Breaking the Mirror: Authenticity vs. Reality in Fiction

Scott SummersOn Writing, Tips & Learns

We’re all familiar with this scene:

It’s dark. The assassin slips into the home undetected. He moves through the house without a sound. Up the stairs, past the sleeping children. He doesn’t even wake the dog. He creeps into the bedroom of Soon-To-Be-Murdered and grins. Too easy, too easy.

The assassin levels his gun. The silencer on the end of the barrel catches the moonlight as the gun coughs once, twice. Then, the assassin is gone without a trace with no one the wiser. Tomorrow, the kids will climb out of bed, run down the hall . . . and wake the entire neighborhood with a blood-curdling scream.

It’s the opening to half the murder/mystery and buddy cop television shows out there. A shadow killer, an unsuspecting victim, a murder without a trace.

Just one problem: It’s not a picture of reality.

That example is complete Hollywood fiction. A quick google search will show you how silencers (suppressors) work. Even with one of those, the gun will likely wake the neighbors, not to mention the dog. Thanks to media where entire plot lines are built around these storybook mechanics, how authentic do you really have to be?

With Age Comes Annoyance

Speaking as a reader: As I get older, I learn more about how the world works. It also means that, day by day, my bar for authenticity goes up a micrometer at a time. As I discover new information, as it changes my view of reality, I find myself getting hung up on the little details that I might’ve given a pass in my younger days.

That’s true for everyone, including readers. My experience has been that the more specific the detail, the fewer readers recognize the flaw. Maybe swords ringing out of scabbards doesn’t bother someone who doesn’t know how scabbards are traditionally made. Maybe a reader ignorant of samurai combat doesn’t flinch when the swordsman blocks an incoming strike with the back of his katana.

To me, it’s a nails-on-chalkboard moment.

However, when someone gets it right: Man, that’s a feel-good moment. It tells me as a reader that the author either has a background in the field or has done at least a little research for the sake of reality. This is also nice to see when there’s an exception to the rule being made. (Maybe the gun is magically silenced, implying that the author knows a suppressor wouldn’t be enough to get the job done by itself.)

Too Little, Too Late

As a reader, there are some things I’m completely willing to give a pass. Sound in space during a Star Wars film. Cool fight scenes that run on slightly too long. Minor plot points that fall by the wayside over a longer narrative.

The thing is, all those little transgressions add up. As they pile on, my opinion of the author and the book declines, and eventually turns me off of the story. One or two slip-ups are okay. I’m willing to tolerate a little ignorance for the sake of the story, but sooner or later, those details will shatter my suspension of disbelief, and reality comes crashing in. That’s when the story is over for me, finished or not.