return for a few weeks. Conroy doesn’t need to explain exactly what a decomposing marine animal smells like. Anyone who’s experienced low-tide and can magnify that by a thousand–and confined to a room–will get it. Sure enough, the victims of this prank had to burn the affected mattress and sheets.
Mark Bowden’s brilliant Black Hawk Down
–a non-fiction account of the 1993 U.S. Special Forces disaster in Somalia–is chock-full of grisly details. The reader is left with no questions about the results of modern weapon use on the human body. (The book should be, in my opinion, required reading for all soldiers-to-be and trauma physicians and nurses.) This is the reality Bowden puts us in–36 hours in war-torn hell. The rendering is so precise and gripping that we simply cannot leave until he allows us to.
Some examples of what not to do
I pick on Hollywood movies because, with mistakes, their examples are instructive. With a film, the director and producer are showing us exactly what we’re meant to see and experience. There’s no room left for imagination. Because of this, I feel their errors are particularly glaring. And for every “Hurt Locker” or “The Bourne Identity” moment of undeniable brilliance, there’s a celluloid segment where I’ve asked myself, ‘What was the director thinking? That’s not believable.’ And while nobody’s paying me $2 million to bring a story to the big screen, I’m nevertheless allowed to point out the occasional flaw (even if I didn’t pay any money to see the film).
In Michael Bay’s 2007 action film “Transformers” (the only one of the series I watched) there’s a scene where the Autobots (25-foot humanoid robots) are creeping around the hero’s neighborhood at night. Just to accept the reality for a moment, let’s assume each robot weighs as much as a full-sized excavator (50 tons plus). So, even if nobody’s outside walking their dog and nobody happens to notice the alien presence of huge, moving machinery down the street, we still have the issue of these things stalking about and not creating mini earthquakes.
I used to work at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (newspaper) on the Seattle waterfront. Train tracks ran right past the building, through Myrtle Edwards park and continuing north. When a freight car shifted at a small wrinkle in the track, the whole building shook. In fact, when the 2001 Nisqually Quake hit, I at first assumed it was an overloaded freight train coming through. So, in the film, audience members are expected to buy that these 100,000-pound metal creatures walking around wouldn’t crush the street surface, shatter windows and bring everyone outside wondering who dropped an aircraft carrier on Sleepyhead Lane?
In “Jurassic Park” sequel “The Lost World,” Steven Spielberg (yes, that one) commits a similar blunder. Through mishaps, the T-Rex, animal star of the show, makes her way off the cargo ship and to an upscale San Diego neighborhood (because palm-trees-and-pools cul de sacs are always located right beside a major shipping port). So now we have a gigantic animal (forty feet long) casually strolling through a neighborhood. No sounds of breathing or footfalls (from a twenty-ton creature) or panic-inducing vibrations. The area pets also fail to notice, except for the one family dog who halfheartedly barks (perhaps forgetting it’s tied to the doghouse). So the next time someone notices the T-Rex, its standing by the pool with (in what is supposed to be humorous) a doghouse hanging from its jaws (the canine having quietly become a late-night snack). This scene was, by the way, brought to us by the same director who’s ultra-realistic “Saving Private Ryan” showed the world what D-Day was really like. (I, for one, hear the beautiful audio of the soldiers under water every day.)
Now, us writers have a more difficult job of storytelling. It’s entirely on us, and we won’t get a lot of fresh eyes on a manuscript. I assume that if I don’t catch an error or an obvious lack of important details, no one else will before the book is published.
Going with those details
To me, one of the reasons writing fiction is so enjoyable is the selection of imagery and sensory tidbits that we recognize. My aunt recommended opening The Churning with “Tires popping on gravel.” It’s a simple sound that we can all relate to–the nearby arrival or transit of a vehicle–and it’s enhanced because hero Arman Hessabi cannot see anything at the moment. Soon, he also hears a strange hissing sound. When his hood is off, he finds this is a steam radiator, the kind that goes off at predictable intervals in an old-school building in February. (I had one such unit in my old apartment in St. Paul, a turn-of-the-century brownstone complete with a claw-foot tub.) Later on, when Hessabi eyes the locked door to the outside, it’s one of those old European types, two to three inches thick and as heavy as a heifer. Hessabi knows he’d sooner crumple his shoulder than bang his way through the door unassisted.
