While chatting with a local police officer about proper procedure for booking drug offenders in a metropolitan police department, I was pushing for specific details of process and practice, and carefully capturing them in my notes. After reviewing the (admittedly tedious) steps, the officer looked up at me with a bemused wrinkle on his brow and asked, “Why spend all this time? You’re a writer; why don’t you just make something up?”
I wanted to answer with a glib “No. We may extend the known with reasonable speculation or extrapolation, but we start with knowable fact and work from there.” The problem is that such a premise is demonstrably untrue. An enormous number of writers seems to make stuff up out of whole cloth* with little or no attention paid to basic and easily verified underlying facts.
It’s happened to all of us. We’re reading a story and a detail leaps out and slaps us in the face because we know that it’s just not true, and that even cursory research would have shown the folly of the claim. As a reader that drives me nuts because it breaks the illusion and jars me out of the story; it makes me wonder how many other details the author got wrong and undermines my trust in the story. As a writer I know that we sometimes play a little loose with certain facts to accomplish another literary task.
Tension, for example. We’ve all watched the Hollywood movie where a digital display shows the 18-digit password with numbers and letters scrolling quickly by as our intrepid hero runs a crack algorithm to break into the system and stop the villain’s nefarious plan (or, alternatively, the villain is attempting to gain access to national security controls). Suddenly, the fourteenth digit appears, followed almost immediately by the third digit. Then the tenth, eighth, and first. Time is running out! Will we eliminate the threat before the system is hacked and the world ends?
Of course the entire premise is silly. Passwords are all-or-nothing deals, not a game of Mastermind where a helpful computer aids your quest and tells you when you get a single digit correct. If you get it wrong all you see is an error; if you get it wrong more than five times in a row the account is usually automatically locked out and requires manual intervention by someone in IT to re-enable it (an innovation created precisely because of war dialers who used brute force software tools to systematically generate passwords—more than thirty years ago).
In this case, underlying fact is not the point—it’s all about tension. Nothing creates tension like a clock counting down, a cutting laser slowly approaching your face (or other vital areas), a blast door slowly closing, or discovered digits of a password appearing one by one to signal the impending doom of humanity (or at least our hero). Of course the premise is silly. It’s a device, a genre conceit that we’re expected to recognize, wink at, and move on from in breathless anticipation of how the device will be defeated. Hollywood logic.
Pulp adventures were famous (and shameless) in using the most flimsy setups (and glaring cultural inaccuracies) to put our heroes in harm’s way so they could use their pluck and ingenuity (and common household items) to extract themselves. The number of sword-wielding Muslims (or ax-wielding Mormons) defeated by an appeal to mystical personages is legendary, and the number and quality of explosives manufactured from soda, hard candies, playing cards, and match heads boggles the mind.
Exactly as intended. Not because they’re plausible, but precisely because they’re not. Tension outweighs realism (the entire premise is already fantastic), and the conventions of genre give us explicit permission to bypass a careful, tedious setup to get straight to the daring escape or tender romantic embrace. In this case it’s all about the payoff, not the setup.
But some genres demand more care in the setup. There’s an entire category of science fiction based on rigorous extrapolation of known (hard) science into reasonable (and clearly explained) technology that then impacts society or government in transformative ways. The technology may seem magical, but there’s a straight line explanation from known tech to future tech. I’ve read “hard fantasy” stories based around rigorous explanations of troop formation and battlefield tactics. You can add wizards to the battle all you want, but if you describe a double envelopment maneuver, you better get the troop movements and placements right and allow the tactic to play out naturally before the wizard cleans up after the decisive moment.
Likewise, I’ve read manorpunk fantasy that demands detailed (and lengthy) descriptions of clothing styles, materials, and colors. You can introduce non-historical characters in your manorpunk, but your descriptions of castles, clothes, and court etiquette better be precise, careful, and historically defensible or your readers will reject you. Sadly, those richly described details are likely to put off non-genre readers, leaving you with no detectable audience.
So it’s not always about pure accuracy, but about understanding your audience, their expectations, and where they apply scrutiny. It’s when a story pretends to a particular genre’s rigor, then drops a silly mistake in culture, tactic, or technology that I get unnecessarily blasted out of a story.
