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?


  1. Hahaha I am now so happy that I write fantasy.

    I get to bend most rules to my will.


  2. I guess just write for accuracy, and then go back and axe out scenes that aren't vital - you'll probably cut out characters in the process.

  3. This is exactly what I was talking about the other day. Well said here Paul. The only advice I can give is to write the truth as well as you can, and then hand things off to you critique group to help you decide what works for readers and what doesn't.

  4. I think you are on the right path when you say that your book is for teens and not for the psych majors ... for me, preference must go to your readers when making a decision like this. otherwise you alienate both parties!

    I guess this is a common problem for most of us - when we are writing about something we are passionate about it is easy to fall into the trap of writing in a way that *we* understand, forgetting that those reading our work will not have the background in the subject that we do.

    For what it's worth, I say make it as plausible and as accurate as can be, but the story comes first! YA fiction should probably focus more on the characters emotional and social responses and not get bogged down in semantics and technicalities.

    Good topic, Paul (and Matthew!)!

  5. Ah ha, now I see why the psych ward part of my book interests you!! One thing I will let you know is that my editor insisted on authenticity with the major psych ward things - what they wear, where they eat, who treats them, etc. Luckily, my younger sister is a hospital social worker so I picked her brain A LOT.

    But the job titles I kept understandable, not technical. Like you said, the book is for teenagers.

  6. I encountered similar situations, for myself I prefer to go for the realism but I keep the details at a minimum and restrict most of it to the viewpoint of the character or in narrative to advance the plot. Heck what you learned could be part of the plot. A patient is confused and not because of meds, but the constant influx of people ;-)

  7. Good writing, buddy. Definitely an important topic. I've dealt with it, or worked around it, many times.

  8. I think you said it best: your work is geared toward a YA audience and not psych majors or licensing panels. Though I don't believe you should completely make up whatever procedure you want, I think that in minor technicalities that a common reader wouldn't notice (for ex, that social worker vs. psychologist label you mentioned), you should just go with what your reader would identify the best, and thus have a more believable story.

    Honestly the info interwoven in the story will probably be enough. If anyone is interested in the accuracy of what happens in a mental institution they can just visit one themselves, or read up on one online. When I read a story, I'm looking for a good story. I think that's where the believability comes into play. I never questioned Hannibal Lecter's stay in that asylum and I'm sure no one will nitpick labels unless they're in the field.

    (Sidenote: I always get annoyed when I hear popular cop dramas talk about insurance companies not paying out death benefits to beneficiaries because a death was ruled a suicide. My father sells insurance so I know that the suicide clause is only within two years of buying the policy. But, so many shows use that inaccuracy as a point of conflict/drama/tension. Plus I'm sure insurance companies benefit from the erroneous info too. Doesn't detract from the story for me, though I do roll my eyes every now and again.)

    Bottom line: write the story however you need to. check glaring inaccuracies (whatever would wake the reader) during revisions.

  9. Paul,

    Go with your instinct. If the millions who read a Don Brown novel, stopped to checked all his references, the novel would be better suited as a non-fiction work.

    Yes, you have to be within the realm of reason, but you're the artist here. You can combine expertise (Psych and Social worker) by giving the Psychologist a past that included work as a social worker, and then decided to get his Psychology degree. You can do whatever you want. You can change people's genders, skin colors, and interests by just clicking a few key strokes. It's magic :)

    Stephen King, in his masterpiece book "On Writing" says that when he writes he does close to zero research for the first draft. He just writes what he thinks sounds about right. When he's done, he goes on ride-alongs with cops, visits the fire dept etc and just "edits" the stuff in there. But he reminds us, research is "back story" and back story should remain in the "back." It shouldn't become the main thrust of the novel

    Think of the main characters and the supporting cast that matter to the story. Don't overdo it. Most people have a limit of how many people they want to care for (or hate). Combine characters, eliminate some that have only a paragraph or two of involvement.

    A great story, with memorable characters, will always get more readers than an accurate users manual :)

    Fight the good fight, Paul.


  10. There are always going to be those people who get an extreme amount of joy from pointing out things that don't matter. You just have to ignore those people. Everyone has become a critic since the internet made it possible to rate everything from restaurants to books in an instant (and with no qualifications). If you look at any successful book on Amazon you will see several 1 star reviews (with scathing reviews). You can't please everyone. And Fiction is just that, fiction. Telling a good story is more important than writing down an accurate work schedule.

  11. I think what you have proposed is a very fine line that probably a lot of writers wrestle with. But, I think the reasoning you are using to alter the facts is going in the right direction. While being as close to reality is an honorable desire, I think the changes you are making are sensible. "Plausible" is a much more attainable goal and will make for easier reading.

  12. Okay, I'll try posting this on another computer.

    First, I don't think you should cut out any of the realism. If there should be more than one person bringing you food, have more than one person bring it. If there are more than one psychologist and psychiatrist, use it.

    What many don't realize is that the huge number of people that you get bounced between in any health network can weaken any persons resolve. You stop feeling so much like a patient and more like a car looked at by many mechanics. You stop having a personal relationship - which is very hard in a mental health facility.

    Consider this: You are telling the psychologist about your deepest, darkest desires, insecurities and imperfections. They are sick one day or worse, they retire, and you are stuck with a new guy. Do you want to explain yourself again?

    One of the biggest antagonists can be the vast number of people and the feeling of being alone, sick and in a world where little to nothing cares about you - unless you fit into the bottom line.

    Does that mean you should give us a background? No.Short scenes where different people feed the person and how they react. The way different people react to the person in question. A lot can be looked at that would only make me excited, rather than daunted.

    There is no wrong way to do it, Paul. Do more research. The best, I'd say, would be to read the top books with this subject in it. The research you do is good, but have you been to one yet?

    Have you tried writing short, quick scenes?

    I'm not sure I'd cut anyone - just half my descriptions and comparisons. Keep it real, but don't overload the reader. In real life, you wouldn't know jack about 89% of the people who interact with you at a ward - the same is true for your character.

    Draven Ames


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