The Smoke and Mirrors Effect in Writing

Writing, good writing, is all about smoke and mirrors.Don't confuse being truthful to the story with the demands of fiction. They are apples and oranges.

You’ve heard the old saw Truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also unpublishable as fiction. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood notwithstanding, trying to write pure fact as pure fiction is darn near impossible. Even for all of Capote’s talent and genius he knew enough not to write everything in that story as fact.

A perfect example is dialog. Go to a coffee shop or listen to how people talk anywhere you are. You can’t print that jabber. It’s loaded with dialect, ums and ahs and umphs and ers and who knows what else. Now read a story. Pay attention to the dialog. People don’t talk like that in real life. A writer has to keep that in mind. He has to make the dialog sound real enough without interfering with the story.

This is a trap beginning writers sometimes find themselves in. They want to be truthful to the character and the reality of the place, and the story itself, so they load down the dialog with unreadable dialect. When they are called on it they say “But that’s how people really talk.”

I know that’s how people really talk. But that’s not how you want it to read. And believe you me those two are apples and oranges.

I’m going to say something that’s going to shock you, but I want you to take it to heart. When you are writing a story it’s okay to cheat. You don’t have to show everything you know about the character or the time or the place. In fact the less you say the stronger and the more impact the story will have.

It’s all smoke and mirrors. Truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why it’s not fiction. Fiction is just that: it is truth disguised as fiction. That’s what you have to keep separate, and most writers do.

We are told over and over we have to be true to the story. I agree with that statement. But that does not mean you have to disregard the peculiar demands fiction requires.

People read stories to be entertained. They can be taught new things about the human condition or history or life or love or whatever in the process…but first and foremost your readers want to be entertained. Fiction has a power unlike anything else because we can use the smoke and mirrors inherent in the art form to disguise that which needs to be hidden, while at the same time illuminating those points we want to drive home.

That’s a powerful tool, imo, and one that has to be used judiciously.

6 Replies to “The Smoke and Mirrors Effect in Writing”

  1. I often think of fiction writing as akin to the art of stage magic. I use a technique from time to time that I consider sleight of hand. If I want to distract the reader from one thing, I dazzle them with something else in hopes they won’t notice the other thing until the time I’m ready for them to notice it.

  2. Excellent set of reminders here about the difference between the central truths of the story and the requirements of readable fiction (legal and otherwise!). Regional inflections in dialogue can be written in such a way as to remain readable by just including a misspelling here and an emphasis there and an inflection there. Likewise, the “truth”, the “real life” can be implied without spelling out every boo-boo made by the characters. I myself do not think of this as “cheating”, but rather as discretion!

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