Friday, March 1, 2013

Fiction Is Reality Improved: Verisimilitude



I’m late to the Life of Pi film party. Just days before the Oscars, I saw Ang Lee’s vision for Yann Martel’s wonderful novel, one I read several years ago. Everyone in my Facebook community loved the book, but I was still nervous. How would that novel transfer to film? How faithfully would a screenwriter and director render Martel’s story?

Faithfully. Beautifully. Artfully. Lovingly. That’s how Lee treated Martel’s novel, and I was carried back to my first acquaintance with it and to the opening words:

“That's what fiction is about, isn't it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Martel's words provide a lesson for writers. Select. Edit. Delete. Omit. Embellish.

If I tell a story to you, omitting nothing, including everything in the order in which it all occurred, you'll grow tired in hearing it. After all, some of what happened isn’t even important or relevant; it just stumbled into a story line and became inextricably linked--except that its link means nothing to the listener, only to the narrator, the first-person star of the tale. Allow me to illustrate.

So I couldn’t sleep that night. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the wind outside. Maybe it’s because I drank a large tea just an hour before I lay down. I don’t think not being able to fall asleep had anything to do with what happened next, but I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I couldn’t sleep that night--as if I knew he’d call, as if I stayed awake waiting for that other shoe to drop, but I didn’t know. People say you always know, that there are clues you see after that shoe hits, but I didn’t know and I never saw the clues later either. So I wasn’t awake because of some prescience or fear or worry. I just couldn’t shut my brain off. I kept think about what I needed to finish at work before the end of the week and tried to figure out when I was going to clean the house before my parents’ visit. I was just turning stuff over and over in  my brain when the phone rang at 11:16 p.m. . . .

You were almost through, weren’t you? Ready to click off the post and onto something else because of the detritus of daily living clogging the story’s pipes. The narrator needs to selectively transform reality, to twist it in order to bring out its essence. For example:

I lay down at ten o’clock as I always do, but sleep failed me. My mind continued to spool, streaming the projects that had to be completed by the end of the week, the housework that had to be finished by Friday instead of on Saturday because my parents would visit through the weekend. I never thought about him. Not once. Even though he was already two hours late, I didn’t worry or conjure up terrible accidents. He would be home. He would snuggle against me and nuzzle my neck, and in the morning, he’d tell me what had delayed him. When the phone rang at 11:16, I thought I’d hear him say, “I’m turning the corner into the neighborhood. Sorry, Babe. Almost home.” But he didn’t say those words at all. He just said “Good-bye,” and I laughed--at first--at his clever joke--to start a conversation with the words that would end it. He didn’t laugh back or with me or at all. He just hung up.

Is that version better? Why? Because a bunch of unnecessary stuff was left out! And a bunch of other stuff was admitted into evidence! Stuff that suggests she had no clue that he wouldn’t be home again, stuff that suggests she trusted him, stuff that makes the reader want to know why, how, when, where, stuff that builds tension and fuels a story.

So fiction selectively transforms reality. Fiction twists what actually happened in order to bring out its essence. Reread what you’ve written. What is detritus? What should be cut? And what should be admitted?

Reading Challenge:

If you have not read Life of Pi, do. You won’t be sorry. Then watch Ang Lee’s beautiful film. It took home Oscars for visual editing and cinematography.

Writing Challenge:

Write a blow-by-blow, step-by-step chronological account of an hour in your life. Then spin it into fiction.