Everyone knows Mark Twain‘s quote “Truth is stranger than fiction.” But do you know the FULL quote?
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
This quote is one that has constantly fascinated me, and I want to discuss it today in as much depth as my little blog allows me to do without going overboard.
I agree with Mark Twain completely.
When I read this quote, I particularly find myself reflecting on action novels and movies. It’s common to see a reviewer roll their eyes and say, “That was ridiculous. No one could survive that. etc.” And I admit, I am also one of these people.
But then it happens: I come across a REAL article – a nonfiction tale – that seems so outlandish that even scientists and experts are left scratching their heads in confusion. Just a few examples might include these: 5 Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy, 7 Historical Figures Who Were Absurdly Hard to Kill, or even 15 Images You Won’t Believe Aren’t Photoshopped. These are only three that I can’t wrap my mind around when reading, and if I came across them in a fiction novel, I would’ve been one of those critics that claimed it was unbelievable.
Why does this happen? Why do we want our fiction stories to be grounded in truths that real life doesn’t even have to listen to?
For instance, I think there’s an expectation for the use of magic to be fully explained in fantasy novels. While I think a background story helps create a relatable world, I do want to question why. After all, it’s magic, isn’t it? But readers want the history. They want to know the origins. They want to know where it all began. But if you think about it, human history has so many questions, we don’t even have this in real life. (Again, not stating an explanation isn’t needed. I’m simply using this as an example in terms of truth being stranger than fiction.) Maybe we – as readers – want an explanation because it’s simply in our human nature to want it.
To clarify I am not just talking about magic, I want to recall a time in my fiction writing class.
A very talented writer wrote a story about a serial killer who ultimately died of a brain aneurysm. It was written in first person, and he quite frankly falls over and dies. When we discussed her piece, many classmates wanted more. They didn’t like the event, stating something along the lines that it took them out of the story. I, on the other hand, found it quite believable, considering this happens in every day life to all sorts of people without any previous signs. While they thought it was anticlimactic, I thought it was symbolic for a guy who causes death so dramatically to die so quickly without any shoot out. But the overall viewpoint was that his death had nothing to do with the story despite potential realism. Not all murder cases are solved in a Hollywood shootout. Many serial killers go unknown. Some probably live normal lives that would cause us to never suspect them of their crimes. But – still – it wasn’t enough.
There seems to be a line of expectation that lies between realistic and symbolic that is difficult to pinpoint.
So, yes. I think fiction has to abide by more expectations in order to keep a reader in believability-mode more so than real life simply because real life is allowed to have unexplainable exceptions. Fiction demands reasoning.
I asked if you all agreed with Mark Twain’s quote on my Author Facebook Page.
Rebecca P. McCray, author of The Journey of the Marked, elaborated on the subject by stating, “Great quote and one I haven’t thought about in a while. I do agree with Mark Twain, but I think the more interesting question is why is it true? I think the answer lies in how far individuals are able to stretch the imagination. What may seem ‘unbelievable’ to one may be justifiable to another. We live in a world where children are being fed technology / ideas at an astonishing rate, but are we limiting the ability to imagine? To entertain oneself with outlandish ideas. To challenge what is believable. Fiction should, by definition, push the limits of reality, allowing a writer to explore ideas. But in the end, if one pushes too far, will he/she alienate readers who are unable to suspend that reality beyond what is known? I suppose there are trends like the zombie phase we’re currently in that would qualify as being stranger than truth. But in the end, I do agree that truth is often stranger than fiction.”
What do you think? Do you agree? Why do you agree or disagree? What kind of trends have you seen that support your side?