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Lying to the reader

Today I’m going to discuss ‘creative liberties’ in fiction, since I’m currently in a quandary over one in my own writing.

When it comes to fiction, in whatever form it may take–books, TV, movies, even songs (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is largely made up)–we often accept that things that wouldn’t happen in the real world can happen in fiction because well, it’s fiction. That’s why we have no problem accepting and enjoying stories about superheroes, vampires, and little old ladies solving murders better than the police. But even in fiction we expect some level of reality–for example, if the story is set in the ‘real’ world, then we expect most aspects of the story to follow the rules of our world. Unless you’re into surrealism, of course.

One of my personal pet peeves is when a random erratic thing gets thrown into an otherwise reality-based storyline. I’m not saying everyone should hate this, I’m just saying it’s my own personal dislike. A good example of this was in the show Sons of Anarchy, which I loved (and which I fully contend spawned the uptick of motorcycle club romances on the market).

**SPOILERS below if you haven’t seen the entire series!****

Sons of Anarchy takes place in our world and adheres to reality–I mean yes, there’s a lot of liberties taken with how the law and criminal activity works, but it’s supposed to be set in our reality.

However, randomly throughout the show, a mysterious homeless woman appears to various characters and seems to have a specific connection with the show’s main character, Jax. In the very last episode we find out she’s the Angel of Death. Like, the literal Angel of Death. If you know me, of COURSE you know I have great love for paranormal elements, but this was one supernatural detail in a show otherwise completely set in the ‘real’ world. The Angel of Death was a bizarre otherworldly creature dropped in the middle of a show about a criminal biker gang in modern day California.

What?

***END OF SPOILER***

Owing to the above, creative liberties should make a story more believable for a reader/viewer, not jolt them out of it. Creative liberties should help move the plot forward, not snag it. They should be invisible lies. Some creative liberties have been used so often they’ve actually become part of our consciousness and are things people actually believe outside of fiction. Some examples:

  1. The notion that an undercover police officer has to tell  a criminal that they’re a cop if the criminal asks. You’ve probably seen this in a million cop shows and movies. It’s 100% not true.
  2. Chloroform knocks people out. It takes a very long time for chloroform to knock someone out, and the person has to constantly keep breathing it in after that to stay out–and at that point, they’ll probably die.
  3. Defibrillators restart your heart. How many times have you seen those paddles used on a medical drama to restart someone’s heart? That’s not how they work. They can only stabilize the rhythm of a still-beating heart.

However, we let a lot of these things go when writers use them to move a story forward. Some readers know the truth and just ignore it, and some genuinely think these elements are realistic. As long as it doesn’t have the reader tripping over the narrative, it’s an invisible lie.

My own quandary that made me write this post is a scene I’m working on in which my heroes have just discovered the aftermath of a shootout in a suburban backyard. However, I need the neighbors to have not heard and called the police, because I can’t have the police there yet. My possible solution to this? Silencers.

Except, silencers don’t work that way (they aren’t even actually called that). Yet, they work that way in lots of other fiction so I’m probably just gonna go for it, rather than ditch the scene or move it elsewhere. For people who don’t know that silencers don’t actually muffle gunfire effectively, they won’t even notice. And for people like me who do know the truth about silencers, well–if your entire suspension of disbelief gives way in my book about vampires, shapeshifters, and people with magical powers because someone used a silencer the way they do in the movies, I apologize.

If Gordon Lightfoot can make shit up, so can I.

Megan Morgan View All

Urban fantasy and paranormal romance author.

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