by David Ellis
I have a long-running feud with realism in novels. I never know where to draw the lines. Like many other authors, I know how to cheat when I need to. Gloss over a detail in a summary paragraph so you don’t have to reveal your ignorance. I hate doing that, actually, but sure it happens sometimes.
I remember in my first novel, LINE OF VISION, I had a scene where my protagonist broke through the back door of someone’s house. Except I didn’t know how to break through the back door of someone’s house. So I wrote a placeholder, something like this: “The lock came loose surprisingly easy.” And I figured I’d go back and fill in some detail later. But we didn’t have the internet back then and I didn’t know any burglars or cops, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to practice on somebody’s house, so I showed my first draft with that placeholder language, and every person reading that draft said that they didn’t notice, or care. And I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure I left that placeholder in there.
I’m a lawyer and I write about the legal system, in one way or another, in every book. So as a matter of professional pride, I want to get those details right. But sometimes those details are inconvenient to my story. So what did I do? I created my own city, which of course most people recognize as Chicago, but still—it’s my own nameless city, in my own nameless state, so I can create whatever laws and whatever procedural rules I want, and nobody can say I got anything wrong.
Going too far? Probably. I could probably set the whole thing in Chicago, get a few of those details wrong, and nobody would care. Certainly lawyers and cops have seen reality butchered enough on television that most of them wouldn’t bat an eye if one of my books played fast and loose with some criminal procedure. In fact, I can only think of one television or movie set in a courtroom that came even remotely close to reality, and that was an excellent movie called The Music Box, about a Nazi war crime prosecution in Chicago. (Trivia: the judge in the movie was played by a real federal judge from Chicago, and the same one who presided over the Blagojevich trial, Judge James Zagel.)
Right now, I’m co-authoring a novel and it’s set in France, and I just finished writing a prison escape. I had one minor problem. I’d never been to a French prison, much less escaped from one. It paralyzed me for a while. After I painstakingly detailed to my wife the various problems of writing this scene, she hit me with this—and this is not the first time she’s said this to me: “Is anyone going to care other than you?”
I hate it when she says that. But she was right. And maybe that’s a good place to draw the line—to careabout reality when the reader is going to care. Will the reader care about the fact that I didn’t toll the Speedy Trial Act in my novel when the defendant pleaded insanity, when everybody knows that the Act is automatically tolled in such a case? No. Most normal, well-adjusted people probably don’t even know what the hell I just said.
Somebody was talking about John Grisham the other day, and I remembered something that bothered me about his novel The Pelican Brief. You have this law student who has provided a theory on why two Supreme Court justices were just murdered; she submits her thesis in written form to the FBI; and what is the response by the evil villain, when he learns of it? He blows up her car, obviously intending that she be inside it at the time. Anyone have a problem with that? My guess is no. I did. Maybe if you killed her before she submitted the document to the FBI, sure. But once she had put that document into the hands of the federal government, what was the point of killing her? And wouldn’t her death from an obviously organized hit—a car bomb—not automatically give credibility to her theory and point suspicion directly on the very person who was trying to cover up his role in murdering the judges? I mean, really, is there anything more colossally stupid than assassinating the law student at that point?
If you think it through (which presupposes you haven't stopped reading this post), I imagine most of you would agree with my logic. But my wife’s voice returns to ask me that question: “Did anyone care other than you?” I’m pretty sure the answer is no.
I think you can categorize this stuff. There’s real reality. Like, a revolver doesn’t have a silencer, so if you write about a silencer on a revolver, you have objectively, completely misrepresented reality. Then there’s reality like the Grisham example above, where there’s no objective truth, it’s just a subjective take on what is “realistic” and what isn’t. Then we can break those things another way into my wife’s category of the-reader-won’t-care and the-reader-will.
So, getting out my slide rule and inputting this algorithm into my computer, I have come up with this simple formula for all you writers out there:
1. If it’s absolutely, clearly wrong and more than a few people will catch the mistake—get it right.
2. If it’s absolutely, clearly wrong and nobody but you will care, then pick whichever way makes the story better, unless you’re anal retentive and can’t stand the thought of a mistake (whoops, there’s another category).
3. If it’s not absolutely, clearly wrong but just a subjective take on what seems realistic, let your spouse decide.