In Endgame, heroine June Vereeth and company are stranded on the icy world of P-75. It only made sense to me that other planets aren’t going to smell exactly like Earth. So, on P-75, an element called geridia lends a hazelnut scent and flavor to everything. The geridia particles in the atmosphere are also responsible for the sky’s change from light green to purple (in the span of seconds) at the moment of noon. Towards the climax, when the heroes remove their home-made crampons, Vereeth is conscious of less crunching underfoot, and of feeling a little less stable. While none of these details is as prominent as the mind-numbing cold or the presence of white (even the oceans have a whitish-green tint) it’s the background stuff that helps put the reader inside the adventure.
Obtaining reality’s building blocks
The creak of an old leather coat. The sandpaper texture of granite. Fragrant flowers. A huge, overfed dog lumbering onto your lap on the couch. Many valuable sensory scraps are easy to come by. Does the object in your character’s hand feel like wet mulch or a cat’s whiskers? While questions like this are easier to decipher, sometimes we have to research the stuff that isn’t relatively available.
Fortunately, we writers have an incredible tool at our disposal–the Internet. People are more than happy to share the bizarre, the insightful and most anything else that comes to mind. For example, I can warn readers not to make the mistake of eating uncooked shallots (whose acidic burn must be similar to horseradish). Thanks to my exceedingly generous mother-in-law, I can relate that humpback whales’ breathing sounds like wet tires rubbing. My wife, who’s spent plenty of time in the operating room, says the foulest smell on earth (and she’s smelled some disgusting scents!) is the burn of vertebrae being chiseled out via hammer during spinal surgery. So, if you need it, go find it.
The other invaluable component of the Internet is Google Images and similar. Almost everything is out there, and a lot of it hasn’t been Photoshopped.
[The above picture ran everywhere after it was first taken by a teacher in South Africa. I’m just borrowing this lousy copy for an example.]
For the vast majority of people, our world is dominated by what we see. It’s a great way to put us somewhere, to allow us to experience what the viewer is feeling. I, for one, am terrified of the charging shark in the above image. I can feel the water is cold and the cage’s steel bars are probably icy. But I’m more freaked out because I can reach out and touch the shark’s fleshy gums, to be followed by the horrifyingly quick pressure and pain of losing my arm. (A friend of mine once went in a similar cage off Capetown and got to pet the snout of a 15-footer. He was fine, but my heart races just thinking about that.)
This moment, just like the one depicted below, was real. A genuine great white shark was lunging after a tied piece of meat (probably horse, from what I hear) and probably well aware of the living creatures protected by metal bars beyond.
[This famous photo, taken in 2013, also ran numerous places after first being published in a military magazine. Sadly, Army photographer Hilda Clayton and others were killed when a mortar detonated during training.]
It’s one thing to watch the flashy (or realistic) explosions occurring on a TV show or movie screen. It’s another thing, entirely, to view the above image or others and know that, yes, this is what a real bomb’s detonation looks like and people didn’t walk away from it. Training accidents happen all the time, with unchangeable results. The costs are real and the details are real. With photos like these, a writer has fewer excuses.
If you’re not sure about where to find the granular building blocks for setting or event, ask a friend. Lots of people can tell you what dog breath smells like, or the itch of a caterpillar on bare skin, or the quasi-savory flavor of burnt popcorn. A couple times every summer, a hummingbird investigates the pear trees bordering my yard. The quick fluttering sound of transitional flight is not unlike a cat’s purr or the vibration of a cell phone on certain surfaces or the shifting of a red wasp in August heat.
Is it a bowling ball rolling down the lane or a large man’s steady snore or a 747 lumbering over the clouds?
The fun part is, based on your character or tone of the story, you get to pick which detail to use. It’s a crucial part of the sell.