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.
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