Friday, August 3, 2012

Busted!—Stephanie Kallos Caught Making Things Up

Today, a top-secret tip: “fiction” means that authors make things up.

Wait—maybe you knew that. Why is it, then, that we strive so hard to root our stories in the real world, when we’ve already accepted that the quicker and more meaningful road to truth can often be found through a concoction?

Perhaps, after hearing the word at a writing conference, we’re hung up on the importance of “verisimilitude”—keeping it real. And perhaps we’re misinterpreting the meaning of verisimilitude. Achieving verisimilitude does not mean that every single plot point can be reproduced in the laboratory of real life. It means that our stories must seem to be true.

I’ve been thinking about this while reading Stephanie Kallos’s Broken For You, a contemporary novel that pays homage to all that is broken. Seventy-something protagonist Margaret Hughes is broken by grief for her lost son and, upon learning of a brain tumor, the vague sense that she may not have done enough in her life. She takes in a young boarder, Wanda, broken by parents and then a lover who abandoned her. The only thing that is pristine in Margaret’s world is room after room full of valuable ceramics that her family knew were stolen from Jewish families during WWII—which Margaret and Wanda ultimately break in order to create something new.

Framed as it is by historical detail, it sounds realistic enough, right?

Except that before she accepts a boarder Margaret must consult her “housemates,” because the pottery always has an opinion.
Who would be most receptive to change? Not the soup tureens; as a group, they were unimaginative and stodgy.
Commenting on all is Margaret’s long dead mother, who lounges around the house in peignoir sets to criticize her.
Wait a minute…. Margaret felt her mother lean closer. I remember those earrings, I’ve been looking for them. Have you been into my things, Margaret?
They’re all my things now, Mother. Remember? You’re dead.
Margaret’s mother got up and slipped her gloves back on. No need to gloat, Margaret. Ticktock, ticktock.
Margaret’s imaginings could be explained away by the way the tumor presses on her brain, but Kallos does not cheapen her story by shining a light on medical fact; to do so would take away from what the reader has already accepted as the reality of Margaret’s world. Countless interwoven elements, from Wanda’s vocation in the theater right down to the type of tumor Margaret has (a star tumor that marks her as complicit in hiding the stolen Jewish porcelain, that has caused her pain yet has created community) contribute to the story’s verisimilitude.

In genre, the novel leans more toward magic realism than the paranormal; this is a literary work about memory and the way it seeks voice. There’s even an interesting counterpoint where ever-sensitive and constantly woe-struck Wanda steps away from her relentless pursuit of the man who got away, looks at her very real and consistently ardent admirer, and notes, “He had the look of a memory.” That felt real and beautiful to me, even though I’d be hard-pressed to delineate why.

You too can get away with adding fanciful elements, if their addition is grounded in a well-developed emotional reality. From the very first sentence your reader seeks orientation to the world of your story, so she’ll believe turtles can fly if you suggest it on page one. Kallos warmed up her readership with a prologue that begins:
While the woman sleeps and dreams of all that breaks, come into this house of many rooms. Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, beginning to take in what is visible, you may notice a silence that is not quite silent. There’s another language being spoken here, a tongue that emanates from white clay, fire, the oils of many skins, the fusion of rent spirits and matter. The woman hears this language always, even in her sleep, because she is guilty, and because those who speak to her are never silent…
Have you ever used fanciful elements to get a point across in your fiction? If so, how did you first foreshadow this to earn reader buy-in?

Kathryn Craft writes women's fiction and memoir, and specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Oh! The dead mother wanting her earrings back - I'm trying so hard not to giggle too much with a sleeping baby attached to me!

    I write fantasy so (I presume) my readers expect things to be made-up and a little unreal. I find it is important to let readers know the "rules" and then not break them, e.g., magic has consequences (the same for everyone).

  2. Oh, Kathryn, you have done it again. Excellent!

    Verisimilitude is an issue that goes beyond fantasy or fantastic realism, of course. Ernest Hemingway said, "That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way." Writers, at their best, create reality.

    I write contemporary thrillers set in the real world and do a lot of digging and reading to get right what can be researched. But so much of the espionage demimonde is inaccessible, hence much of the time I have to make it up in such a way that it sounds real. Oddly, at least one reviewer with inside knowledge has lauded the accuracy of my glimpses into that underworld.

    I would guess that good guesswork must also be an arrow in the writer's quiver.

  3. Elle: That line cracked me up as well. But I found this (dead) mother so real, because our mothers' voices are so formative and enduring. One time, while vacationing at our family summer home when my parents weren't there, I did a bit more wash than we had clothespins, or even room to hang the items. I had to get creative. When I finished I realized my mother had been arguing with me about how to do it the whole time—but she was 340 miles away!

  4. Larry: Thanks, and love that Hemingway quote! I've had some amazing experiences with writerly guesswork that ended up spot on. We really can fill in some of the blanks believably. If I can, I always try to find as close of an expert as possible and ask, "Would you buy it if...?" If the near-expert will buy it, I say that's close enough for fiction!

