Research and Nihilism, Part Two: The Three Big Cheats

In my last post I spoke about taking pains to do proper research, and how, nonetheless, your audience will never be entirely satisfied. So, am I telling you that everything I and others write is meticulously accurate?

God, no. And from this we come to the Three Big Cheats.

1.  Time — pull it like taffy or roll it into a ball.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that audiences are only vaguely aware of time. What’s more, events on screen seem to take place over a longer period of time than they actually do. Because of this, we writers take gross advantage of our license to muddy the waters, and stretch or compress time to allow the story we need to take place. I suppose I could write an essay just about this, but for now I’ll skip ahead.

2.  Role — people doing tasks other people would normally do in places they need not be.

I once wrote for a show called The Agency, in which a group of CIA operatives would be sent around the world to handle crises. Now, you may be assured that the CIA already had operatives in whatever country our characters merrily rolled into; why didn’t we use them?

Because it wasn’t an anthology show. Television is about recurring characters. Dramatically, you don’t want to see some nameless people you don’t know performing tasks; you want to see characters you’re invested in, with an arc you can follow.

On Profiler, you’d see the main characters (all FBI agents) fly all over the country at the drop of a hat. But doesn’t the FBI have a local office in these places? Yes, but the show is about our characters.

If there’s a scene where a blood test needs to be performed on a patient, you will generally see it performed by main characters, who use the occasion to further the stories between them, rather than by an actor you’ve never seen before playing a nurse.

If there’s a crisis somewhere, Jack Bauer will handle it. Or Fox Mulder. Or Thomas Magnum or Veronica Mars, come to that. Because the show is about those characters. This is a truth so evident, audiences will usually not even notice the license taken. (Unless they happen to be an FBI agent, a nurse, or a CIA officer. In which case they’ll notice in regard to their own specialty, but not in regard to anybody else’s.)

Cheat Three — This one is true of books, movies, television, and epic poetry:

3.  Fictional life — not as boring as it is in real life!

This is another one that people are so used to, they don’t even notice. But you could imagine the conversation among aliens of the Horsehead Nebula:

Garbok: Catch those entertainments I sent you from that dustspeck in the Milky Way? Movies, they call ’em.

Nameless Whistle: Yes, and as it happens, I have been to the Milky Way. First of all, most of the species there are insectoid, so all this attention to mammals is ridiculous, but put that aside. If you follow one of these creatures around all day, it’s totally mundane. They spend a third of the time unconscious, and when they are awake, they’re either cleaning themselves or taking nourishment or defecating or laboring at some silly task in exchange for monetary tokens. That’s it! No gunmen bursting in, no swinging over chasms, no big mammalian kiss at the end to show they live happily ever after – and by the way, ick

Garbok: You experts are a difficult audience.

Now, you and I are very aware that our lives would not fit neatly into the structure of most movies, but we understand the conventions. We understand that the boring parts will be left out, the taboo parts will be left out, and things will be just plain more story-structured and more exciting than real life will permit. Even those people who do lead lives we’d consider intense — firefighters, for example; when it comes to fiction, those lives are shoehorned into three acts (or four acts and a teaser, if it’s network television), with the going-to-the-dry-cleaner parts dropped entirely.

The same thing happens with subjects the audience is less familiar with. If your protagonist is an FBI agent and he has to go search a house, the audience may hear about a warrant (because we’re all familiar with warrants), or we may cut to the house, if time is short, and let the people at home fill in the blanks and assume a warrant was gotten. But if an expert said, “In addition to getting the warrant, your guy should also pick up three copies of a Legalese Nebulous, and have two immediate supervisors sign off on it” — well, I can only say that both as a writer and as an audience member, I’m happy to skip that part and assume that everything that needed to done was done off-screen. Let’s jump ahead to the part where we confront the serial killer.

Of course, there will always be people who assume that if they didn’t see it, and the characters didn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. (Though for some reason this logic doesn’t apply to going to the bathroom.) I can only say that it seems to me that these are the conventions of this kind of storytelling; that every era has its way of expecting an audience to take in what’s happening, and these are ours. We were taught fundamentals of reading in school; but this more invisible learning takes place too, as we grow up watching endless repeats of The Rockford Files and film noir festivals on classic movie channels and the constant repetition-and-variation of the romantic comedy.

You have to learn how to absorb a story, just as you have to learn how to tell one. But people don’t talk about the former process as much.

Every fiction book and play and movie and television show ever written, more or less, deals with life; we’re all experts in that. But when it comes to those less familiar subjects (various esoteric areas of law, medicine, horse-racing, etc.), the idea that “it was put in a dramatic shape” gets forgotten, because we haven’t seen as many books or plays or shows that partake of our particular specialty. So when an expert watches a protagonist (a nurse, a bomb specialist, an FBI agent) pick up the red object before the blue object, they assume the crack-addled writer made a mistake. And perhaps he or she did. Or perhaps they were using the same degree of license that people accept in storytelling in general. There are simply times when picking up the red object first will let two characters meet on screen who would not otherwise have met and the results will be the best kind of drama. I will tell you openly, if there is a scene that thrills me in there somewhere, I’ll do everything I possibly can to get to it. There are times when you can either choose to do a little minor taffy-pulling, or you can not have a story.

At this point you have to ask: but where do you draw the line? What’s an acceptable cheat and what isn’t? That’s one of the hardest things to define in storytelling. Personally, I prefer to stay away from the flat-out wrong. But if there’s a gray area, if there’s something open to interpretation, and that will allow fun and games? Fun and games are why I’m here. Of course, you can never know what will bump someone; for example, in

I talk about the whole where-to-draw-the-line thing in the episode “Failure to Communicate.” Having seen airports that had hotels on-site, it didn’t even occur to me there would be any issue with it; but though it was accurate, it was a problem for people who hadn’t experienced such a thing. On the other hand, a lot of trouble was taken to set things in Baltimore, even though it would have been easier to move the fictional goings-on to Boston or Chicago, simply because that’s where Medicaid is. For me it would have entered the “flat-out wrong” category to say otherwise, and flat-out-wrong is just too big a bump to put in the way of viewers (even a small percentage of viewers). (Though you may be assured that someone, somewhere said, “But Medicaid is a state agency! Why aren’t they going to Trenton? Don’t these people do the most basic prep work…”)

So you have a novel to research? Never, never, never fall into the fallacy of thinking there is anything you can do that will guarantee everyone will buy in. That’s never going to happen, any more than you’ll write a story that every human on Earth likes. Don’t even think people will assume you did your homework. And at the end of the day — welcome to the gray areas. I live here. So do a lot of fictional characters. If you’re a writer or want to become one, you do, too. And okay, maybe there’s a lot of random gunplay at odd hours of the night, but the truth is, there are worse neighborhoods.

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