The Overstatement

Fiction is basically an overstatement.  Or perhaps better terms would be exaggeration, or even caricature.  We writers do things in fiction that would be unlikely in real life.  Our characters act in ways that might be unbelievable if they happened in everyday life.  Perhaps I’m stepping a little out of line here, but consider the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370.  Assuming that flight never did disappear, a novel that used that scenario as its plot would be considered highly unlikely.  It just wouldn’t fly.  “Oh, that would never happen,” people would say.  But it did happen, and now it will be treated in the future as another starting point for many other plots that exaggerate the unusual features of the story, such as the fact that no one made any communication with the world outside the plane since the pilot said “Good night,” or the fact that the plane flew for so long before disappearing.  And any new stories based on this basic plot line will henceforth be regarded as unreasonable.  “That would never happen,” they would say.

Fiction can’t be stranger than fact, or it will be considered unreadable.  Fiction has to stay within itself, within unwritten rules of logic and consistency.  But truth and real life can do anything they want.  Airplanes disappearing off the face of the earth are perfectly okay in real life.  (It actually has happened before.)

I’ve been aware of this rule for a long time, and can’t even say when I first learned of it.  But I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I re-saw the movie “Thelma and Louise” on TV.  (One of my favorite movies, see my list on this blog site.)  At the beginning of the movie, the character of Thelma (played by Geena Davis) is afraid of guns, yet brings a loaded pistol on her weekend vacation with friend Louise (played by Susan Sarandon).  That always seemed to me to be unlikely.  Nothing at the beginning of the movie indicated that their short vacation would be dangerous, but Thelma brings along a gun which she’s afraid of anyway.  She gives it to Louise.

There was, of course, a good reason for the gun.  It gets both of them in serious trouble.  Not unlikely under the circumstances in the movie.  (Louise shoots a man raping Thelma.)  Then the two become fugitives and the chase is on.  All because of the gun.

But what seems to me even more unrealistic is the fact that Thelma, initially afraid of guns and won’t have anything to do with them, makes a complete turnaround over the space of about two days, and not only likes the gun and embraces it, but actually uses it to rob a convenience store.  Then she and Louise shoot up a tanker truck.  So absolutely fantastic.  Not likely to happen in real life.

But it works.  Thelma’s change, almost forced on her by circumstances, makes sense.  It does not seem artificial or contrived.  The chances of that happening in real life are extremely small, but in the story, it’s not.  She does it and goes to her death off that cliff in the Grand Canyon as a woman changed from a brow-beaten housewife to a spunky, self-confident outlaw.  She’s even the one who first makes the suggestion that they drive over the cliff!  It’s Thelma’s movie, and that’s why she’s given top billing.

But in real-life?  I can’t imagine it.  How about you?

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