Stranger Than Fiction

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.

These thoughts make me see birds fly around my confused head.
These thoughts make me see birds fly around my confused head.

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.

Join me on Facebook, and your answers might be used next!
Join me on Facebook, and your answers might be used next!

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? 


32 thoughts on “Stranger Than Fiction

  1. i agree simply because I am a damsel living in a slowly tilting planet in the infinitely expanding universe and one day i might just die unnoticed. i love this article of yours..it really got me fascinated 🙂

  2. That quote is true, and how you explained it is true, but I’m sat here thinking: well, if that’s the case, then we as writers should throw away these “rules” of fiction. As you say with fantasy – it’s fantasy! Surely, if anything, that is the genre that can go wild and push everything to the very limits. And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t the point of fantasy to escape reality? I found this post strangely hopeful, somehow. Thanks.

    Stay well. – Jennifer

  3. In “The Romantic Manifesto”, Ayn Rand uses the example of a picture of a woman with a visible cold sore on her lip, saying that it would be acceptable as a photograph, because it’s an accurate portrayal of what exists in reality, but would be unacceptable in a painting, because a painter chooses the elements to include, and a blemish should not be included by choice.

    While I don’t agree with the specifics of that example (and find Rand’s fiction to be unreadable) I think that’s the crux of the issue–in fiction we know that everything happens by the deliberate choice of the author. A true story can make us shrug and say, “Well, these things happen…” but in fiction things don’t “just happen” they are made to happen by the author.

    To go back to your example of the story about the killer who died from an aneurysm, death is a big deal, and we want to believe that there is a reason behind it. Since the readers know that this character died at the will of the author, it’s natural for the readers to want that death to be a direct result of the character’s crimes.

    My personal opinion is the same as yours–the deliberate mirroring of the inexplicable nature of reality is a valid artistic style. However, I can see how many readers would be disappointed by that ending.

    1. Thank you for sharing your examples and elaborating! Very fascinating. And, yes, I find myself, even after writing this, wondering about why some realistic things work and why others don’t in various pieces. It’s a great subject to think about, because I think it seems simple but isn’t always so clear.

  4. I fully agree and I’ve been trying to figure out why this is for weeks. I had a few ‘complaints’ about the morality of one of my characters. She comes from a culture where you can date multiple people at once before getting married to make sure you find the right person. Once you’re married, you’re stuck and divorce is punished by being exiled from the city. Some people went mad and started claiming it was immoral and unrealistic. I was even accused of spending time on adult websites for some reason. It’s was a really odd response, especially since there are stranger marriage and dating customs in the real world.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience! I think you’re very right. There’s actually a village in Cambodia that fathers build practical sex huts for their daughters to use to get to know mates before they marry. But I feel like if it were used in a novel, people might assume all sorts of immoral things based on their personal moral beliefs. On top of that, I wonder why readers take beliefs from characters in a novel and assume those are the beliefs of the author. (Like how you were accused of being on adult websites to create that.) Basically, if one of my characters hates the color purple that doesn’t mean I hate the color purple. But it seems to happen a lot.
      Thank you again of sharing your personal story.

      1. It’s a very strange and dangerous practice. Thankfully, I think it only goes for heroes and villains being evil monsters don’t reflect on the author. I hope not because I have a villain coming up that I despise and can’t wait to kill off because he’s far too evil for my tastes. Perfect for the story, a nightmare for me to write.

        Something I think about is how there are still arranged marriages, various forms of cultural body alterations from earrings to neck lengthening, and other traditions that people would find ‘odd’. That’s reality, so why should fiction be any different?

  5. I spent my career as a deep cover private detective and politician. I can tell you that ABSOLUTELY trust is stranger than fiction. I have a pretty active imagination and even I couldn’t have dreamed up the stuff my files are made of! Great post.

  6. Fiction is not just a series incidents strung together– it is a tale with (normally) a beginning, a middle and an end, all building (hopefully) toward a point the author is trying to make. People have attempted “pointless” existential fiction, but for the vast majority of people such fiction fails to satisfy, because our culture– most cultures– have an expectation that a tale will have a point– even a moral– toward which it works.

