Monday, October 24, 2011

Oh, That’s Not Right: Better to be Accurate or Do What’s Best for the Story?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I have some writer friends who write historical fiction. I was critiquing one of their manuscripts, and made a suggestion about changing a detail in something that happens. The detail was very minor (it involved the kind of animal used) but I felt this change raised the tension in the story. She thanked me for it, but said that the detail was historically correct and she wanted to be as accurate as possible.

No worries here, it’s her book and I don’t know squat about writing historicals. But it got me thinking.

Is there a line between being accurate and doing what’s best for the story?

This probably doesn’t apply to those writing historical fiction, where accuracy is likely part of the reason folks read them (though I’d love to hear thoughts on this from you historical folks). But I think everyone who’s ever done a critique has heard a fellow writer say, “but that’s how it really happened” in one manner or another. We do tend to draw from real life.

Fiction isn’t about the accurate portrayal of life. It throws out the boring parts and amps up the interesting parts, and it exaggerates wildly for the sake of entertainment (or to make a point). I know when I’ve tried to be accurate about real things it almost always messed me up. Events couldn’t happen a certain way because the “facts” prevent it.

This is probably why I have trouble writing in the real world. Fantasy is so much easier. But I do base my fantasy worlds on real places, and when I forget that those facts are just for inspiration, I find myself sacrificing story for accuracy.

Quick example, in my current WIP, I’m basing my culture on an ancient civilization. The people aren’t this culture, it’s just a jumping off point. But one fact in this culture is that they didn’t have names for units of measurement. No inches, miles, feet, hours, minutes. I was driving myself nuts trying to describe things without using any of those words. It was even making parts of the story unclear.

Then it hit me.

I wasn’t writing a historically accurate portrayal of this culture. I was making up people loosely inspired by this culture. It was my world; I could do whatever I wanted.

So I put the measurements back in.

Naturally this doesn’t hold true for things you can’t change. If all police cars suddenly flashed red and green lights readers will call foul (unless you’re writing science fiction or fantasy). But how often have you’ve been stuck because there’s a fact in your story you can’t figure out how to get around? Does that fact have to be factual?

In some cases it’ll be yes, in others no. The obvious things will be, well, obvious. But what about the subtle items? The ones we struggle with because we want to get it right, even when no one but us cares, or even would know if we got it right?

Accuracy or storytelling?

I tend to come down on the side of storytelling here. Fiction isn’t journalism, so if fudging a few non-critical facts makes the story better, I say go for it. Stories are heavy on the “what if?” anyway. As long as you’re not blowing credibility out of the water, do what’s best for the story.

What do you think? Are the facts more important than the story? Does it depend on genre (as with historical fiction vs fantasy)? Where do you feel the line between accuracy and storytelling lies?


  1. Here's an interesting theory.

    I sent a partial request to an agent who read my contemporary romance/women's fiction. One of the things she picked on was the fact the MC used the landline telephone. "Why didn't she use her cell phone?"

    Well, as I don't have a cell phone I couldn't write what I know so the MC had to use a landline.

    I also write historical romance and my beta readers always catch me if I mess up my facts. I think it's important if you're going to use them, to make them accurate because I know when I read, if I see a mistake or a fudgement, it sets my teeth on edge.

  2. Janice, you once again tap into a very tricky matter for me.

    I think these issues magnify tenfold when you write animal fantasy like I do.

    Often I feel people would rather I take the more naturalistic approach to my animals, particularly those who compare me to the usual suspects before me, who often took a more naturally authentic tact than I often do, outside the "talking" part, of course.

    Now for some stories, like my last MG WIP, that made sense, as while the place where the story takes place isn't real, I based it enough on the real world that the animals in that world would behave as close to the real life counterparts as possible, but towing the line with things that while not "Nature documentary" accurate, it works within the confines of that story's world, and that helps me more than frustrates me.

    But whenever I intentionally deviate from that into my version of the Beatrix Potter method* (See definition below), I get outed with things like-

    "This character couldn't lift this, grasp that, etc..."

    This is why the one animal I fear writing a story about are horses. All those ex-jocky, general horseback riders, and lovers of the "Sad Horse Stories" from their youth will crucify me if I describe their movements wrong or don't feed them right, etc.

    Janice, I'm with you that I'd rather have a well told story and not let facts ruin what I know the right thing for my story is.

