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Does fiction have to stick with the facts?

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As President Reagan said, facts are stubborn things. This is especially true when you’re trying to tell a story.

When I started my new novel, The Ghosts of Reseda High, I based my story on school starting in mid-September as it has in Los Angeles since probably the beginning of public education. This year, the Los Angeles Unified School District moved up the first day of school to August 13. (Let’s hope LAUSD also upgraded the air conditioning in all those schools.)

The change in start dates posed a problem for me (not to mention all those students who lost a month of vacation). Do I rewrite my story so it starts a month earlier, which could throw off the narrative flow I have so far? Or do I leave the story as it is? Does fiction have to stick with the facts?

Let’s look at science fiction. Most popular space adventures involve faster-than-light travel. According to our current understanding of physics, this is impossible. It is also impossible to tell a story involving people and other creatures traveling within a galaxy far, far away if it takes them centuries to get from one star system to the next.

The best works of science fiction make faster-than-light travel seem plausible. Star Trek provides an excellent example with warp drive (along with its dilithium crystals and Scotty ranting, “I can’t make her go any faster, Captain!”) This plot device works because it is used consistently and follows its own rules. We see situations where the technology fails (especially when the Klingons are closing in) and what it takes to get it working again. Star Trek has made fantasy technology seem so believable, scientists and engineers have found ways to make it real.

But audiences can get distracted when the facts of a story are not used consistently, even if the information is correct.

One example is the short-lived NBC series Kings. The show is supposed to be the Biblical story of King David moved forward to modern times, but it included references to dates, places, and events that suppose that the Biblical events happened when they were supposed to in the past.

The movie version of Rent erred by stating it took place between Christmas Eve 1989 and Christmas Eve 1990. (That’s 525,600 minutes, in case you’re counting.) The problem with those dates is that it turns some of Jonathan Larson’s lyrics into anachronisms, like when Angel sings about “Thelma and Louise” (a movie from 1991) or when Maureen sings about “a yellow rental truck, bein’ packed in with fertilizer and fuel oil” (from the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995).

Both Kings and the Rent movie stumbled because they didn’t stick with the facts of the story, even though they presented accurate information. Star Trek worked because it presented the facts of the story consistently, even if the information was (at the time) implausible.

Our goal as fiction writers is to create a suspension of disbelief. It isn’t important to our audience whether faster-than-light space travel is possible or that school starts in August or September. We need our audience to believe it is true in the world of the story. We can do that by making sure the facts we present are consistent and follow their own rules. We should remove details that contradict the rules of the story, even if those details are technically accurate. If they are not true to the story, they become distractions.

Yes, fiction does have to stick with the facts — the facts of the world of the story.

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