Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Big Stretch

By Mark W. Danielson
Stretching the truth is normal for fiction writers, whether it’s for movies, television, or novels. Pick any TV detective show and you may find yourself cocking your head saying, “I’m enjoying the show, but how can this be?” Simply put, it is because they can.

I was assigned to Miramar Naval Air Station shortly after TOPGUN was made. Since I was in the adversary business, I met several of the pilots who flew in that movie. While discussing some of TOPGUN’s ludicrous flying scenes, the pilots defended themselves saying they kept telling the director, “That’s not how it is,” to which the director fervently replied, “We’re not making a documentary.” TOPGUN not only launched Tom Cruz’s careers, it became a top grossing movie. Had the story been accurate, it would have been boring because in real life, there is no TOPGUN competition, no trophy, and no inverted canopy-to-canopy finger waving. Just the Navy Fighter Weapons School that teachers advanced fighter tactics to a select few so they can pass the information on to their squadron mates. In the end, the director of TOPGUN found the perfect balance between accuracy and entertainment.

Another fine example of this is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Admittedly, The Da Vinci Code isn’t one of my favorite books, but it serves as a fine example of a writer’s stretch, and Brown’s ability to convince the public (and the Catholic Church) that his fiction is actually the truth. This is the ultimate goal in writing reality-based fiction. Make it plausible enough to get the adrenaline flowing, then kick back and smile.

Think back to the shower scene in the movie Psycho. Sure, it was fiction, but the scene was real enough that people were afraid to step into their own showers. In Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum, each swing of the blade drew the reader in because they were certain someone out there might try it. The scene was a stretch on Poe’s part, yet it still reigns as one of horror fiction’s greatest.

The best thing about writing fiction is authors can create whatever they want. Gene Rodenberry faced a serious deadline in Star Trek when his shuttle models didn’t arrive in time for shooting the TV series. To solve this problem, he came up with the transporter, a means of vaporizing people and beaming them up or down from the Starship Enterprise. Although Rodenberry was the first to admit he just “made it up”, we still have scientists trying to prove or disprove it. Thus, the transporter became another successful stretch on the writer’s part.

Fiction should be fun, entertaining, and plausible, so writers should never hold back. Whether your idea makes it into the final cut is a moot point, so long as you enjoyed creating it.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Great article, Mark.

TV has dulled the imaginations of children and future generations of writers, so I'm all for stretching the truth, as long as it doesn't suspend belief.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Well said, Jean. But iPhones, iPads, the Internet, music video TV, video games, and special effects movies also dull imaginations. Thankfully, there are readers willing to translate our words into visual images.

Morgan Mandel said...

As long as it makes some kind of sense, authors can get away with writing stuff that could never happen. It's a lot of fun!

Morgan Mandel

Mark W. Danielson said...

Morgan, A wise editor of mine once said that authors should write what they know, but only need to provide the illusion they are experts on the subject. Those of us who have been writing a while can fabricate a story that is absolutely believeable, which, I suppose, qualifies us either politicians or news writers.