Real, True, or Plausible?

People sometimes make the distinction about whether aspects of fiction are “realistic” or not. Generally, I feel fiction doesn’t have to be (it is fiction after all), and that it’s more important that it be “true”.

What I mean is that some aspect of the scene has to be presented truthfully. The reader/audience’s reaction should be “that’s how that character would behave”, “people are like that”, or “that’s what would happen”. It’s about resonance, often on an emotional level. If you (the writer) have achieved that, then the audience will be following you, even if events are not realistic.

It does help, though, if events are also plausible. They don’t need to match how things behave in the “real world”, but they should fit with the way things work in the fictional world that is presented. If a fantasy novel establishes how magic works, then it’s cheating to have it suddenly do something different, and smacks of a writer who has painted themselves into a corner.

Alternatively, you can focus too much on making a scene work on an emotional level, so the audience/reader goes along with it, but later on thinks that something seemed not quite right1.

For an (extended) example, I recently was watching a scene described as a “spies goodbye”. A couple of agents had been captured, their covers were blown2, and their only option was to “retire” from the game and never make contact with their former allies/co-workers. The two are morosely drowning their sorrows in a dimly-lit bar. The waitress brings over a drink, saying it’s a gift from another table. They glance around, and spot one of their (former) colleagues at another table in the corner. This happens several more times, as they realise their whole team are lurking in various parts of the room3. One by one, they make (tearful) eye contact, raise their glasses, then quietly leave.

Emotionally, it hits the mark. It’s fiction, so it doesn’t matter that in the real world this would be a blatant violation of the “cannot make any contact” restriction, but on reflection, it still feels a bit implausible. My main issue is that it breaks one of the cardinal rules of subterfuge: have a reason for being there4.

Is this fixable? A similar effect could be achieved by having the team members nabbing a nearby table and loudly sharing a toast to absent friends—they’re all wearing black (or at least dark colours), anyway, so they’ll give other patrons the impression that they’ve come from a funeral. Far less likely to draw unwanted attention than several people buying drinks for and saluting an otherwise inconspicuous couple. You can still use largely the same camera angles, but without the sense that people are staring at those they supposedly don’t know.

The advantage of being a writer is that any painted corner is escapable. And, if you do it right, you can reinforce other aspects of character/world, without the audience ever realising you were in a pickle to start with.


1 TvTropes refers to this sort of thing as “fridge” moments. As well as the “wait, how does that work?” they also note things that seem brilliant, or horrifying, when thought about later.

2 You know the drill—a mission goes wrong, agents have to improvise, “if you are captured, the Agency will disavow any knowledge of your actions (or even existence)”, etc.

3 And clearly want to get them really drunk.

4 It’s been frequently shown that people (only) remember things they focus on. Details that “fit” an expected pattern, that don’t stand out, will likely be forgotten.

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Think Before You Post

I am an introvert.

Right now, you’re probably thinking “Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”, and (assuming you know me reasonably well), you’re probably right.

The thing is, like most ways of categorising types of people, it doesn’t actually tell you very much (other than that I choose to align myself with that label). “Introvert” refers to a collection of personality traits with a common theme; so you can assume I have a sufficient quantity or magnitude of these traits (or deficiency in the ones associated with the label “extrovert”) that the label applies.

But which traits? And to what degree? Well, the particular one I want to address today is introverted thinking*. This is the tendency to consider ideas thoroughly before sharing them with others—the polar opposite of “thinking aloud”.

This, coupled with an insidious dose of perfectionism, makes it very difficult to be a blogger (or any sort of writer). The flowing lines of wit and wisdom that scrawl themselves across my brain never quite seem to make it as far as the pen/keyboard.

So why blog at all? Why does someone so intent on keeping their thoughts internal attempt to share them with the world (or at least the small niche who reads this)? Why not keep a journal? Well, I’ve never really felt comfortable with a journal. Besides having the same problem as with a blog (i.e. not wanting to express thoughts until they’re perfectly rounded), why waste paper if no-one but me is going to read it? After all, I can think faster than I can write.

But introspection can only get you so far**. Often, expressing thoughts into words—whether spoken, written, or typed—helps drag them into a semblance of order. It forces you to be coherent, rather than the stream-of-consciousness and random associations that go on in your brain where you can find yourself thinking about something else entirely almost before you’re even aware of it.

Obviously, there’s still a measure of self-censorship in terms of avoiding getting too personal in a public forum, but the sense of an audience (even if largely an imaginary one) is a helpful motivator. Even more so, the opportunity for discussion, should it eventuate.

It’s not like there aren’t plenty of things to write about: day-to-day life, current events, movies, chance remarks; anything can inspire a (usually extensive) train of thought—I have a list of ideas for topics. It’s just a matter of becoming clear enough about what I want to say, and then shoving my ego (which insists it’s not good enough***) aside in order to say it.

So, here are some more of my thoughts, presented in the hope that it’s not just me that finds them interesting. 🙂


* It’s been said that introverts are those who will think carefully and then—maybe—act (whereas extroverts are those who will act and then maybe think).

** Or occasionally (i.e. frequently) round in circles.

*** It’s sneaky the way pride sometimes disguises itself as humility; sometimes when we’re thinking “this isn’t good enough” what we really mean is “I want to present myself as better than this”.

The Problem With Fanfiction

The Collins English Dictionary defines “fanfic” (short for “fan fiction”) as:

(noun) fiction written around previously established characters invented by other authors

While it’s not a new phenomenon (see for example The Testament of Cresseid), it has grown hugely in the internet age owing to the relative ease of dissemination.

What it generally is, however, is derided. Which I find somewhat puzzling. fanfiction.net (hardly the only site out there) has hundreds of thousands of stories in a wide variety of fictional universes, and a wide variety of genres. Okay, it’s not as populous as something like facebook, but the point is that there are a lot of people reading and writing fanfiction; it’s not just an obscure, niche interest.

In fact, I would suggest it’s something that people do instinctively. How many kids make up stories about what their toys are doing? How often do you wonder “what if…”? Humans love stories, and—while I can understand the copyright and intellectual property concerns of some authors—nothing will stop people from being imaginative. Having a starting point makes the process much easier. Most aren’t doing it to make money, or to deprive the original creator. Even if it’s used for publicity for an aspiring author, it’s also publicity for the original work.

In the end, though, it probably comes down to legitimacy. Some creators don’t like the thought of other people playing with their toys, whether for profit or just for amusement. And some people are uncomfortable with the thought that the only reason Sherlock doesn’t count as fanfiction is because they’re getting paid for it. 🙂

What is a chapter?

Something that’s been puzzling me of late is the above question.

I’ve been reading various blogs and suchlike about developing your writing skills, where there is plenty of good advice about how to construct a scene. The lower-level construction of sentences (grammar) and paragraphs (one idea per, start a new one for a new speaker, etc.) were pretty well drilled-in at school. But nowhere have I come across a definitive concept of where a chapter ends*.

The approach seems to vary from writer to writer. With some, a chapter is essentially a scene, even if that makes their lengths wildly inconsistent. Others go for a (roughly) set length, which puts constraints on the development of the story. Still others eschew chapters altogether.

I’ve heard it said that “you just know” when to end a chapter. That’s fine, and I can accept it as a piece of advice, but I’m surprised that critical literary analysis hasn’t provided a more tangible measure.


* I’m mainly talking about fiction. Like paragraphs, chapters in non-fiction are fairly straightforward; a non-fiction chapter is essentially an essay on a particular sub-topic of the book.