Storytelling

Five Reasons Your Story Shouldn’t Deny That It’s a Story

A classical painting of an older man telling stories to children.

This isn't a story, it's an oil painting from the late 19th century!

Speculative fiction writers argue about a lot of things, but I think we can at least all agree that what we’re writing is fiction. It’s literally in the name – who’d try to deny that? Well, a surprising number of authors will, with a perfectly straight face, inform you that actually the unfolding events you’re witnessing aren’t a mere story. You’ve almost certainly seen a version of this onscreen or on the page. The grizzled movie sergeant tells the fresh-faced recruit that this is a real war, not a movie war – just ignore the popcorn in your lap, please. Or perhaps the literary narrator will carefully explain how ridiculous it would be to expect an exciting fight scene. After all, real life is boring, and this is real life, not a story! Clearly, making you fall asleep is true art.

Why shouldn’t you do this? I’m glad you asked.

1. It’s Rude to Other Authors

“War isn’t like you see in the movies,” the sergeant said, generalizing all films that feature war into one category. “It’s dark and gritty like no director has the guts to show you, except the director telling me to say this. That director is the real deal.”

When storytellers claim that their stories are acting like real life, either through dialogue or narration, the implication is that all those other stories aren’t acting like real life. No, sir, the only place to find realism is in this story right here. That’s just rude.

Unless an author is deliberately over the top, they’re almost certainly trying to be as realistic as they can be within the confines of telling a good story. Stories tend to work better if they line up with people’s experiences, after all. Of course, not every storyteller is successful in this endeavor, but putting down everyone else’s work as unrealistic is disrespectful.

If an author wants to write literary critique, they should go ahead and do that! The internet is a wonderful place to explain what’s wrong with both specific stories and entire genre trends.* But that isn’t what a work of fiction is for. There’s no context or meaningful commentary, just a snide implication that other storytellers aren’t up to spec.

2. It’s a Flimsy Excuse

“It’s time for me to save this city,” the hero said, addressing the crowd of citizens that they’d been working hard to protect from the villains. “Or, that’s what I would do, if this were a story. But it’s real life, and in real life people sometimes completely change personalities for no reason.” The hero then left to become an insurance adjuster.

Storytelling has rules that describe how effective an author’s choices will be. These rules are critical to storytelling as a craft, but writers regularly ignore them anyway. Usually, this is due to ignorance; there just isn’t a good education system to teach new storytellers what the rules are.* But sometimes authors will ignore a rule they know shouldn’t be ignored. To not-so-sneakily cover it, they’ll narrate or have a character say that this is just what happens in real life. It’s not like in a story!

Often, this trope is used to dodge the pesky reader expectation that something exciting or emotionally satisfying will happen, despite the author’s disinterest in such things. Does the story require a duel of wits? Well, darn, the hero just tragically lost their voice and can’t participate. They really want to, of course, but they can’t do anything about it! Surely that would never happen in a story.

Well, it wouldn’t happen in a good story, anyway. Lampshading a mistake doesn’t change the fact that it’s a mistake. If anything, it makes the mistake worse by revealing that the author knows it’s a mistake but can’t be bothered to remove the lampshade and change the lightbulb itself.*

3. It’s Insufferably Pretentious

“Behold,” the wise sage said. “The hero who will defeat the dark lord isn’t some sheltered farm kid with secret royal parentage, but actually this professional soldier with years of experience on the battlefield.” The sage grinned, knowing that such a brilliant subversion would never happen in anything so lowbrow as a story.

Believe it or not, sometimes discarding rules and conventions can be a good thing! These instances aren’t as common as many authors would like, but they definitely exist. A well-done subversion can make characters shine and plot points sparkle, be that subversion hidden in the background or front and center to the story. Either way, playing with audience expectations can be refreshing and effective for everyone involved.

But you know what doesn’t make subversions more effective? A giant billboard proclaiming how the subversion is only happening because this isn’t a story. This indicates storyteller insecurity, implying that without special attention and in-story recognition, the subversive elements wouldn’t stand on their own. It also gives the impression that the author expects recognition for this very clever concept. Send all your kudos to Snob Street, please, and don’t bother yourself about whether or not the subversion itself actually works.

