“What? You Want It to be Realistic as Well?”

An Essay by Joe Stein

So, credibility?


Well, as my first agent told me, fiction is life with the boring bits taken out.

Only he wasn’t 100% right.

True, many readers don’t want to see their hero doing the washing, or changing the oil filter in the car, but I always thought (for that, read “I myself always prefer”) that P.I. readers want their stories to be credible.

I don’t mean boring, I just mean realistic.

Leaps of faith by detectives, hunches played, intuition used, are not only acceptable, they’re stock in trade, but we’ve all read books where we’ve thought, “No, wait, hang on a minute, that just isn’t right,” or “That wouldn’t happen,” or “He couldn’t even get from there to there in under two days, how is it still the same night?” My own favourite is simply, “Why the hell doesn’t she just call the damn police?”

The answer, of course, is that she doesn’t call the police because that might be the end of the story, but given she’s

  1. a solid citizen
  2. scared out of her wits
  3. someone caught up in something she doesn’t understand

I would think she’d probably get on the blower pretty quick.

There are two basic issues that kill the credibility of a story. One is coincidence and the other is getting your facts wrong.

Using coincidence in a story is absolutely valid. Coincidences happen in real life and we all benefit or suffer from them at different times. But when they keep occurring, or they are so random as to be unbelievable, then I have a problem with them.

I remember reading one of those old English crime books way back in my teenage years where a lady happens to hit a bloke with her car on a deserted country lane in England. She’s young, attractive, intelligent, single and doesn’t damage her car too much in the accident. He’s slightly older, tall, attractive, intelligent, single and of course in the middle of some terrible mystery where he’s got to get somewhere quickly or perhaps away from someone quickly. When the car hits him, he’s not that badly hurt by it that he can’t struggle into the damn thing and tell her to drive away.

Well, why not, I hear you say, it’s a good premise for a story, it leaves the writer with lots of options, it has mystery, drama and two likeable leads.

But it doesn’t happen like that.

In real life, she might be young, but he may be old enough to be her grandfather. Or vice versa. Or they both might be pensioners. Maybe she missed him by veering off and crashed the car, injuring herself.

In my world, the young woman probably has two raucous kids in the back seat, and two tons of shopping in the boot of the car. She’s been late picking the kids up from school and forgotten their snacks. She’s not only not single, why should she be, she’s probably too knackered to even think of the bloke she’s got, never mind a new one.

He’s either much older, or too young and unless he’s severely fit, and most people aren’t, then he’s probably going to at least pass out, if not expire completely when he’s hit by the car. She’s panicking, the kids are screaming, he’s bleeding on the fender. What’s she going to do?

Oh yeah, call the police and the ambulance.

And you can still make a story from there if you choose to, it’s just that now you have real people, with a real situation and your reader knows you’re grounding events and characters in reality.

Not that you can’t have off the wall things occur. If you’re a P.I. like Gascoyne or Glen Cook’s Garrett then weird things will be going on all around you, but as long as they work within the rules of the world you set them in, they’ll retain their credibility. If you’re Philip Marlowe, then anyone can walk into your office at any time, but the reader still believes; it’s still credible.

But the second type of credibility problem is much worse. It’s where you make a factual error, geographically place something wrongly, or get some technical piece of information incorrect. Many readers may not notice, but for those who do, you may just have blown it.

There was a program on British TV many years ago, where a VIP being bodyguarded, was shot through the open window of the car he was being driven in. Someone on a motorbike pulled up alongside, tapped on the window and the VIP opened it and got blasted. He had a bodyguard with him, but crucially, the VIP was on the wrong side of the car to where he should have been seated. He would never in real life have been allowed to sit roadside, never mind open the window.

I mean, really? If they can’t get the basics right, what else will be wrong? The credibility was shot, as well as the VIP.

I switched off at that point.

So there we are, and I can hear you say, “Yeah, but it’s only a story, I just want to be entertained…”, and I guess you’ve got a point, but it doesn’t work that easily for me. I need my heroes and villains to be real, to act real, to be able to exist in real life, even if I’d avoid them like the plague if I bumped into them in the pub.

So until someone pays me a huge advance for writing something completely unbelievable (Yeah, of course I’d take the money, do you think I’m stupid or something?) I’ll continue to have my lead characters be unable to eat when they’ve been whacked in the mouth, watch out for speed cameras, have to get the night bus home, tread in dog poop and have to spend twenty minutes with a matchstick getting it out of the grooves of their trainers and never, ever watch daytime TV.

And even if all of these things aren’t actually described, at least not in detail, the reader will know they’re going on.

Because these are, I hope, real people.

Essay respectfully submitted by Joe Stein, April 2013, author of the Garron private eye series.

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