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Writing More Than You Know

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, June 13, 2020
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We're all aware of the classic tennet for writers and creators of all stories- write what you know in order for the story to be good.

We've explored before what it means to write what you know, and where this rule should be adhered to: at the core behaviors, the actions and reactions of your characters and your personal experiences of how the world works, among other things.

But what about when you just have to write what you don't know?

If you're not medically trained does it mean you are forbidden from writing a doctor, or a hospital? What if you must write about soldiers? Or about people in civilizations that existed long before you were ever born?

Or must you first become an archaeologist, a linguist, a philosopher before you can write characters that dabble or are experts in such fields, and many more?

Of course you mustn't.

Being a polymath certainly helps design and conceive of a story in a manner that will later need fewer revisions as you research and learn more about the places, settings and knowledge your characters will be expected to handle. But it is in no way a requirement.

In fact, you don't even need to get it totally right.

The popular and award winning series House MD starring Hugh Laurie as the titular misanthropic genius diagnostician certainly did not. While a staggering amount of research has clearly been made for each of the syndroms, diseases and infections that House deals with, the protocols of safety, testing, administration of treatment and patient care are consistently absolutely wrong. And not only that- House's deductive reasoning is often unrealistic, with what is framed as “brilliant insight” in reality being either a ridiculously lucky guess or clairvoyance. Even the steps he takes in eliminating hypotheses grossly misrepresents how actual doctors do it.

How, then, did the showrunners manage to keep suspension of disbelief, and to give House the glamor of a medical genius?

It's a relatively simple trick: a percentage of the content presented is consistently accurate, while the percentage of the incorrect content is consistently consistent.

While the hospital methods, protocols, and administration would be impossible to exist in the real world or sink immediately under the weight of all the law suits, the M.O. presented is always consistently the same. They have to go through the same loops, they follow the same structure and approach and they come up against the same hurdles. So this consistency gives the sense of credibility and reliability to the audience, and thus disbelief is suspended even if the audience is aware what they're watching is wrong.

Coupled with accurate information, actions and reactions (in this case, the medical conditions and treatments) the overall impression the audience gets is one of legitimacy.

Of course, it would be better writing if they had also presented the hospital protocols and diagnostician protocols correctly, but the fact that they didn't didn't detract from the entertainment value of the show.

Writing what you don't know is generally a balancing act.

You can't be a doctor and you can't be a CEO or a secretary. But what you can do is learn about their patterns of behavior, the vocabulary they customarily use and the things they tend to. Applying those aspects correctly will in turn give you leeway for improvisation on things that aren't as easily researchable.

Whatever elements you add that might not be true to reality, you have to keep consistent as if they were, in order to keep your premise and narrative robust.

However, depending on the tone and genre of your story, there still is a limit to what you can ‘sell’: small details or even big deviations (which, however, would only look big to actual experts of what field you're dabbling with and not laypersons) must not cross the lines of the believability of your story. A 19th century doctor might be able to use an exotic ray beam scalpel in a steampunk story, but it will stand out as a sore thumb in a realistically historical victorian story even if everything else in it is accurate.

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comment

anonymous?

Genejoke at 5:53PM, June 14, 2020

Interesting article, and as I'm writing something that sits outside my comfort zone at the moment I think it'll be useful advice. Bravo mentioned star trek in a visual sense but it's also pretty good example of writing as well with all the techno babble.

bravo1102 at 12:51PM, June 14, 2020

The funniest goof to me was that the New York street set used in countless movies had a "T" intersection. There are no "T" intersections in New York City. But it was always good enough for moviegoers for decades. The classic movie "Gunga Din" was filmed in California, a valley which was featured in countless westerns and even Star Trek. Yet, audiences including those in India over the years have sworn it's a real place in India. Suspension of disbelief in a visual medium is hard, but not impossible. Often the audience wants to believe so badly that they'll overlook the most obvious slip-ups.

usedbooks at 5:10AM, June 13, 2020

You hit the nail on the head for the key to suspending disbelief -- consistency! Whether the rules of your world are accurate or invented, they have to be rules. One good example of a bad example of this is Bones, where characters' backstories and abilities change haphazardly between episodes, and you get the distinct feeling that none of the writers have ever watched the show or spoken to any of the other writers.

Kou the Mad at 1:34AM, June 13, 2020

I myself am reminded of Sword Art Online, Reki clearly has no idea how MMOs work as there are so many issues and nonsensical decisions in terms of how the MMO in the show works not the least of which is balance, how many people would be needed for the Beta, the weird animosity towards those who played the Beta, etc. And that's not getting into other things, like the most recent season. Also one Anime that Bennet the Sage reviewed that went "After this one fictional crusade happened, all the world's religions disappeared. Even the non-Abrahamic ones.". I find that I notice it alot more in Anime and JRPGs.

ozoneocean at 12:49AM, June 13, 2020

Reminds me of Killing Eve. The writer, Pheobe May Waller-Bridge clearly knows nothing of MI6, FSB or MI5, or how spies work in general but since 95% of the weight is on the characters and their relationships and actions you quite easily let all of that go.


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