  5. I write mystery and romantic suspense, so there's not a whole lot of room for making stuff up when it comes to procedure. However, the flip side is true as well. My crit group used to quote a professor many of them shared: "Just because it's right doesn't make it good." Ultimately, if we don't pull readers out of the story, we're doing all right. And just because you're writing about something that really happened doesn't mean it will work in the story.


  6. The power of imaginary friends, whether gods or witches or pottery! It's what imagination is all about - if it tames the savage beast, then it serves its purpose, no?

  7. I laughed at the mother, too, Elle. I also liked her immediately. Good point about the magic, Elle.

    Larry, I agree with the good guess being an arrow in a writer's quiver. And making it seem believable is a key.

    Thanks for posting about this terrific book, Kathryn. Or maybe I shouldn't thank you, because I just added another book to my TBR pile which is about to topple over. (smile)

  8. Terry: Great point about "just because it's real..." It actually takes a good deal of craft to lay down enough fictional story to support one "true" element.

    But police procedure (I assume that's what you're referring to) isn't the only aspect of your books. These kinds of fanciful elements might add to your characterizations every now and again, and may be a great deal of fun for you.

  9. Yes, Dani, it's all about our imaginations! Sometimes, in striving to be "true," we forget that.

    Maryann: I'm so sorry about your TBR pile, and feel for you, as mine is the same way. But I aim to make it much taller through my Busted posts!

  10. Excellent post. I agree with you 100%

    Readers actually want to get away from their lives when they read. Not be reminded of it constantly.

  11. Great post, Kathryn! Our realism, when well done, does become reality to our readers.

    One of my manuscript reviewers described the courtroom scenes in the first book of my series that features three attorneys as "realistic and compelling." In doing the research, however, I spent time at a trial, and it was definitely not compelling. In fact, it was so boring that I longed for the sudden appearance of Perry Mason or Ben Matlock to keep me awake.

    What's the point? In this case, I relied on most readers' perceptions of a courtroom scene rather than the reality to create a realism that kept them reading.

    Isn't writing fun? :-)

  12. Good article!

    I was in a conversation at one time in which another who creates stories wanted to use personification in looking at a cigarette lighter in a story. I suggested he not as the technique didn't fit with any character or the story in any sensible way, other than being considered so bold it broke new and unproven literary ground; however when the same is done like in Stephanie's novel it works, as it adds to the characterization.

    I refer to this quote from the article, and my intention is not to nit pick but rather to bring attention to a subtle point that may not so evident.
    "but Kallos does not cheapen her story by shining a light on medical fact; to do so would take away from what the reader has already accepted as the reality of Margaret’s world."

    If done poorly, like anything, it can cheapen the scene or chapter, however adding fact cannot take away from the reality of the point made, but only add to it. And while it can take away from the degree of verisimilitude created, it is because it is factual that it can undermining the verisimilitude to be exposed as not seeming to be as true as it should be.

    In Stephanie's story it appears its believability is not an issue, but still there is an opportunity for a writer to blend fanciful elements to create verisimilitude with factual information if they choose to include it in their story. This is not a rule but a preference or prerogative of the writer, I'd say. This approach of supporting the verisimilitude of the story with factual information allows for the introduction of topic specific information if the writer wants to educate their reader about it.

    A story can go from being an enjoyable read that teeters slightly in its reception as not being absolutely and completely true to life, but is figuratively believable, to a story that leaves the reader thinking, "Wow! This can actual happen in real life." It's not for every story, but if done well it can offer something additional to its reader.

    Even if the writer is not out to educate their reader in a topic, like Michael Crighton was known to do in his stories, the careful use of factual information can support the creation of verisimilitude by not letting it rely too much on the readers sense of imagination.

    Perhaps a litmus test, so to speak, would be the consideration of factual information as it relates to a point of the story, and if the story's verisimilitude suffers for it maybe the writer needs to revisit the mechanics of the plot.

    We have creative license, which, when supported by other aspects of the story, can create enough verisimilitude that it works, and a reader can accept it; however if too much is being asked of the reader to accept, perhaps too big a leap by the writer in crossing the bridge of believability, it can be effective to use factual information to eliminate the bridge entirely.

    In Stephanie's novel, are Margaret's imaginings explained by the way her tumor presses on her brain? Or is the reader left to read into her condition and assume this is what's happening, in which case are delusions a symptom of the tumor she has?

  13. Thanks Misha! While I'm aware that many people read to escape from their lives, I actually read to enter into my life more fully—through a back or side door, perhaps, that I hadn't previously seen. Yet the technique still works for me!

  14. Linda: Love the twist on realism vs reality. Thanks for your comment!

  15. Frank: Thanks for stopping by, and for leaving such a thoughtful response. I actually agree with everything you said here, and although subtle, my (and Kallos's) intention was built right into the sentence you quoted:

    "but Kallos does not cheapen her story by shining a light on medical fact; to do so would take away from what the reader has already accepted as the reality of Margaret’s world."