Not to be too tautological, but the only way to write a successful subversion is to write a successful subversion. If it works, the audience will enjoy it. If it doesn’t, they won’t. Awkwardly calling attention to the subversion just makes it seem like the author is placing themselves above their peers, many of whom are also working hard on their own subversions and are likely just as deserving of those sweet, sweet reader kudos.

4. It Highlights Your Own Blunders

“If this were a story,” the hero said inside their prison cell, “I’d spontaneously develop the skills to break out of jail, but since it’s real life, I’m stuck.” They settled down, confident they were a real person with consistent skills, unaware that within a few chapters, they’d manifest completely unestablished hacking abilities to thwart the villain’s plots.

Shockingly, pobody’s nerfect. It’s plain silly to expect any author or story to be 100% free of errors; that’s just how humans work!* Normally, that’s totally fine, and even to be expected. Humans, to no one’s surprise, are only human, and perfection is by no means a requirement for audience enjoyment.

Unless, that is, the human in question starts trumpeting about how their story isn’t actually a story. No, this is the Real Deal, and it doesn’t use any of the cheap tricks that those other stories employ! By proclaiming this, the author has essentially bound their work to the dissection table and handed the reader a scalpel. They’ve made a boast, and the audience will hold them accountable to it, throwing every contrivance, plot convenience, and disbelief suspension into sharp relief.

As a storyteller, this is a very bad situation to put yourself in. You’ve made both a promise you can’t keep and a challenge to your readers. As storytellers, we want the quality of the story to outweigh our inevitable whoopsies. As soon as you make the reader a dissector by inviting extra scrutiny, that system collapses under a pile of story guts and plot entrails.

5. This Is a Story

“Actually,” the elephant in the room said, “this is, in fact, fictitious.”

Stories that say they’re not stories are, to use the technical term, filthy liars. By definition, they’re fiction, however much snake oil they try to peddle by claiming otherwise. Words on a page can’t completely mirror real life, much less be real life, and authors who tell you otherwise are either being willfully ignorant, insufferably snooty, or frustratingly disingenuous. The real world is much too complicated to be tied down by mere words.

What writers use instead is a sneaky simulation of whatever reality their story takes place in by way of time-honored storytelling techniques. These hold true whether the story in question is about swashbuckling kung- fu aliens on the mercury seas or about the brooding, lace-swathed family feud of House Melodrama. Readers enjoy watching characters grow and change in believable ways, experiencing plot threads unfold, and cheering for a well-crafted climax and satisfying resolution. Real life ignores the vast majority of these techniques and opts instead to be generally boring, random, and devoid of kung-fu aliens. Rude!

Of course, all of this would not be possible without the audience buying into the simulation. Belief must be suspended, conceits must be accepted, and tropes must be recognized. When the storyteller starts going on about how not a story their story is, it fries the circuits and yanks the reader straight back out. The chunky pixels of the narrative start to show, making the greater story harder to see.

And for all the in-text ballyhoo about whether this story is a story, nothing is actually accomplished! At the very best, it doesn’t affect the story at all. At worst, it’s giving the reader a sharp slap in the face and calling it insight. By crowing about their devotion to realism, the author is only calling attention to all the places without it. Outside of parody, there are very few situations where this kind of meta contrivance provides any benefit. Listen to the elephant, and don’t try to pretend your story is anything but.

 

Comments

  1. Jeppsson

    I have never agreed harder with an article on this site.

    There’s a particular subcategory of this phenomenon that grinds my gears more than others. It’s when a story features supernatural creatures, like vampires, demons, werewolves etc, but STILL goes “haha, story versions of these creatures are stupid, this is real life”. One glaring example of this is Garth Ennis’ “blood and whisky”, but there are many others.

