Friday, 19 November 2010

Reality v Realistic

I loved Ian McEwan's novel Atonement - though I've had many a discussion about the ending. My mother, normally a McEwan fan, was sniffy. She'd been a nurse at a London teaching hospital during WWII, just like Briony in the book, and pronounced that it was unbelievable.

I was surprised. After all, McEwan had done extensive research at the Imperial War Museum and was even accused of plagiarism due to the similarities in Atonement to No Time for Romance, a novel by Lucilla Andrews who had been a nurse at St Thomas' Hospital during the war.

My mother was unrepentant. 'I can see he's done his research,' she said. 'And I'm sure each of those incidents did happen. But it's unbelievable that they'd all happen to one particular nurse.' In other words, real incidents, but an unrealistic situation.

That's one of the tricks of narrative writing. Real life, but exaggerated. (I'm using the term narrative writing because it's true of non-fiction just as much as fiction.) In real life, when drama comes, we try to go back to normal as soon as possible. In narrative writing, characters rush headlong from one crisis to another. In real life, we get home from work and settle down with a nice cup of tea for an evening's viewing in front of the TV. If a character starts their evening in the same way the author will either interrupt it with a crucial phone call or that's where the scene will end.

Real life, but without any of the boring bits. After all, we can do boring bits at home every day of our own lives. We don't want to read about them, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction. So, McEwan was right to load Briony's life at the hospital with as much drama as he could find in the archives. It may not have been real, but it was realistic - and more to the point, it wasn't boring.


Helena said...

Balancing realism and drama can be quite difficult to achieve, as too much either way and the whole story can descend into monotony or melodrama. I’m with you on Atonement though – it’s one of my favourite books and all the drama surrounding Briony was entirely believable to me plus it made the story more interesting.
But, I wasn’t a nurse in WWII. I think when people read a book which refers to a subject they know a lot about they can be pickier than the average reader, simply because they have such specialised knowledge of that world. For example, I have a friend who worked for the police who regularly has a go at what I think are realistic crime stories/dramas, saying the police would never do that or it would never happen like that, etc. I think writers have to forget about these specialists, to a certain extent, as if they became too bogged down in detail, the story would never move forward. For me, as long as a writer can make a narrative realistic enough to be true, yet interesting enough to make people carry on reading, then that’s enough. After all, we are talking about fiction, aren’t we?

Sarah Duncan said...

Oh yes, the police must get fed up to the back teeth with the way they're represented by TV. But who would want to watch them filling in all those forms?

I hate seeing writers on TV portrayed as earning millions - not my reality for sure!

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

I completely agree with you, that the requirement that fiction has the quality of 'turnability' overrides your mother's insistence on accuracy.