Writing Lessons: Playing With Reality
A couple of weeks ago a lady in an audience asked me; ‘Why haven’t your detectives died yet?’ To which I replied; ‘It is fiction, Madam!’
One of the great benefits of writing for yourself (as opposed to writing by commission) is that you follow no-one else’s style guide. You don’t have to fit into an existing layout of characteristics and timelines. But how much can a writer bend the rules?
Kyril Bonfiglioli’s art thief Mortdecai was left trapped in a hole at the end of his first adventure, ‘Don’t Point That Thing At Me’, but by the start of the second, ‘Something Nasty In The Woodshed’, there was no mention of this cliffhanger. It didn’t matter, and gave the reader something to work out.
I’ve been pulling the same sort of tricks with the Bryant & May series. If you followed a strict timeline from the first novel, set in the Blitz, they’d be centenarians by now. I got around this by explaining (I think, fairly) that these are the cases which appear in Bryant’s memoirs, that Bryant himself is a notorious confabulist and that his memory is notoriously unreliable. Furthermore, I later have him suffering from hallucinations. Keith Ridgway’s detective novel ‘Hawthorn & Child’ changed the rules by throwing out all the usual crime novel yardsticks and viewing events through an ever-changing kaleidoscope.
How much further can you push this flexible idea of time and place? Certain TV series, from ‘Buffy’ to ‘Moonlighting’, which set one episode about Maddie’s detective agency against a backdrop of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, have played with the meta-qualities of their shows. ‘Moonlighting’ stepped outside of the show to reveal the studio it was being shot in.
But these are old tricks. Way back in the days of ‘The Avengers’, one character, Emma Peel, was seen leaving to be replaced by another, Tara King, and Steed made a joke about his previous partner, Cathy Gale, leaving to go to Fort Knox (ie. to star in ‘Goldfinger’).
The Marvel and DC universes have repeatedly played with metafiction, starting with the ‘Imaginary Tales’ series that took place outside the ‘now’ in the 1950s, then resetting various realities to include alternative lives for Superman & co, through to today’s insanely complicated 52 planet multiverse, wherein New Earth and Earths 1 – 51 co-exist, and each of the alternate universes have their own parallel dimensions, divergent timelines and microverses branching off them.
This breaking out from the style guide* is something that affects long-running series (like ‘Dr Who’) and allows the writers more freedom. You’ll also find it in long-life SF novels – but I have never come across its use in a crime series.
I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not going to go quite that far – but I am playing around with certain aspects of my characters’ lives. I’m working on a new prequel, and considering a novel set slightly into the future. If you trust your characters you can have a lot more fun with time and place.
*A book given to commissioned writers containing the rules they must follow.