By now most of you have heard about the female doctor from Bakersfield (CA) who attempted to enter her boyfriend’s home by climbing onto the roof with a ladder, removing the chimney cap, and lowering herself down the chimney. She got stuck halfway down and suffocated via crushed lungs. She was there three days before someone found her. (Her boyfriend left the house prior to the attempted break in.) It’s a tragic story of course. So tragic, in fact, that I had to read it a few times before I was willing to accept it had actually happened.
Further details will emerge regarding this unfortunate woman’s relationship with, as the police put it, “her on again off again boyfriend” in the weeks to follow, but what’s relevant to this post is how utterly unbelievable it seems that a 49-year-old woman with a medical degree would even contemplate such a foolish act let alone attempt to carry it out. I decided to mention this incident here because it reminds me of something a writing teacher of mine once said regarding fiction: If you write about an event in your story that sounds too outlandish to be true, your readers are likely to set your book aside with a roll of their eyes and a sarcastic, “Like that could ever happen!”
The point is, just because we may have witnessed or been party to a bizarre event in real life doesn’t mean it would make good material for a novel. When I lived in Seattle I attended a weekly writing group. One of our members, I’ll call her Jennifer, refused to incorporate this advice. Jennifer was a good writer and a very nice person, but at least once a month she would read a scene that contained some outlandish or unbelievable aspect. Every single time, the majority of members would say it “bumped,” meaning it pulled them out of the story because they started to think about how or even if said event could have occurred. Jennifer would always respond with a civil but exasperated, “But it really happened!”
Maybe, but so what? Our goal as writers is to create a world readers want to spend time in. If we clutter that world with scenes and/or characters that make them roll their eyes in disbelief, it won’t be long before they close the cover and return to the believable reality that is their everyday world.