Before I explain today’s title, I’ll remind you that the subject of research has been on my mind in a big way this month, and in last week’s blog I addressed how and when I do it.
I’ve been immersed in the final rounds of research for The Swallow’s Nest, and thinking a lot about how important facts are in fiction. I find this an interesting question, do you? Novelists talk about writing in such a way that our readers can “suspend disbelief.” In other words telling a story in such a way that readers will not be pulled out of our fictional world back into their real world by something they know is not true.
I’m sure that’s happened to you, right? You’re reading along and suddenly a character arrives in a brand new car from a manufacturer who went bankrupt a decade before. Apparently years ago it happened to one of my readers who wrote me the sweetest letter–remember letters?–saying how much she loved my book, but at the same time she was surprised my calendar had Ash Wednesday and Easter in the same week.
Well, no one was more surprised than yours truly.
So in the battle between facts or a fabulous story? I am absolutely thrilled with two new television series this season. This Is Us is the riveting story of an unusual family. Each episode weaves past and present together and stuns its audience with surprise twists. The writing is stellar, far beyond the standards of most television show, and the casting and acting are inspired.
Designated Survivor is the story of an ordinary man, the low man on the totem pole in a presidential cabinet, who finds he is suddenly the president of the United States after a horrible act of terror wipes out the Capitol and most elected officials.
Two very different shows, right? Still, they have many of the same strengths. Creativity. Talented writers and actors. Interesting premises and twists.
Even if you haven’t seen these two, you should be able to draw some conclusions about the research that would be needed for each.
This Is Us is the more realistic. The show deals with the issues you and I and everyone else deals with every day. Family. Loyalty. Disputes. Secrets. Longing. Birth. Death. Racism.
Designated Survivor takes place in a world we know, but after an event we have never experienced. The crisis is global, the stakes couldn’t be higher. And while the internal story deals with many of the same issues I listed for This Is Us, the focus is different.
This Is Us feels real. Designated Survivor feels like reality-based fantasy.
With me so far?
A show that feels “real” needs real research. Since the events could actually take place, we, as viewers, should believe they really did, exactly the way we see them on the screen. A show with a premise closer to fantasy has to feel real, so the parts that seem real must be well researched. The parts that don’t? That where imagination comes in. Within certain parameters, anything goes.
Now, here’s the tricky part. The plot of the “realistic” drama, This Is Us, is based on something that I know for certain would never happen. And if you thought about it, you’d know this, too. Certainly not the way it does in the story. (I don’t want to spoil the show for you, so I’m not going to say what.) But the writers were faced with a decision. Facts or a fabulous story.
The real kicker? If the writers had followed my logic and changed the story to make it realistic, the impact would have been lost.
In the end? Writers walk a shaky tightrope. Do we tell the best story we can, squeezing facts into shapes we can use? Or do we find ways to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, even if our readers are just a teensy bit bored?
There’s no easy answer, and no answer fits every situation. Novelists or screenwriters have to decide for themselves which path to follow, when to veer away from it, and when to walk the straight and narrow. (Tightropes, paths, it’s a day for piling up metaphors.)
A rule to think about? If the story is so fabulous (This Is Us fits the bill) then veering off the path into more and better drama is probably okay. As long as its not habitual.
I’ll also say this. I had every reason to realize the facts had been twisted around in the pilot. Did I care? Did I even notice? No. Not until much later when I began to think about it. The pilot was that good.
Did this foray into the impossible spoil the show for me?
Not for a moment. Someday I would like to veer off a path with the same spectacular results. I just hope, as I wend my way into those woods, I know what I’m doing.