July 4, 2010
Fiction: Like Real Life, Only Better
“It’s no wonder truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” – Mark Twain
I like to think of fiction as a special version of reality. Fiction is inherently made up of lies, and yet it has a power unlike anything else, because it presents reality not actually as it is, but rather as it should be. Good fiction is beautifully organized into logical patterns, without any of the chaos of real life.
The basis of all fiction is the concept of plot, and understanding plot is an important step toward exploring how the fictional world is organized. Plot, put simply, is a causative system. In a plot, things happen because of each other, like cascading dominoes. You can write fiction without plot, but the result will simply be an unrelated series of events, which will seem far less engrossing to the reader. E.M. Forster created an example in which he stated that “The king died and then the queen died” is an example of a story, whereas “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The first is not a plot because the events are completely unrelated to each other. In real life that’s how things happen a lot of the time: not all events effect new events, and things can occur unexpectedly. The world of fiction is an entirely different animal: though a plot can be unpredictable, it must never be illogical. Things happen because of other things. (Fiction in which things occur for no reason is melodrama, and it’s generally considered a bad thing.)
The world of fiction is filled with significance in a way that the real world is not. This is demonstrated well by Chekhov’s famous gun example, in which he stated that a gun should not appear on stage unless it will be fired later on. This doesn’t apply only to weapons, though. Any object which appears in a story must serve some function. If a character has a fast car, he should have a reason to drive it fast later in the story. A mysterious statue should be the hiding place for the stolen money. A weird rock that the protagonist trips over should turn out to be the Cosmic Orb Around Which the Universe Revolves (the very thing which the Evil Neptunians from Pluto are looking for). If only real life was like this! I keep a sharp knife here on my desk, and all that does in the third act is open packages for me. We don’t get foreshadowing in real life, at least not at the minute scale it occurs in fiction. That allows me to keep a knife on my desk without worrying that I’ll have to use it against armed robbers, but it also means that I won’t find the lost diamonds in my houseplants, no matter how prominent they are.
Fiction imitates reality, to be sure, but it’s a special imitation, one that’s meant to be better than the original. We want the world to be more like fiction. We like to imagine that the world makes sense and that things occur for a reason. In bad times we ask why we deserve the things that happen to us, as if we lived in an intricate plot in which our pasts caused the disasters of the present. We look for omens in everyday life, searching for anything that might give us a glimpse of the future. Life is uncooperative, though, stubbornly maintaining unpredictability and events that occur for no good reason. We want the world to be more organized than it is. We want it to be predictable, to make sense. Fiction allows us to experience the world as we want it to be, rather than as it actually is. That’s the beauty of it.