Purple Facts: That wouldn’t happen!

An interior crack in a glass
An interior crack in a glass

If you look carefully in the picture, you can see a crack in the glass that just runs along the side of the glass without starting at an edge, sort of an interior crack. When I pulled that glass out of the dishwasher, I thought, “That can’t happen!” Of course, I was really thinking, I didn’t think that could happen. In a writer’s context, if I had read about such a crack in a story, I would have questioned whether the writer knew her stuff.

Clearly, it can happen, though, so I was in the wrong. But it does illustrate an important point for the writer: you don’t want the reader to start questioning your credentials or your basic mastery of the facts. And even if you actually have a good basis for your statement, your reader may still doubt you.

Our first response as writers is to do research and this is a great starting point. However, that only gets you so far because your readers aren’t doing the research. You may know that there really were cisterns on Earth of over 200,000 square feet but  your reader probably doesn’t. So the fact that you have a historical justification for that large cistern is useless in getting your reader to accept it in your story.

All is not lost, of course. It just takes some care. Here are a few things you can do about it:

Have a character in the story question the fact. This immediately establishes that you, the writer, know the fact is odd and that therefore you meant for it to be there. That is, it wasn’t a casual error on your part. For instance, if your story has a U.S. Army Second Lieutenant that is 40 years old, that would strike anyone with some idea of how the military works as very peculiar. Second lieutenant is a very junior rank. In modern times, there is a tenure-range for when a lieutenant should be promoted (the “zone”) and if you are passed over several years beyond the zone, you are out of the military, the thought being if you aren’t good enough to deserve even a modestly late promotion, you aren’t useful to the army. They don’t let you start a military career at that age either. If your character comes across your old lieutenant without comment in the story, readers may wonder if you know anything about the army. However, if you have a character question that in the story (“A 40-year-old lieutenant? How did he avoid getting kicked out? His dad must be a four star general.”) then you prove to the reader that you know this isn’t normal and that you didn’t just make an error.

Another thing you can do is have the character explain the situation. In the case of our decrepit lieutenant, he can simply explain in story how he came to be 40. This is a bit of exposition but if the circumstances are unique or funny, it may work.

English: A row of columns in the Basilica Cist...
The incredible cistern under Istanbul. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, you may be able to show how the situation came to be, especially if you are in an omniscient point of view where you can explain how something came to be. In the case of the glass in the photo, your omniscient narrator could explain how the glass was manufactured with a microscopic defect that passed unnoticed until another glass happened to hit it just right on the rinse cycle to cause a small crack that grew during the drying cycle. This doesn’t always take an omniscient view-point, though. Maybe it just takes a scene where it becomes clear how the strange situation came to be.

If your setting is Earth, for some odd-ball facts, you might simply be able to reference a place or event on Earth. “The cistern was big, but only half the size of the one built 1600 years ago by Constantine under Constantinople.” For fantasy settings, you don’t usually have that option, though.

For some classes of the incredible, it may also be possible to simply relate it as a fact that has already occurred. Readers are more likely to believe something you tell them because they tend to trust historical facts. This only works for certain things, probably not the old lieutenant, perhaps for the glass.

Lastly, you can simple remove the offending fact from the story. Is the 40-year-old lieutenant worth the time you will have to spend explaining his situation? If he isn’t important to the story, it may just be simpler to make him younger or higher rank. Is it that important that the reader knows it is a 200,000 square foot cistern? Maybe you just say, “big cistern,” (or better show it is big by the number of columns they can see or the way sound echoes) and leave it at that. Sometimes these awkward facts are just we authors showboating: hey, look at the cool fact I found. In that case, they should be purged as quickly as purple prose, call them purple facts.

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10 thoughts on “Purple Facts: That wouldn’t happen!

