All stories, like everything else in life, evolve. It is part of the process of their creation. But one of the things I learned and wrote about on my MA course was how we create fictional reality. By this I mean a world we still believe in, even if it’s a place where rain falls upwards. I took a lot of my examples from Sci-fi although I applied this concept to my short story Living by Numbers about a girl with OCD. I have talked about this on this site before, but today I want to take it a step further.
Fictional worlds, as I explained last time, have rules and it’s in establishing these for the reader where we create a contract with the reader. So long as you stick to the rules, show consistency, then the reader will believe in the place you have created. Think about fantasy novels as another example. Actually Living by Numbers, now published, was set very much in the real world, but I was asking the reader to believe a young girl, her mother dying on the seat beside her after a car accident, can not phone 999. Why? Because she does not do odd numbers, especially odd multiples of odd numbers. At the start of the story you might well say come on, her mum is dying! She would just do it, right? But would she? What I was trying to show through the flashbacks in the story, was what might seem unfathomable to you or I, is real to the girl in the story. By the end of the story, when she sits with the phone in her hand and has to overcome the fear, we now realise its significance. We understand her and the world of rules and rituals, governed by numbers, that she has created. You have to make the reader understand the rules of your world in order to buy into them; to empathise and stay with the story.
So, how have I taken this idea further?
My new novel is based in reality. It’s not Sci-fi or fantasy. It’s about three central characters on an allotment. Set in 1999 I use a lot of real events, even checking the weather for that day, lunar phases, religious festivals, football scores and UK number one songs. The place-name is fictional, but we believe there’s a place called Walford in London, those who watch EastEnders, so you will believe in this place, with its set of neat green squares, row of Victorian houses, and a number 79 bus that stops outside. And the characters, should seem real, but they’re fictional. These things I think we can accept without too many rules.
As I write, however, I have needed to create some events that did not happen in London on the date shown in the story. And what I have come to realise is this: if you create a world people believe and characters people believe, have used real events, real songs, even real weather for plausibility, when you start to stretch the boundaries of truth your reader will stay with you. Or they should. If you do it well enough, they might even believe such an event, however unlikely it might seem, really did happen. But what I want to point out is how the more gradual this evolution; the more slowly you build that contract with your reader, slowly teasing them into this world with its idiosyncrasies, the more you can stretch the boundaries between what is real and what isn’t. And that is something I love; there lies the true power of fiction writing.
I would love to take this a step further and create a world where the rules are broken in strange ways. Imagine a world where the real events we know happen a day, an hour, a month, what about a year later. What if Kennedy was really assassinated in 1964; his children would be a year older, perhaps the world did not avert the Cuban missile crisis, perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald was dead from something by then. If you create the rules, however wacky they might seem, make a contract with your reader to be true to those rules and your writing might take an interesting new turn. Think of the potential for stories by thinking about and subverting the rules as we know them.
Writing is a craft. Use it well and wisely and you can create something wonderful. Falter and plunge the reader into situations that stretch believability too far (because you have not created the rules properly) and you could lose them.
That is all. Have a great day. Got some fictional world-building to do…