    In “blood and whisky”, vampire Cassidy meets another vampire dude, who says he’s learnt about vampires from reading “Dracula”. This is presented as, IDK, the obvious way to learn about vampires, even though waaaaay more people at the time the story takes place would have based their conception of vampires on Ann Rice rather than Bram Stoker. Weirdly, vampire dude (who’s name I’ve forgotten) still takes it for granted that sunlight is dangerous to vampires (even though Stoker’s Dracula didn’t have this particular weakness). Still, he also thought he’d be able to transform into a bat and that religious paraphernalia could hurt him, based on Dracula, and that stuff really is in the book.
    HOWEVER, we then learn how STUPID these beliefs are, because haha, how would it even work to transform into a bat, or why would crosses hurt you?
    I don’t know, Ennis! I also don’t know how come YOUR vampire is immortal and can heal any injury as long as he gets blood, although he can get the blood just as well from a bloody steak, which makes it LESS logical than if he’d had to drink it from a live human in order to get the magical effects. In the latter case, it’s presumably about some life force or soul stuff (the Bible says we mustn’t eat blood, because blood contains soul). But the mere nutritional value of blood is nothing special. Also, we’ve seen Cassidy speak with his head cut off, even though speech requires lungs to pump air through your vocal cords. Cassidy is SO magic and fantastical already, that it seems super arbitrary to accuse Bram Stoker of writing, IDK, something too fantastical, even though it’s MEANT to be a fantastical story.

    Garth Ennis is really hit and miss with me, but I overall liked Preacher (I followed the book when it was first published, since I’m old). But I really didn’t like “blood and whisky”. Just cutting out the Stoker-bashing would have been some improvement.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, ‘this is a real story from real life’ and ‘ooh, look, vampires!’ doesn’t go together well. There are a few illogical things in vampire lore, such as not having a mirror or photograph image, there are ways to excuse vampires being weak to sunlight (as that can even happen to humans) or to silver or to other things – allergies are a thing, after all. But saying ‘basing your knowledge about vampires off Bram Stoker is stupid’ doesn’t make the story any better.

      I actually am using Dracula (and his lieutenants – nowhere in the novel are the three female vampires called his ‘brides’, so sue me) in one of my stories, claiming that even other vampires think of Dracula as an asshole they don’t want to deal with, due to him killing and feeding off other vampires to enhance his own powers from early on. I feel I can justify that twist, but he’s still a vampire as you’d expect them, albeit a very strong one with three very strong female fighters by his side, so a lot of hard work for my MC. He’s also not the only vampire in the story – my MC is working with one, exploring the tomb, because they both hope to get some old books out of it.

    • LeeEsq

      Nearly all modern takes on vampires owe more to Ann Rice than Bram Stoker because Bram Stoker’s Dracula was basically a walking, talking STD and a brutal thug with a direct way of doing things. His personality, and mustache unless this is a very specific time period, takes away from the vampires as sex lords/ladies thing that everybody seems too like.

      • Cay Reet

        He’s from before – before vampires had fully transitioned from ‘walking plague’ to sexy, but deadly. Carmilla already has that seduction down, but Dracula is more the ‘I see, I bite’ type. So, yeah, he’s not a popular vampire type at the moment (and, I guess, Moffat’s take on him recently hasn’t made things better).

        • LeeEsq

          Most people know Dracula from the different movie incarnations rather than the book. The movie Draculas are more in the sexy but deadly vein with the exception of the German Nosferatu adaptation. Moffat’s take on Dracula was a lot closer to Stoker’s walking plague at times than modern vampires.

          • Cay Reet

            What I liked about the Hammer versions was that Lee actually played Dracula as a guy who took what he wanted, not as a seducer.

          • LeeEsq

            Dracula was a late medieval nobleman before vampire hood and now has all sorts of vampire powers. Somebody like that is not going to need to be a seducer.

      • SunlessNick

        Yes, all that. It’s why the Frances Ford Coppola film is the worst adaptation ever,* especially since he had the gall to brand it “Bram Stoker’s.”

        * I don’t care if it had Quincy Morris in it. That’s like saying that an adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde** where they were different people was good just because it had Gabriel Utterson in it.