    But when all but a handful of beta-readers take issue with the "inaccurate fact(s)" and they know you're not trying to be historical novel accurate, how do you know if they're right or not?

    Anne, I don't know your story obviously, but trust me, not every kid gets a cell phone early in their lives.

    I didn't get one until I was 16, and I've yet to see many kids under 11 at most carry one, and if your story's not set in present day, you shouldn't let it get to you.

    If all else fails, just use the classic "My (Your character) overly strict parents won't let me have one 'cause they said so" trick.

    My upbringing wasn't that strict with me as far as phones mind you, but that is the common rationale among many parents, so that's hardly unheard of yet.

    As always, hope this helps Anne and others feel less alone on this issue,

    *Animals walk up right, wear some clothes and act more like people, but I personally try to keep as much of their real life counterparts habits and traits (i.e. What they eat, rivalries, mating habits, etc) in play as possible.

  3. Great topic! As I write scientifically based forensic crime, reality is king for me. There is nothing more irritating for me than a book or TV show that gets lazy and shortcuts on science just to advance plot, so, for me, it's a challenge - keep the story hopping but keep the reality intact. Story has to be key, but if it takes a little extra planning and research to the keep the science accurate and real, then so be it.

    So, for me, factual accuracy and realism are crucial. I'm always so impressed with any author who can combine that with a nail biting story because they've done their job well.

  4. If I had to choose, then as a writer or a reader I'll always want a good story over realism and accuracy. In my gaming hobby, I've seen whole games come to a standstill over arguments about realism.

    If accuracy becomes a point of contention which is hindering the story, then I think something has to be changed. There is always some way for an author to make something believable without it being realistic. Like the cell phone example. If you need a teenager in a modern setting to be stuck somewhere with no way to call for help, then it's fine for their parents to not let them have a cell phone. Or maybe an older character can just value being uncontactable at times and doesn't carry one.

    Relying too much on realism can be detrimental to a story, often as much as being completely unrealistic. Most books and movies feature elements which are not accurate to real life, but which we've come to expect from our entertainment, such as the specific sound of a gun, what a swordfight looks like, how much evidence is required to ensure a conviction in a murder trial. So long as what you write for your setting remains believable and internally consistent, I think authors have a lot of leeway to play around with what is and is not accurate.

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  6. Had to re-type this due to inconstancy.

    Paul, I wish all the beta-readers who gave me the "Can't buy this" lectures would read your words here, it would've saved me from leaving my old critique group, or at least better help them understand where I come from better.

    I think the trick here is to be clear and direct enough so you get the doubters to get where you're coming from, even if they still don't agree, at least that can't say you did it in a cheap "Just because" way.

    Jen, I have very high respect for people such as yourself who take pride in being devoted to facts, but at the same time, AVOID the "Encyclopedia" syndrome that even the most fact-crazy readers and writers would find a pain to read.

    Some of us find this more confining than helpful, at least initially, I'm one of those writers, and I'm okay with that now. Mostly...

    Sometimes facts however, accurate, make the story worse, and outside nonfiction, and strict non-alternate reality historical novels, I think we need to be willing to allow some allowances for minor things, it's not like we're (Me anyway) trying to screw history or devalue how it really happened, but

    That's why Janice and myself prefer fantasy where we can use our world as a base, but let the world, it's characters and *shivers* politics, be shaped organically a lot easier, then if we get overly married to being devoted to getting a real setting right.

    That's why for me, while facts matter to an extent, I'd never write anymore if I let these things stifle my joy of storytelling, and the ability and willingness to take risks, one of the major setbacks with my writing right now.


    P.S. Just remember All, we can love reading things we just don't want to write or write well. I love accurate and gripping historical novels, but trying to write them gives me an ulcer, emotionally speaking, few things in life are worth risking that happening.

  7. My current WIP is historical fiction and I do try to be accurate because I know as a reader I hate it when something is just flat out wrong like anachronisms. But I do hear what you're saying and I've actually got one thing wrong in mine on purpose right now because it would just confuse the scene. It would normally be a female doing 'coat checks' but I made it a footman so that I wouldn't have a conversation between two females with all these "she saids" going around. Only one Beta noticed it so far, and I'm thinking it's not that big of a deal to keep it inaccurate here. Though I might change my mind :)

  8. All I can say is that I have stopped reading a book because of inaccurate (incorrect) material. A male coat checker may be very unusual but is not impossible. Riding a horse at full gallop for two days is.