  1. Another excellent post. I fear I add too many purple facts. I am aware now! Thanks!

    (By the way, there’s, um, a typo in the title. 😦 )

    1. Do’h! Thanks for catching that and glad you enjoyed it!

      In fantasy, I think we do need lots of ‘facts’ to establish the setting. I’m sure it’s in the eye of the beholder. But I do recall one critique I did where a princess makes a comment about the cost of a bolt of cloth that seemed, to me, to not only be something she wouldn’t comment about but something she wouldn’t know. The author’s response was that there was really a cloth of that expense in the Middle Ages. In the mouth of the princess, it felt like a ‘purple fact’ to me. In the mouth of someone else, say a merchant, it probably would be a good support for verisimilitude. There is a danger of trotting out something just because you happen to have it in your research file 🙂

  2. Good post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between fantasy and verisimilitude.

    I’d like to suggest a somewhat different analysis though. I think the guilty party is different between the case of the US Army lieutenant and that of the large cistern. In the former, we’re talking about specific conventions within a social institution. If a writer breaks such convention in his story, he has to explain why (preferably in an indirect manner, as you suggested), otherwise he’s certainly committing a mistake which will hurt the verisimilitude of his narrative and his readers will rightly call him up on it.

    Now, in the case of the large cistern, the writer just decides it is there, based on historical fact. A reader with doubts will have three choices: 1) ask the writer about it (and be explained why this is indeed plausible based on real history), 2) look up the facts himself, 3) say nothing and keep thinking the writer is wrong. In all of these cases, I see no guilty verdict against the author. What a reader does not know is not a mistake of the writer. In other words, when it’s a matter of being true or false (a fact), I do not see verisimilitude as having anything to do with the presupposed knowledge of the reader, as opposed to a social rule or convention, which is better described in terms of correct or incorrect application. Furthermore, if a reader is unaware of the _fact of_ a convention (like the age of second lieutenants), when your story deliberately disrespects this rule, this has to have clear repercussions. And the reader will automatically understand. Therefore, you do not need to explain anything. Do we ever? Anyway that’s just me. I don’t like narratives that explain (and omniscient point-of-views). Show don’t tell, right? 🙂

    By the way, I find your cloth example to be truly excellent. Versimilitude (and good writing) is not in the facts themselves, but in how we use them. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeff.

      Much of this is a matter of degree but I do think there is a risk for authors with these sorts of facts. Some readers will accept anything uncritically, but most will be consciously or unconsciously grading the writing. Fundamentally, does it make sense to them? Violate their sense of what is reasonable and they are likely to drop your story half-read.

      You could make a good case that most readers will not be so harsh but I don’t think you can make the same case for editors and agents so some eye on how your facts will be perceived, is, I believe warranted. How you address it does take some care, however. I’m not a fan of omniscient as a reader and hate it as a writer so I certainly wouldn’t go there but writers sometimes choose it so untidy facts like my examples can be explained away.

      And exposition is to be minimized. I think, ideally, the facts are presented in the course of showing in a way that does not raise too many red flags. Readers, especially fantasy readers, are prepared to suspend disbelief but that is more for the really exotic (say flying dragons) than for the more everyday stuff.

      What do you think?

  3. I think that the readers’ sense of what is reasonable cannot be considered uniform. I also think any writer has the right, if not the responsibility, to sometimes challenge their misconceptions. Finally, I also think that any writer, by virtue of any of his or her choices, has a potential readership smaller than the total sum of readers available. Therefore: potential negative reactions should never hinder a well-written, self-consistent creative project where verisimilitude hinges on specific (and true) knowledge. It just means that the target audience is smaller, and that some lazy readers will just never get it when they don’t themselves make the effort of getting the necessary information.

    Editors and agents are another matter. They know how the business works, but indeed as a business it is not quite democratic. Enters self-publishing.

    1. I certainly not saying we should not introduce interesting and challenging situations. But just readers evaluate our quality on our grammar, phrasing, spelling, punctuation; so, too, do they evaluate us on our mastery of the facts. I think to ignore that is perilous. To put it in the terms you used, why make your audience smaller than it needs to be by not making sure that the more challenging facts are appropriately supported?

      Cheers & thanks for the thoughts!

