Friday, February 11, 2011
How Do You Write An Accurate Story When Details Contradict Good Writing?
Earlier this week, my brilliant friend Matthew Rush wrote a post that seriously got me thinking. One of the most challenging aspects of my first W.I.P. has been balancing a realistic, true-to-life story while adhering to guidelines for writing a solid novel. On more than one occasion, I have stumbled upon a situation where I must make a choice: do I portray a situation inaccurately so that it is well-written, or, do I ignore these guidelines to describe the event as it would actually play out in real life?
Allow me to explain.
A chunk of my story occurs inside a mental health clinic. Having no knowledge of these facilities whatsoever, my project began with months of extensive research. Online articles and web sites were helpful, but to gain a thorough understanding, I needed to go beyond the Internet and conduct live interviews with professionals in the field.
One of my earliest realizations was that certain procedures and policies vary depending on the facility. Since the facility in my novel is fictional, I stopped trying to "get it right" and began focusing on whether or not something was plausible. As long as an event could happen as described, it passes my initial test of believability.
But many practices are standard and cannot be negotiated. It is these components that leave me at a loss. For example, an adolescent being treated in a psychiatric hospital has a number of professionals overseeing his care. Each of these professionals carries a different license with training and qualifications specific to that role. The primary members of the treatment team include a psychologist, psychiatrist, and social worker. Beyond that, there is the unit staff, which includes nurses, technicians, allied therapists, and group leaders. Because teens are required to attend school, they work with an academic teacher. And, depending on the reason for treatment, the patient may have a one-on-one aide supervising twenty-four hours daily.
Furthermore, certain roles are filled by more than one person. Shifts change three times a day. The staff member leading morning group and escorting patients to breakfast would not be the same technician running evening group and escorting patients to dinner.
Of course, the accurate list above is a ridiculously long cast of characters that no reader could keep up with. So, what makes sense? Condense the characters; if two or more perform the same role, kill some off. Easy, right?
Not exactly. While many of the above occupations are similar, certain technicalities make them unique. Where psychiatrists have medical training and can legally prescribe medication, psychologists perform a therapeutic role but cannot provide medical treatment. And that's just one example.
Because my novel is for teens and not psychology majors, I've taken a lot of, shall we say, artificial license. The way things look now, the psychologist performs her own role as well as the role of the social worker. One of my sources actually recommended the opposite, but after legitimately considering her request, I decided against it. I feel more readers are familiar with the term 'psychologist', thereby enhancing their ability to comprehend the storyline. The role of a social worker is most likely less familiar, despite this individual playing a more vital role in an adolescent's treatment.
Other parts of the story occur in a high school setting. Everyone knows high school students can have as many as eight teachers in a given day, but in the bulk of YA novels, maybe two are mentioned.
My point is this: I'm fine tweaking the reality of my MC's daily life. I just want to know that by doing this, someone isn't going to jump down my throat for being 'unrealistic.' At the same time, if I cover the content accurately, I don't want to risk complicating the novel and making it impossible to understand.
So, fellow writers, I open the floor for input. Have you ever faced a similar dilemma? How did you choose? Is it more important to focus on believability or good writing? How do you intertwine the two when one contradicts the other?
Posted by Paul Joseph