    I find the opposite just as annoying. Ignoring an easy solution to create a dramatic situation turns me off as well.

    Dave K

  9. Taurean, I don't know about most people but when it comes to talking animals, I tend to divide books into `Redwall' and `Watership Down' categories. `Redwall' book have animals wearing cloths and doing things animals can't or don't. (Building Castles, playing with fire.) `Watership Down' books try to be as naturalistic as possible. I think as long as the reader knows which they're getting when they pick up the book they'll stick with you.

    I admit, my current WIP doesn't try to be realistic at all with talking animals. They're basically fuzzy Borrowers. I'm having a lot of fun, and I'm trusting my future readers to get what I'm going for; that is, an affectionate tribute to Golden Age mysteries.

  10. Well, we all know that Hollywood doesn't give a hoot about accuracy :)

  11. Well, Hollywood isn't the end all, be all in entertainment, let's keep that in mind.

  12. I am bothered by details that would be easy to have accurate, but aren't. I remember some Arthurian legend show having people throw rotten tomatoes and potatoes. It wouldn't have been any harder to use something actually available at the time. This small thing bothered me more than other vast liberties taken with the legends and history, because it was so easy to get right. It felt lazy.

  13. I write science fiction but I have similar problems, mainly military related and tactically related. (Having realistic modern battles that are interesting can be very difficult, mainly because shooting the bad guy makes for a dull climax.)
    Since I really want things to be accurate, as well as interesting to read about, it sometimes takes a lot of thinking to figure out how to make things work. For example, in my climax, I needed the villain to fight the MC but a gun fight would be boring so I had to make sure the characters couldn't use their guns, at least until there had been enough excitement.
    I see a lot of authors avoiding guns and having their characters use close range weapons, like fists or swords when it would be more realistic for the characters to carry pistols or rifles. (This is also something that happens all too often in TV or movies.) It's something that really annoys me because it seems very unrealistic that the characters never think they'd be better off shooting the huge bad guy rather than getting in a fist fight with him.

  14. As they say: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

    I think this holds true whether you're recounting actual events in your life, or writing a work of fiction. Yes, you want to keep as many of the facts "right" as possible. But if doing so prevents you from telling a good story, throw the facts out the window. Or adjust them to suit.

    Are there people who will complain it's not accurate? Absolutely. But there's nary a book or movie out there with all the facts correct. Because a list of facts is boring, and real life doesn't understand narrative structure.

    For example, which makes the better story:

    1) The truth
    When I was 12, my favourite song was Dr. Feelgood by Motley Crue. I really wanted it on tape, and asked for it for my birthday. When my birthday came around, I opened my presents with baited breath, but my parents didn't buy me any music.

    A few weeks later, I was shopping with my Dad when he offered to buy me a cassingle from the record store. I found Dr Feelgood, but Dad didn't like the look of it and wouldn't buy it for me. Instead, I ended up with Cher's If I Could Turn Back Time.

    A few weeks after that, Dad came home with a new cassingle for me -- one that the record store guy had recommended. It was Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up.

    2) The story:
    When I was 12, my favourite song was Dr. Feelgood by Motley Crue. I really wanted it on tape, and asked for it for my birthday. When my birthday came around, I looked over my presents with baited breath. And there it was - a small, cassette sized box.

    I opened all the other presents first, savouring the anticipation of having my favourite song at my disposal. Finally, I ripped the paper off and stared at...

    Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up.

    "The man at the record store said it would be perfect," my Dad said, looking proud of himself.

    Yeah. Thanks, Dad. I was the first person ever to get Rick Rolled.

  15. You have a really good point about this in fantasy. I was stressing out before for my fantasy novel because I was basing it on a culture which didn't have a uniform method of counting time. It took me a while to realise it didn't matter, being fantasy, but seeing this has made me feel a bit more confident about it. Thanks! :)

  16. Anne, that's the tricky part about facts. The things that will trip folks up you almost have to address, especially if it'll make them question the plot. I'm a gal who barely uses my cell phone at all, and has TWO landlines when most folks are getting rids of there's. That's a fact that wouldn't have made me wonder at all :)

    Taurean, I do think it's different for stories that are obviously meant to be unrealistic. Readers accept fantasy and sci fi premises when they open the book. I's have no trouble accepting animals talking and doing non-animal things, but if you broke what an animal can physical do (like one with no "hands" pick something up) then you'd lose me. But not if they used their teeth. Even when you're not being factual, you still have to maintain plausibility. I think that's probably where the line lines now that I think about it more.