    2. To add a bit more, in the end, it’s up to the writer to identify which ‘facts’ might take some extra support to make the reader comfortable, my post just offers some thoughts on how this can be done.

      Thanks again for the comments!

  4. You’re welcome. 🙂 Thank YOU, actually, as you’re helping me make up my own mind on this matter. Anyway, In my comment I was only interested in the premise that the author has the facts right and a reader does not. I must admit I am cruelly unforgiving: whatever he or she thinks, in this particular case the reader is never right. Period. Nobody can fault a writer for knowing more stuff than his readers. Ever. Still, a writer can correctly hold the truth but write badly (i.e. your cloth example). I see this as a very different issue.

  5. I think I like the last option best. Or maybe I should say, the last option shouldn’t be the last option in actual practice, when editing one’s own work. Why is the cistern there? Do I need it? Always a good question at that phase. Though I see Jeff’s point (above) that you can’t be held hostage to the reader’s potential ignorance, either.
    By the way, I’ve been inside that cistern in Istanbul and it was kind of nasty (just saying).

    1. Thanks for dropping by, John! Definitely agree that paring back to the essentials is the way to go, and not for just facts (i.e., setting details) but dialog, scene, characters.

      One of the bits of writing advice that has stayed with me over the years had to do with characterization in particular but can apply here: a character may be well defined and perfectly sharp in your head but by the time you put it on paper and your reader forms an image, the reader is basically seeing just shadowy, unfocused glimpses of what you had in mind. In the case of the advice, the suggestion was to hammer on the character traits every chance you get in the hope that something seeps into the reader’s awareness. You could look at the Harry Potter books as an example of that. Rowling never misses a chance to reinforce Hermione’s know-it-all-ness or Ron’s self-doubt & red hair. I must confess, I don’t really care for that but who am I to argue with Rowling’s success? In the end what I like most about her books are her characters and maybe this repitition was key to my coming to like the characters so much. It’s hard to say anymore; the characters are too familiar to me now.

      I think the same can hold for setting details, these facts we’ve been talking about. They may be both straight-forward and well justified in your author’s mind but not necessarily in your reader’s mind. Some readers may need more care in how the detail is explained, others may need more reason to trust your judgment. It is just something to keep an eye on. Why lose a reader if a little more care with a troublesome fact would have prevented that?

      For a concrete example, readers expect an author of techno-military thrillers to understand the military. If they introduce a detail early on that is against what the reader thinks is plausible (without supporting it in some way at the time), they will probably read no more. Personally, I wouldn’t read a book in that genre where the author had 40 year old 2nd lieutenants in the US Army and didn’t seem to think anything was odd about that if they didn’t explain that within a half-page or more. I would drop the book there, thinking, “this writer has no idea what he is talking about: how can I trust him to develop and resolve the story in a satisfying way?” For other genres, maybe it wouldn’t matter. Steven King has a lot of, well, bone-headed technical descriptions in the Tommyknockers and while that is far from his best book, I still read and enjoyed it because in the end, what King delivers is characters and mood, the technical details were just dressing. Still, if I hadn’t known at the time that I liked him as an author, I might have not finished the book.

      Regarding the specific topic of this post, though, this is more along the lines of my thoughts on what to do for those details that you feel may be problematic for your readers. For details you feel don’t warrant special treatment, this post doesn’t apply.

      The “inciting incident” for this post was a critter review I did this week (with fortuitious broken glass happening the day before- I set it aside for use in a post on this topic at some point not realizing it would be the next day!). Without divulging the details or the story per the confidentiality agreement on critters.org, there was an item analagous to the 40 year old lieutenant that didn’t feel right to me. The author and I talked about it and kicked around the first solution in the post as a way to deal with it (the narrator questions that fact: now the reader knows the author realizes this is a strange thing. The reader will then give the author time to explain. It only took the addition of 5 words along the lines of “40 years old? How strange.” WIthout that, it just seemed like a meaningless detail that was way out of whack.)

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