I don’t normally post about client work or manuscripts on the blog, at least not until they’ve sold. And especially not before I’ve had a chance to send notes to the writer. But I’m feeling a little crazy this morning (perhaps due to the five shots of espresso I had late last night, or the resulting lack of sleep…oy), so here it goes! I’m editing a manuscript right now where an interesting issue has come up, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to blog about fact and fiction. Without giving too much of this particular manuscript’s plot away, I’ll tell you that this manuscript includes a character going into shock after a traumatic event (an understatement).
Now, I don’t know if I’ve ever gone into serious shock (this is not an invitation to the Universe to provide me with such an experience, by the way), but I’m familiar with the biological process of it. One loses the ability to think rationally. There’s anxiety, a lot of adrenaline, screaming, paleness, chills, etc. The things one says make no sense. (To those wise-crackers out there who are planning to imply that the last criteria means that I have been in shock, and quite often, while blogging, I’m one step ahead of you!)
All of this is valid and, from a fact standpoint, true. When I turn on the TV and watch Law and Order (fact vs. fiction time: I don’t have a TV and, even if I did, I wouldn’t watch Law and Order, but bear with me here), a show where lots of people go through a rough time, I expect to see actors and actresses portraying shock realistically. So one would imagine that a character going through shock on the page would exhibit these symptoms, too, right?
Not so much. Why? Fiction is very logical. Even in moments of madness, there has to be “method in’t” (Hamlet, FTW). If you transcribe the exact experience of shock, it will be very realistic, but it would read strangely on the page. Just like when we read ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, a novel about crazy people (or is it?!), you don’t just have a transcription of the nonsense that goes on in a mental ward the way you’d have it in a stereotypical movie. You know, people burbling their lips with their fingers and sprouting random nonsense. That’s fine for the screen, but it doesn’t play quite as well on the page. Even if something “crazy” happens, it has to make fictional, motivational, character, and plot sense.
In other words, fiction is the art of taking something realistic to the next level. Even if you’re being true to life, you have to think of the craft and the character and story logic.
Another easy example to emphasize this point is dialogue. Dialogue is for sure “the art of taking something realistic to the next level,” because when we write dialogue, we interpret and elevate instead of transcribing. If we “wrote” dialogue to exactly mimic real speech, our pages would be pitted with “uh”s and “um”s and other useless stuff that infests our conversations. Great dialogue writers keep the cadence and voice of real people but they distill the words and how they’re spoken to be like life, but better. (This is, of course, just one component of truly great dialogue.)
So in the case of a scene of trauma or madness when the character experiences it too realistically, I’m challenged as a reader by that and feel really removed from the character. Why? Because, again, shock is all about floating in and out of awareness, random screaming, etc. A character, who I’ve gotten to know over the course of a book, is no longer making sense to me if their shock experience is described completely true-to-life. I feel outside of their experience (whereas elsewhere, especially in first person, I feel very close to them, as the connection is excellent).
This is especially true if the moment of hyper-reality happens at the climax of the story, and that’s actually when I need to feel closest to the protagonist and as clued in to their interiority (what’s going on in their head/heart) as possible. To yank the reader away from the character at such a critical point in time (or, you know, at any time, really) does the reader a disservice.
Where’s the lesson for you? When you’re describing something realistically, especially when a little madness starts to creep into the character and/or plot, take great pains to make story and character sense so that you include your reader. And speaking of Hamlet, it couldn’t hurt to study your Shakespeare. He does “logical madness” very well, with characters from Ophelia to Lady Macbeth. (Look! I’ve pulled a Shakespeare and coined a new oxymoron! (Also, what is with all my parentheticals this morning? (Seriously? (Also, I didn’t actually coin “logical madness.” Damn.)))) Shakespeare did, also, invent teenagers, by the way, so he’s worth a reread for today’s YA writers.