In his fiction column from the January 1990 issue of Writer’s Digest, author Lawrence Block explores the reality behind the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.
Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.
After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.
I just learned of the latest chapters in this saga—the death, the funeral, the guest appearance by the judge’s daughter—a few days ago as I write this. Upon returning to New York I ran into an old friend and made the mistake of asking him what was new. He told me all of this, and then he told me some other things that had happened to some other people we both know, and with which I won’t burden you. Then we looked at each other, and I shrugged and said something about it all being a lot like a soap opera.
“No,” he said. “No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.”
Coming to Your Senses
Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.
What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.
Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.
But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lotter ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.
Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.
Some months ago they aired the final episode of Miami Vice, after a few weeks of preparatory ballyhoo and hype. Crockett and Tubbs, as portrayed by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, are up against a couple of arch-villains, and if they win you just know a drug-free America is in the cards for all of us.
Early on, Tubbs is looking over at Crockett. “I have a feeling I’m not gonna make it through this one,” he says. Or words to that effect.
Watching it, I knew that was the end of Tubbs. Because the poor guy has a premonition of doom, and we all know what that means. We know what happens in war movies, after the young subaltern gives his buddy a letter home “just in case.” We know what happens in westerns, when they’re circling the wagons and one character says, “You know, I had a funny dream last night.” Why should Tubbs be any different? By the time they rolled the last commercial, the guy was going to be feeding worms.
Except that’s not how they did it. When the episode ended, Tubbs was still on his feet, and there were no more references to his earlier intimations of mortality. For the first time ever, as far as I know, a fictional premonition turned out to be what they so often are in real life—i.e., nothing at all. And Tubbs didn’t even explain his premonitions away with a sheepish grin. Like most of us in that sort of situation, he probably didn’t want to think about it, let alone discuss it. The subject very likely embarrassed the man.
I have no idea how the producers managed to put such revolutionary material on the air. I don’t think they were trying to break new ground artistically, and suspect one of two things happened. Perhaps they wanted to heighten tension by making you certain Tubbs was going to buy the farm. (“But that’s cheating! If he has a premonition, he has to die at the end.” “So what are they gonna do, sue us? It’s the last episode. If they get mad, let ‘em turn the set off.”) Or, just as plausibly, Tubbs was destined to die in an earlier draft; after the decision has been made to save him, nobody bothered to excise the premonition. You can decide for yourself whether they were cynical or sloppy.
Writing in the Future Tense
In much the same fashion, fictional fortunetellers are always on the mark. Whatever their mode of divination, tea leaves or tarot cards, astrology or phrenology or foot reflexology, their predictions always come true. There may be a catch, as Macbeth discovered when Birnam Wood came marching toward Dunsinane, but such ironic twists of fate don’t lay a glove on the basic assumption—i.e., that all predictions are accurate.
We’ll I’ve had my chart done a couple of times, and my palm read, and my psychic temperature taken on various occasions. A friend of mine is a rather brilliant psychic, and some of the things she comes up with are uncanny, but she’s nowhere near as accurate as any storefront gypsy palmist ever met with in fiction.
In Life As We Know It, most fortunetellers are wrong most of the time. The more specific they get, the less accurate they seem to be. Whether they’re forecasting the end of the world or a romantic interlude with a tall dark stranger, you wouldn’t want to be the rent money on what they tell you.
Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.” No kidding.), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.
In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic. On the contrary, we’d be annoyed if it happened otherwise, as I was half-annoyed when Philip Michael Thomas survived on Miami Vice. We’d feel that we had prepared ourselves for a certain eventuality and that our preparations had been wasted. Because we’ve come to know that all predictions and premonitions come true in fiction, we took them for foreshadowing and braced ourselves for their fulfillment.
“Oh, this is silly,” a character says. “I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.” Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my should, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.
Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.
Making Sense of It All
And what does all this mean?
I’m tempted to say that this column must be true to life, in that things aren’t going to be all worked out at the end, with everything neat and logical. Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.
Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.
But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.
I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. “How can you say that?” they demand. “That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!”
Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.
Lawrence Block, like life, doesn’t have to make sense. But he always manages to anyway.