        ** Not that I know how I’d begin to make a good adaptation of the original, given that their being the same person was the surprise twist at the end.

        • Cay Reet

          I’m still pissed about how that one took all the awsomeness from Mina, who is definitely OP in the book and deserves to be just as badass (for a Victorian woman) in the movies.

          • SunlessNick

            I loved that it was her idea to use hypnosis to tap into Dracula’s senses and help track him down.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh boy yes every urban fantasy writer who’s like “hey dudes MY vampires are so much cooler than all the loser vampires that other people wrote.” Thanks I hate it.

      • LeeEsq

        Isn’t there a book series where a mild mannered accountant becomes a vampire and keeps his mild mannered accountant personality despite the change? That is an interesting take on a vampire.

        • Dave L

          The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant
          by Drew Hayes

      • Petar

        TVTropes calls this the “Your Vampires Suck” trope.
        I can think of two ways to keep it fresh:
        1. The vampires actually appreciate how they are portrayed in fiction and discuss which vampire works are their favorites.
        2. A vampire writes vampire novels.

        • JGrey

          Dracula was written with input by a vampire, either to take out his rivals or to purposely spread misinformation.

          In the Dresden Files series, the White Court had Dracula published so expose the weaknesses of the other Courts.

          • SunlessNick

            Which would make more sense if the other couts’ weaknesses matched Dracula better.

      • SunlessNick

        I think it was Anne Rice who used “ravings of a drunken Irishman” about Dracula.

  2. Tony

    Without giving away any spoilers, one clever subversion of the “This Is Reality” trope appears in John Carpenter’s 1994 Lovecraftian horror film In The Mouth Of Madness.

  3. SunlessNick

    And for all the in-text ballyhoo about whether this story is a story, nothing is actually accomplished!

    The converse of this is characters being “genre savvy” or otherwise acting like they know they’re in a story, which I hate just as much.

    • Tifa

      I guess The Order of The Stick isn’t the story for you, then.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It should be noted that Order of the Stick is a comedy. When its characters are genre savvy, it’s about the jokes. That’s a different animal than characters in a more serious story doing the same thing.

        • Tifa

          Oh. I guess comedy is the exception to many things.

      • SunlessNick

        I’ve read very little of it, but yes comedy can be an exception, especially when it’s in-jokes for roleplayers.

        For a more serious example, Scream worked for me because it told a very specific story where everything was set up to make that kind of self-reference fit. But since then, a lot of films have copied that style, and it’s not usually been to their benefit.

        • Jeppsson

          This is so true! Even in a comedy, it can come off annoying rather than funny if characters go (for instance) “well, in a horror movie, this or that will ALWAYS happen”, if you’ve watched enough horror movies to know this is a gross exaggeration, and that the thing they claim always happens is subverted quite often.

          I agree both with Scream, it really worked, and how it often doesn’t work when later moviemakers do the same thing in a sloppy and lazy way.

          • Cay Reet

            Scream used the ‘this is what always happens’ parts mostly to the side, it’s not focused on them. They’re also embedded in the story, as when one of the characters gives an impromptu lecture on slasher movies while they’re watching one. While that can come across as a little weird, the character is introduced as a movie buff and that’s not out of character for him. Since “Halloween” and, presumably, other slashers, exist in the movie reality, it’s legit for that guy to talk about them.

            As a matter of fact, there’s a crime novel with a locked-room mystery which has a full chapter dedicated to one main character doing a lecture of locked-room mysteries and what the solution can be. It doesn’t come off as weird there, either, because the character is doing ‘lecture mode’ before. He’s basically starting the chapter with ‘we all agree that this is a locked-room situation, because it clearly is, so let’s talk about how you can kill someone in a locked room. That makes sense in-story, because there’s a group of investigators and not just one and he’s talking to his colleagues. It’s John Dickson Carr’s “The Hollow Man”.

    • LeeEsq

      Genre Savy doesn’t always have to mean the characters know they are in a story. I’d argue that the main recurring characters in the second and third seasons of Stranger Things are genre savvy because they don’t loose all their knowledge in dealing with the Upside Down that they gained in Season 1.

