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Tuesday, January 30, 2007



Now here's an interesting thing. Over the weekend, at about two in the morning, I woke up screaming. Literally screaming: not just a whimper, but several full-on high-volume high-pitched shrieks. I really don't know why; presumably I was having a nightmare, but I can't remember anything about it, and though I get pretty bad nightmares sometimes, they usually don't make me do anything more than twitch. I can't account for why I'd be having a nightmare anyway: I'd been watching the movie Silent Hill, but it struck me more as ambient horror than as genuinely scary (very nice visual effects, with a plot you didn't need to pay much attention to); a dog ran at me earlier in the day, and I actually did scream, because I'm extremely phobic and the thing was coming right at me. Incidentally, the dog ran off in the other direction immediately, which suggests an evolutionary reason for screaming when frightened - make big noise, scare predator away. But all in all, I hadn't had a bad day, and I felt fine, if a bit sleep-deprived, the following day, so why I should have such a Gothic awakening at two in the morning is beyond me.

Prior to this weekend, I didn't think people did wake up screaming. I thought it was a literary convention. It's perfectly possible for someone to have a violent nightmare and wake up suddenly with nothing noisier than a tense little gasp, so why would anybody actually scream? It seemed overdone.

I now know that this is not the case. But here's the main point: having witnessed with my own ears that it does sometimes happen, I still wouldn't use it in a story. It sounds too unlikely.

Many people who've been to a writing class will be familiar with the following conversation:

'I don't think that someone would really act the way you're describing. It just doesn't seem plausible; you need to work on that.'

'No, you see, this is based on someone real, and it actually did happen.'

'I don't care, I still don't believe a word of it.'

The latter remark tends not to get made aloud, or at least, not in that form, but it is said in every head around the table. Check out the Martian story in the FAQ for a joke on the subject. Part of it, I think, is that if you know something really exists, you're less likely to put effort into convincing people. I don't have to work very hard to convince readers that if I put ink on a paper, do some folding and drop it in a box, it'll somehow wind up in Australia: all I need to say is 'I posted a letter'. But there's a difference between citing physical things like post boxes and forms of behaviour, because behaviour is a slippery thing that varies wildly from moment to moment and person to person. The thing is, when someone says, 'I don't believe someone would do that,' what they're really saying is, 'You haven't convinced me that your character would do that.' I've read books that made me believe that an alien would use a car to hunt human beings, that a child can have nine lives, that an entire village would spontaneously give birth to identical babies with a hive mind, but tell me a character woke up screaming without some serious groundwork, and you've lost me. Even though I now know it sometimes happens.

The lesson here is: never assume people will believe in something just because it's real.

Have you encountered something real that you wouldn't credit in fiction?

I encountered Ian Rankin, in my garden shed.

'What are you doing in my garden shed?' I asked.

He stared at me, incredulous.

'I'm Ian Rankin,' he said. 'Obviously, I'm writing an Inspector Rebus mystery.'

'Oh,' I said. 'Will DC Siobhan Clarke be in it? I like her.'

'Possibly,' he said. 'But she's not a DC any more. She's been promoted.'

'That's nice,' I said. 'She works very hard.'

'Mm,' he said. 'Now, if you don't mind?'

'Oh, right,' I said. 'Better let you get on.'

A week later I checked, and he was gone. And so was my bloody rake! I was furious. I never had that kind of trouble with Lynne Truss.
I've had this argument so many times.

I think it comes down to a slightly different problem: what's in our heads v. what's on the page. We read it over, and it seems plausible to us because we know it's true. It's hard to come at it from the stance of the reader.

The story I usually cite to try to illustrate how implausible the "truth" can be is the chap who drove 20 km with a shark attached (by its teeth) to his leg. Maybe in a comedy that would work. What I still want to know is how both he and the shark fitted into his car.
Was the shark still alive?! I mean, would there have been wriggling issues?
Truth is often stranger than fiction. How many times has that been quoted at you? Life constantly seems to be trying to prove that it can out-weird even the strangest human imagination. Honestly. Is Life just trying to one-up the human race all this time? "Anything you can do, I can do better...I can do anything better than you..."

I think we have those little "one-in-a-million" occurences happening to us all the time. I once saw a video of a guy sink a basketball by throwing it over his shoulder without looking. My father, when he was a teen, went shooting a rifle with some friends out in the woods. They set up some pennies in the crook of a tree branch and decided to see how far they could shoot the pennies from. On their first shot, something whizzed back past my dad's ear so close it burned. The shot had hit a penny at the perfect angle to ricochet straight back. The penny never moved.

I doubt these kinds of thing would be well-believed in a story.
My favourite example of something that happens all the time in real life but you'd never believe in a novel is when someone finds out your home town (in my case, a fairly large city) and says, "Oh, I've got a friend from there, do you know x?" and you always do!
Here's the story. At some point the shark died, but wriggling during the drive is a distinct possibility.

I know it's not very highbrow, but the mention of screaming in your sleep reminds me of one of the Tintin books. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised by this in a comic strip, but one of the things I love about the Tintins is the high number of implausible events per story. e.g Tintin in Tibet.
1. Tintin wakes up with a shriek, having dreamt that his friend Chang has survived a terrible plane crash.
2. He happens to receive a letter from Chang the next day.
3. He happens to notice an article in the paper about the plane crash, and it so happens that Chang is the only individual passenger mentioned in the story.
etc. This kind of thing goes on for much of the story, but it doesn't seem to detract from it. In fact, it's part of the charm.
How long ago did you post that letter to down-under? Hasn't arrived yet.... :)
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