I recently read a military sf story that featured computer-assisted battle armor on a commando team isolated from central command and control by (created) environmental barriers known beforehand. I was willing to accept the pulp conceit that there’s always one trigger-happy nutjob in every unit who will lose composure at a key moment and endanger the rest of the squad (normally leading to the death of the commander). It doesn’t really make sense that an elite squad sent on a critical mission would tolerate such a member, but it’s part of a long and storied genre expectation that transposes (legitimate) observed meltdowns by ordinary troops into a completely different (and fundamentally incompatible) context.
I cringed at the loose cannon, but I understood his role in enabling a fairly standard plot complication. Lazy, but within the accepted norms of the genre.
But when the commander was disabled and our hero promptly runs around trying to pull the hard drive out of her suit to gain critical mission data, my credulity was strained one step too far. High-availabilty data management and communications resiliency are basic assumptions in a technology-driven system. If the network of suits is smart enough to detect that the commander is down and automatically promotes the second-in-command (a plot point in the story), then it’s smart enough to have replicated critical mission data across multiple repositories before the fact and encrypted access pending need.
There’s never a single point of failure in high-availability computing, so the idea that we need to pull a hard drive from a captured battlesuit before the rest of us can figure out what to do next (while the mission clock counts down to nuclear cleansing), is just plain silly. No self-respecting military technologist would allow that basic a design flaw. Yet there it was, screaming that the author had taken one too many liberties, had skipped one too many points of basic research in the name of plot convenience. You can make the enemy as incomprehensibly powerful as you want, but you better get good old American tech right and not fail the entire operation because no one thought to plan for the hard drive being vaporized along with the commander.
(One of the most devastating critiques I ever received on a story was the obvious suggestion to build a fence. The effort of re-imagining the story in light of that obvious solution to the core problem made for a far more interesting, complex, and satisfying story.)
Maybe I’m being too hard on the author, but I work in enterprise technology and have some sense of the basics of high-availability computing and distributed data replication in resilient systems. The whole point of the Internet was to create a self-redirecting, resilient network that could take hits from nuclear bombs and still function. If we did that forty years ago, I’m pretty sure we’re not dependent on a a single hard drive for mission success (never mind that such storage would be solid state, not disc-based).
The author abused my trust outside of normal genre conceits on a point of fact easily researched on the Internet (a simple search for “high availability” on Wikipedia yields a useful results list that includes enabling technologies like clusters and fault-tolerant applications; a similar search on Google yields more than 8.4 million hits). More importantly, the error didn’t add anything useful to the story; we could have created the same tension with the ordinary soldier’s ethic (and genre convention) that no one is left behind.
This happens a lot to Mormons who read stuff by non-Mormons that describe our unique cultural practices. Often the claim is so absurd that it’s chalked up to genre convention (tunnels from world cities to the Salt Lake Temple to facilitate our abduction of women for forced polygamist marriages). Never mind that it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the Mormon concepts of the purpose of marriage; it’s a constructed shorthand for craven fundamentalists that relies on genre convention to justify lack of factual integrity.
But the errors are sometime close enough to reality that the uneducated will swallow them whole and draw conclusions based on false assumptions, and the educated will cringe and lose trust. I remember reading one novel many years ago that began with a woman tying her garments to her wrist as she bathed—a reasonable (if false) extrapolation of the idea that good Mormons wear their garments at all times. But also an easily debunked notion simply tested by actually talking to a couple of good Mormons (widely available even before the advent of the public Internet).
You don’t have to get everything right, but you should get the easy stuff and not just make it up. Use genre conceits if they’re available, but don’t abuse them to justify lack of basic research. The less you rely on genre conventions the wider your potential audience becomes, and the less likely you are to boot people from your story for avoidable reasons. And more often than not, that basic research will reveal a verifiable fact that is far more interesting and useful in creating your story than the cliché you almost fell back on.
* Enter “out of whole cloth etymology” into your favorite Internet search engine for an interesting analysis of the origins of that phrase and its original meaning.