      • SunlessNick

        Remembering what they’ve been through isn’t the same thing; that’s just their lives.

      • Rose

        I would say genre-savvy implies being aware that you’re in a story, or at least believing you’re in a story. Simple intelligence and knowledge are a different thing.

  4. Jibek Mechler

    What about characters saying “this isn’t a movie!” Or “this isn’t a book!” when I am trying to show how unrealistic things like torture are?

  5. Lisette

    Not exactly the same trope, but a character commenting that “stories haven’t prepared me for this adventure” is legit. There’s fair truth to the cliche that some learning has to come from experience, not hearing stories. “The stories told me traveling in the mountains would be cold and wet and miserable, and I believed the stories, but still I feel that no one prepared me for how cold and wet and miserable I would feel!”

  6. Dinwar

    Most of the time I’ve seen this it hasn’t been to explain to the audience that the story isn’t a story. The phrase/concept has been used to explain to A CHARACTER that the story isn’t a story. The difference is significant. Take the grizzled sergeant scene. Often military stories include an element of coming-of-age, where the youth learn that reality is much different–in this case harsher–than they expected. The sergeant isn’t telling the audience that this isn’t a story, he’s telling the young kid. This is part of the growth arc of the character.

    At some point,in a coming-of-age story, the protagonist must put away childish things. The “This is not a story” trope is often at or near the point where the character must do so.

    A nice example of this is (only in reverse) is the original Pirates of the Carabean movie. The antagonists capture the female protagonist (Lisa Swan? I think?), who thinks she’s been kidnapped (something members of noble families considered an occupational hazard at the time). The lead antagonist explains the reality of the situation, ending with (from memory, so the details are iffy) “You’d best start believing in ghost stories, Miss Turner. You’re in one.” The audience is aware of this. Lisa is not. The point isn’t to convince the audience of anything (we’ve bought into the premise by now); it’s to show Lisa’s reaction to the dawning realization that her entire world view is wrong. Realistically the authors could just as easily have kept her in the dark right up until the point where her blood was needed for the ritual. Possibly easier–a noble at that time would have understood the concept of being kidnapped, and the social norms around it were very strict (in theory anyway). By showing her the reality of the situation the writers were showing the audience how horrific people of the time would have found the situation.

    • Cay Reet

      The name was Elisabeth Swan.

      The whole ‘this is a story’ thing in Pirates, however, is meant for internal stories. ‘You’re in a horror story, Miss Swan’ is a simple fact of the story itself – captured by undead pirates who turn into skeletons under the moonlight, she is definitely in a horror story. In-story, people don’t believe in undead pirates in general, but in-story, there are undead pirates. Technically, Elisabeth’s fate is still a story fate: she is supposed to be part of a ritual to undo the undead curse – which will fail with her, because she’s not a child of that guy who got away, despite wearing his coin. If it had been the other way around and they’d pulled a Scooby Doo worthy twist by making the undead pirates merely humans in costume (difficult, but bear with me) to say ‘you believed in undead pirates and they don’t exist in real life’, it would have been closer to the whole ‘we’re not in a story’ thing.

      That’s a different thing as someone claiming ‘this is the reality and not a story, which is why this trope will not play out this way.’

    • Bellis

      Idk, I don’t like it when it’s used to explain harsh “realities” to another character either. Because the audience will hear/read it too. It does feel jarring reading a book that has a character say “This isn’t a story”, no matter what. I guess it’s less bad in the context you describe, at least. But it would leave me wondering if the author was trying to be smart with me by making that line of dialogue do double-duty, adressing both the character and the audience at the same time.

      I think there are better ways to have the characters talk about their situation. “War is harsh and frequently boring, it’s not glorious” (or whatever fits the story) would go over much better with me. So, have the character refute the claims stories make (that war is glorious for example or that heroes will always win if they are just plucky enough, etc) without literally spelling out that “this isn’t a story”.

    • SunlessNick

      At some point,in a coming-of-age story, the protagonist must put away childish things. The “This is not a story” trope is often at or near the point where the character must do so.

