True crime story #1: Guy walked into a bank, handed the teller a note that politely informed her this was a robbery and asked her to please put all the money into his bag. The note was signed with the full name of the bank robber, who was apprehended soon afterward.
True crime story #2: Guy walked into a bank, handed the teller a note ordering her to give him all the cash. She pointed out that he didn’t bring a bag with him and asked with some irritation if he really expected her to go looking for a bag to put the money in. Flustered and embarrassed, the would-be robber fled, only to be apprehended within minutes.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
And even though it really happened, you’d have a hard time using such an incident in fiction because nobody would find it believable. Writers with names like Hiaasen, Evanovich and Leonard can get away with these scenarios because readers don’t expect to find their stories believable. They’re praised for their vivid, over-the-top imaginations, although many of the wild and crazy things they write have actually happened out there in the real world.
I find all this very puzzling.
Why do we apply tougher standards of believability to fiction than we do to real life? I often watch a horrifying event on the evening news and declare, “I just don’t believe this.” But the press has the tape or pictures to prove it really happened. If I read about something similar in fiction, I might have a harder time taking it seriously.
True crime story #3: A couple broke into the home of a sheriff’s deputy, stole $10,000 worth of his possessions, among them his badge and several guns, threw the loot into the deputy’s truck and absconded. Before long the fleeing burglars felt an overwhelming urge to express their affection for one another. They pulled to the curb on a nice residential street, quiet and deserted in the very early morning, and left the engine idling while they expressed their affection. By coincidence, the newspaper carrier was making his rounds at the same time. He took one look at the crammed-full truck bed (but apparently didn’t glance into the cab), assumed a burglary was in progress, and called the cops.
This is not something you could use in fiction, unless you’re writing farce. Coincidences happen in real life all the time, but they’re anathema in fiction, especially crime fiction, because they make things too easy. We want characters to struggle all the way to the end and triumph or fail due to their own efforts, not because a coincidence brings matters to a conclusion. I can understand this. The writer has to tell a good story, and using coincidence is simple laziness. That isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the kind of thing that makes every writer say, “Oh, that would be great in a story... but nobody would believe it.” We have to tone down reality to avoid accusations of melodrama.
True crime story #4: A burglar was found dead in a Miami store, dangling from the blades of a large ventilation fan. Police speculated that the man had been trying to crawl through the fan, which was shut off for the night, and accidentally flipped the switch.
Hiaasen, maybe Leonard, could write a scene like that. I don’t think Evanovich would touch it.
True crime story #5: According to the FBI, a person (gender unknown) has been sending threatening letters, some containing powdered insecticide, to TV networks and college athletic departments since 2004. Failure to comply with his/her demands, this person warns, “will cause 88 people to be assaulted and shot at.” Any writer has to love the specificity of “88 people.” A detail, if you’ll pardon the expression, to die for.
This would appear to have the makings of a thriller plot. Unfortunately, the story is rendered ridiculous and unusable in fiction because of the would-be killer’s motive: she/he doesn’t like the “disrespectful” way women’s sports are covered.
Some outrageous real events teeter on the brink and need only minor tweaking to push them all the way into the “Yeah, I’d believe that in a novel” category. Here’s one:
True crime story #6: A man badgered his reluctant wife into joining a sex club with him. She liked it more than she expected and, in fact, fell in love with one of her new fun-and-games partners. The husband was not happy with this turn of events.
What makes this story unsuitable for fiction is the husband’s method of dealing with the situation: he sued the other guy for alienation of affection (and won, by the way). Absurd. Put a gun in his hand, though, and red-hot revenge in his heart -- voila, you’ve got a mystery that anybody would find believable.
Crazy things happen around us -- or to us -- every day. Next time you give up on a mystery or thriller because you think it’s unrealistic, go turn on CNN and watch for a few minutes. Then ask yourself what the definition of “believable” is.