    Paul, I've been there on those game arguments. And I agree: plausibility is different from realistic. You need plausibility, you don't always realism.

    Angelaquarles, oh good a historical author! Thanks for chiming in. Anachronisms bug me when I see them, so I can see how important that would be to the story. I think your example is a great one on how to bend a fact and still be true to the story.

    Dave, oo that always bugs me. People always go for the easy solution first in real life.

    Elle, so true. You know, its funny but I'll cut a movie more slack then I will a book. It annoys me when they fudge (or flat out ignore reality), but I'll still watch. Books get held to a much higher standard.

    MK, I feel that way when I see the same cliched details over and over.

    Jessi, great point. The most realistic solution might be the most boring one. We have to work harder to figure out ways to make our better ideas fit the story.

    Jo, great quote :) And good story.

    Wendy, I was right there with you with that. It's like if I change anything readers will call me on it, but they have no idea what I based my culture on? It's not even the real culture when I get done with it. Hard to break the habit after all the research we do.

  17. Awesome post!

    My currect WIP is based on a mix of myths, but I twisted the myths quite a lot to fit my story. Basically, you shouldn't rely on my MS to pass a mythology quiz. But I think that's part of the fun of it, and I know I would rather have my story the way it is than being strictly corresponding with actual facts/accounts. Besides, there are many different versions of the same myth! I like to think I'm just presenting it in another way. :)

  18. Sounds like good a reason to fudge a fact.

  19. The reason I read historicals is because they ARE accurate. The reason I write them is because I enjoy thinking about what could have happened "between the lines." The reason I never read fantasy is because it simply is not true. Yet I enjoy the fiction part of a historical fiction novel. It is that these events did in fact happen like that, and yet...which appeals to me. If you fudge too much on the truth, you've generally lost my interest. Also, in writing historicals those who know more about the event always want it to be accurate. It is not fair in certain contexts to do what you will with what was the truth.

  20. scw1217,

    You're exactly the kind of reader that would keep me up at night, and why I don't want to write historical fiction at all.

    Because I have great respect for anyone who can pull that off, without sounding like a scholar snob, or a documentary fiend, but please: Have some respect for us fantasy lovers.

    Just because what you write is tangible in ways fantasy is not, we still have to work just as hard to get our stories right.

    In fact, research aside, we have to work HARDER because we have to tell a story while getting the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the story, whether it's about the "Real World" or not.

    Sorry if I sound a bit hostile, I just wanted to be clear, because sometimes I sound vague and/or indecisive if I'm too gentile.


  21. SCW1217, thanks for chiming in! I can totally see how the facts can grab you like that. Like reading non-fiction with some style.

    Taurean, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and if SCW doesn't like fantasy that's fine. Nothing disrespectful to fantasy writers was said here. ALL writers work hard on their stories, no matter what genre they write in.

  22. I wrote this apology before, but it didn't post for some odd reason. Therefore, here goes my second attempt.

    Janice, you're right, of course, I realize now I overreacted.

    I'm still working on being too rash with my opinions. However, I really wasn't at all judging scw1217's taste in books just because fantasy isn't his or her thing. Really.

    If that's how I came off, then again, I apologize, I thought I was just being blunt, but I guess it was just mean.

    I just was playing devil's advocate because I thought scw1217, implied that

    Clearly, that didn't seem the case.


    I'm truly sorry if I offended you, or just hurt your feelings. I sometimes have a problem being direct without coming off jerky.

    I often am misunderstood and come off indecisive if I'm too gentile in my opinions.

    In the end, all I was getting at was that sometimes what we love reading and what we can/love write isn't always the same thing.

    As I kept saying whenever I bring it up, I love the writers who can marry history with fiction in a gripping way, but loving to read it, doesn't mean I can or want to write it. That's all I was getting at.

    Take Care All,

  23. Hi Janice -
    How timely! I just posted about historical accuracy in my current WIP. Please drop by - --Char

  24. Oh cool, thanks for the link. That photo is beautiful!