      But if this is a standard stage in a coming of age plot arc, then it *is* like a story. That’s why the trope can lead to eye-rolling.

      To put it another way, that example with the grizzled sergeant – whatever story you tell about him telling the kid that war isn’t like a story is going to go right into the same pile as the other stories that don’t in any way prepare you for the reality of war (many of which said the same thing in relation to their predecessors).

      I get what you mean, but it’s not a claim that will distinguish or elevate your work.

    • Jeppsson

      As the others said, Oren is likely aware that the grizzled sergeant is speaking to the recruit rather than breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience. But unless the implication is that this war movie takes place in a reality with a radically different culture than our own, where all war stories DO glamourize war in a way that makes it seem pretty nice and not harsh at all, the sergeant’s comment still, indirectly, becomes a rude critique of the work of other authors/movie-makers. The moviemaker still, basically, accuses everyone else (through the sergeant) of creating silly unrealistic stories, unlike him, who dares to show things as they really are.
      It’s rude AND wrong, since there’s usually a shitload of other war stories similar to the one we’re just watching. There are a shitload of war stories showing war to be harsh and horrible, for instance.

      I’m fine watching movies and reading books that are similar to a lot of other movies and books, since after all, few things are really unique. But as soon as a moviemaker or author tries to claim that they’re unique when they’re not, it gets a bit of an eye-roll from me.

    • Jeppsson

      Besides, it only takes small changes to the dialogue to avoid this ridculousness and rudeness. Just have the sergeant say something along the lines of “you might think you know what war is like because you’ve read about it or seen it on TV, but actually being here is a totally different thing” (ok, that came out clunky, but a snappier version of that). I mean, experiencing something for yourself IS different to just reading or watching. That point can be made without saying that the problem is that all war movies (implicitly “except this one, which is better than all the others”) show a glamourized picture.

      • SunlessNick

        “Whatever you’ve read or seen can’t prepare you for the smell or heat of the battlefield.”

        • Jeppsson

          Nailed it, SunlessNick. That would work fine.

  7. Circe

    This post inspired me to cut out a scene from my novel where the characters insist they’re not in a fantasy novel. It’s actually a huge improvement. Thanks for this great article!!

  8. Jeppsson

    HAHAHA after supporting the hell out of this article in the comments section, I just realized I used the “this is real life” in my own book! Someone tries to kill a monster using physical violence, and the MC goes “That might have worked in a monster movie, but this is real life! Only magic works!” Hopefully it’s backwards enough to be funny rather than annoying though.

    But I had seriously forgotten I wrote this until just now.

  9. Kiera

    So what are your thoughts on stories that ADMIT they are stories? Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of the Annals of the Western Shore series by Ursula K. LeGuin, in which each story of the trilogy is explicitly claimed to be written by a character in the story. Thoughts?

  10. FlauFly

    I’m not sure, if I agree completely. Tropes are tools, as is said in our good friend TVTropes. Maybe if I would read it again today, especially after reading this article, then I would see differently first Witcher stories. I don’t remember how closely they fit, because I didn’t read them for long time. They are mostly adaptations-deconstructions of very well known fairy tales or fantasy tropes with this professional mutated monster killer at the center of narrative. I’m almost sure that whole joke of plenty of them was that most folk inside of story was wrong genre-savvy and only this professional witcher knew how universe of the stories works (in the deconstructed way) and could deal with the problem. And I almost sure that something along the lines of “this is not fairy tale” was said, probably across few stories.

    I am usually for “death of the author” in criticism, but if critic reach over the story to punch author directly by calling him pretencious or smug or something, I think I can ignore “death of the author” for a moment.
    Deconstructions of fairy tales were done to oversaturation at this point. But in ’90 Poland? This kind of stories seemed to be clever and fresh. Sarcasm of Geralt, even when he directly snark at wrong genre savvy folk, was fun for its intended audience of this period and place. So, I think that in some context author shouldn’t be judged as smug and rude toward other authors (fairy tale storytellers?)

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