    Real life is under no such constraint. Our personal narratives don’t necessarily follow any sort of comprehensible plot structure, and there is no requirement that these narratives end with a climax that provides resolution to the threads of your “tale”, In other words, you could be sitting in your apartment, sipping coffee and planning out your life, and a burning 747 could fall out of the sky for no objective reason and obliterate you and your plans in an instant. You can multiply the possibilities endlessly. Less catastrophically, most people’s lives go along in mundane muddles down to whatever end each of us finds.

    Re: your example of the serial killer– in real life such monsters do die ordinary deaths, and never receive their just deserts. In a story with a point, such an ending is unsatisfying. This, btw, is why Hollywood usually has to dress-up and re-write real-life events for the movies– real life is just too random, and usually doesn’t follow the dramatic beats a movie generally requires.

    One last aside– re: magic in fantasy universes– this is another aspect of this same issue. Every fantasy or imaginative universe requires internal rules– and those rules need to be applied consistently by the writer. Otherwise the reader will generally feel frustration and a sense of betrayal when she or he detects the inconsistency. This, too, is part of what we expect when we read a story.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Thank you for elaborating and your vivid example! lol
      I agree about your explanation between a tale and life’s tale. It’s a great way to explain some of these expectations, and I actually prefer explanations and symbolic meanings in art, despite questioning why we might want these things.
      Thank you for sharing your two cents.

  7. Ah, the ever-popular reader expectations, and the ever-puzzling quandary about how to satisfy them!

    Actually, I came to this question from the opposite angle in a blog post over the summer. I wrote about Giant Oarfish, which can grow to 40 feet in length. If I wrote in a fantasy novel about a 40-foot fish, people would think it was too ridiculous, yet it’s a real creature.

    Here’s the link if anyone is curious: http://wyrmflight.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/a-real-dead-sea-monster/

    1. I think those cases astound me the most – when things in REAL life are used and people simply assume it’s ridiculous. I understand that no one can educate themselves on everything – in fact, I’m sure I’m guilty of doing this – but it makes you wonder where the reader’s expectation lies between realistic and relatable.
      Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts!

  8. Great post! It makes me think of an article I read recently about world-building in fantasy novels. According to the post, authors should keep a little mystery about their world and the magic within it! (I wish I still had the link so I could share it…)

  9. I think it’s about what makes the story more interesting. For example, the man dying from an aneurysm may be realistic, and I suppose, humanely relatable, but it makes for a boring story, because like your classmates said, it’s anti-climactic. And fiction is supposed to interest readers. Fiction is meant to fascinate us, sometimes in unexpected ways.

    However, I do agree that not everything has to be explained because fantasy is fantasy (for example) but as writers and authors, it’s about picking and choosing what to explain and what to keep authentic (by not emphasizing).

  10. Good post. However, the Cracked article is probably wrong about Rasputin–Edward Radzinsky’s The Rasputin Files makes a fairly conclusive case that (for example) the people who shot at him were just lousy marksmen.

    1. Good information! Thank you adding. And, yes, Cracked isn’t a website I take too seriously. I was simply using it because I think it was written in action-movie style despite some factual references.

  11. This was a great read! I think the unique thing about fiction is that it acts as a reflection of our own world. In a way, it provides possible explanations for things which we can’t yet explain. When I think up a story, I always have an idea to play with. There is no right or wrong about the idea and there is no current explanation. Writing has always been the way I explain the world to myself. Maybe fiction helps the truth make sense.

    1. “Maybe fiction helps the truth make sense.”
      I love that! Thank you for commenting.
      I also love when I read a novel that explains history in some way. Even though it isn’t nonfiction, it always make my imagination go wild.

  12. One thing is for sure – truth is scarier than fiction. With fiction a writer chooses the end, but with truth life chooses the end. That’s why I often prefer fiction:)

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