    In visits to Margaret's doctor, Kallos lays the facts out quite clearly: Margaret has a star tumor, we learn what that is, she refuses treatment until it starts to grow. So just as you suggest, fact-based groundwork is laid for these apparitions being a function of the tumor pressing on her brain. What would cheapen the effect, in my mind, would be if Kallos chose to "shine light" on this—in other words, tell us something like, "but of course this wasn't real, but instead a function of the tumor's pressure on her brain." Spotlighting the fact in this case would actually detract from the verisimilitude Kallos had already established: these ghostly figures are part of Margaret's reality, and we would not want them taken away.

    So to answer your final questions, Kallos does not directly explain the apparitions away. She sets up a world in which such things might happen, and lets the reader draw his own conclusion. How one does that, to the extent that one could accept a talking cigarette lighter, is a great topic but outside the scope of this post. I'll keep it in mind for a future one though!

  16. I think we are saying the same thing generally speaking but in different ways.

    The scene at the doctor’s office allows the reader to be equipped with the information shared in it, and which let's them accept better the reality trying to be created with Margaret. Technically speaking, I'm guessing, as I don't know the story, the explanation that delusions/apparitions are a symptom of her tumor is not given, and which leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion as you put it.

    The option is always there to write the character of Margaret such that she has an illness or condition that is factually known to create the symptoms of delusions/apparitions. This affects the plot of the story, I realize. Writer’s prerogative.

    My overall point is that while Stephanie's writing is a good example of creating verisimilitude, the role of factual information is being downplayed when it is another technique available to the writer with the caution of using it well in the story.

    And back to the "shine light on this" aspect of it, I see your example, "but of course this wasn't real, but instead a function of the tumor's pressure on her brain" as showing poor technique in the use of factual information: the cheapening effect you mention. It begs the question, why would a writer do this knowing it undermines the reality they are trying to create? If this is all intended for novices, then I think the use of factual information should be given due consideration. In this case the presentation of medical fact may show that Margaret's delusions/apparitions cannot actually be the result of her tumor, and I understand your explanation that shining light on this works against the verisimilitude created. But fundamentally, why would a writer do this? This seems to be giving the advice of not creating contradictions in aspects of a story. A case of simply exercising good sense? Writing 101 one might say.

    A bad example is used that realistically not many writers would follow, not ones with a working compass of good sense anyway, for the purpose of supporting Stephanie's creation of reality with a character. Examples of poor technique are best used to show how not to use it. If this was about the use of factual information, your example would be in an article about using factual information in a story, and its relationship with the creation of verisimilitude.

    The cigarette lighter example was offered as a contrasting example to Stephanie's approach to creating reality in the story, and which works. It's not offered as a topic for discussion to try to explore how to make it work, but only to show that it doesn't as the aspects of the story required, as in Stephanie's story, are not present. We are talking about creating reality in a story, and which is helped by examples of how not to do it. Sort of like how you’ve tried to do with factual information.

    I am compelled to suggest there might be a disparity between us in semantics, in so far as the logical aspects of meaning and implications. We are trying to say the same thing, however it seems the implications of how it is done are different. And while there is no attempt at creating a fictitious reality in saying what I'm about to say; it is reality, it is found in certain groups of people that their style or manner of thinking can be such that they overlook the long-range implications of something for immediate issues; and, they may rely too much on improvisation and miss the wider implications of their actions. This is factual and these traits are more commonly found in at least 12% of people, but probably notably more if one were to go into more depth in the topic. And it is a group of about 20% of people who are keen, considerably more than others, in identifying this type of communication difference and avoiding it.

  17. Frank, I've got to laugh: our combined comments are way longer than the post, which is part of the problem. I chose to focus on the fact that a writer, through imagination, can create any sort of world they want, and build verisimilitude from there—regardless of actual fact. It has to be emotionally true much more that factually true. Other great examples of this: Kafka's Metamorphosis and Charlotte's Web.

    I am not disputing that researched fact can support and play into our stories, and appreciate you bringing it up as an additional point, but adherence to research in order to create verisimilitude was exactly the kind of rigid thinking I was encouraging us to reach beyond in this post. How can we use concoctions to make our stories feel true, in a way that delights the reader as well?

    But I love talking literature and all that makes it great, and appreciate this discourse with you!

  18. Believability created through the character and the emotional characterization of them versus the use of actual fact to accomplish the same are different, agreed. A story can blend the two in varying degrees to reach a genuine feeling while also offering the validity of truth through the use of factual information. This is something that is seen in my last novel, Her Bestowed Awaken.

    Through the use of fact the questions of what, why, and how can be answered as related to a character and their characterization, however to go beyond and into further levels of characterization it also requires that the experience had by the character is shown through the consideration of emotion (or feeling).

    I enjoyed the exchange, hopefully it's helpful to others.


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