When it comes to entertainment, one thing I always appreciate is authenticity. I love nonfiction, and the reason is that I’ve found reality is almost always capable of being far more unusual and interesting than anything someone can imagine. That said, when it comes to fiction in its many forms, I love the details that make a story seem grounded and believable.
Director Richard Donner has stated on several occasions that when filming the original Superman: The Movie motion picture he always had verisimilitude at the forefront of his mind. That meaning, that even though the story and characters being presented were firmly in the realm of comic book fantasy, the cast and crew should treat the subject matter with a sense of actually being possible. Sure, Christopher Reeve wasn’t actually flying, but the way he shifted his weight or positioned his arms while hoisted above from wires in a scene were reminiscent of how hang gliders similarly shifted their bodies to ride the air currents. In that example, it was a small touch that the audience may only notice subconsciously, but that slight attention to detail helped ground the performance and suspend disbelief just enough so viewers could vicariously soar through the heavens just like the Man of Steel.
Take video games; the medium is synonymous with outlandish worlds, amazing characters and impossible scenarios. Yet as the years move on graphics, sound and design continue to evolve along with a savvier population of players. Getting the physics just right in a Grand Theft Auto game helps transport players to a world not too different from our own where spectacular vehicle stunts seem all the more impressive because of the insane level of research, detail, and care that have gone into developing a subverted mirror image of a major US city.
While it may seem easy, as a writer I find that when I hatch an idea I want to follow-through on the details. For me, sharing that exactly-right comment with readers helps them feel like they are in the moment with me on an interview. It’s great when I’m writing nonfiction, with the only frustration being how to distill something down into the most important aspects of a conversation or situation. Fiction, on the other hand, I find to be an entirely different, sometimes-cruel animal.
A lot of my ideas start as dreams where the intimate, visceral nature leaves a strong positive (or terrifying) impression on me. When writing, I want to convey that same sense of wonder or dread in readers. To do that effectively, though, can be a challenge. I’m working on a new short story now, and the hurdle ahead of me is setting-up a heart-pounding introduction to the characters and situation. Think summer blockbuster-level spectacle. It goes by fast, and I want readers to feel the rushed, panicked nature of the events as the characters experience them. However, I don’t want to cheat. I want the scene to feel completely outrageous, immediate, but always authentic. At times this causes writers to research any number of odd areas to better understand how the world around us works. Writing about a man trying to get the power restored to his house on a dark, dreary night? Well, it helps to know how a person would really do that rather than write the character as looking to change the electricity batteries hidden in the bottom drawer of the fridge. OK, that may be a little extreme, but you get the idea.
The great part is that in the process of writing in many ways you are also in a process of learning; learning about the world around you, learning about how to stage a scene, or learning about how a story should go versus maybe how you originally thought it would go if your aim is authenticity. I never thought I’d be reading-up on commercial airline landing procedures or interviewing experienced pilots about in-flight cockpit jargon, but there it is! In many ways the little things, the small details help craft something even better than you initially imagined. Much like Superman: The Movie, the director and effects teams started with miniatures and tried-and-true special effects to tell the story on screen. However, with verisimilitude in mind, they found that by leveraging a mix of a variety of techniques the approach would need to change but the ultimate goal could be achieved. It worked, and today people still remember that film as the one that made people “believe a man can fly.”
Authenticity shows more than just an eye for realism, to the reader or audience it also shows that the creators cared. They cared enough about the experience they were creating and the people they were creating it for to get even the small things right…or at least, right enough to be believable. Likewise, if something fantastic or unreal can be made to seem all the more plausible it can in turn make the experience more believable even while taking people to a world they could only scarcely imagine. Steven Spielberg grounded his tales with a great peppering of actual reality multiple times with films like Jaws, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan among several others. I’m no Spielberg, but I appreciate how he spent so much effort getting his worlds on the screen to seem completely plausible so we as the audience could lose ourselves in the story if only for a short while.
Man, that first T-Rex fence attack scene in Jurassic Park STILL holds-up better than most of the latest special effects extravaganzas today. Amazing! OK, all that said, a little update for you awesome readers: I’m still writing, still tweaking the fine details, but I assure you it’ll be worth it! Now, back to the old grindstone…