Writing Right with Dmitri: Fictional Exemptions

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Fictional Exemptions

Editor at work.

The other night, Elektra and I realised something about fiction: we'd never thought about it before. But once we did, it was obvious.

When you make up a story, you're allowed to break the rules of reality exactly once. After that, you need to obey the law.

Here's what we mean: imagine you're writing a romance. At the beginning, two people meet. They don't like each other. By the end of the novel, they'll get married. Okay, this hardly ever happens in nature. You've had your one allowed moment of unreality. The rest of the story needs to abide by the rules. Gravity stays in effect. People who ride trains need tickets. Rain falls down, not up. Cats don't speak English. You get the point.

We realised this simultaneously after watching more of NYPD Blue, which is a police procedural. We're into season 9, and the main character, detective Andy Sipowicz, is in love with a coworker again. In the meantime, two other detectives have fallen into bed together. (One is male, one female. The only gay character so far is dating a robbery victim whose pedigreed puppies were stolen.) This isn't a new development: the 15th Precinct is a hotbed of office romances.

'It must be something in the water,' was Elektra's comment.

For some reason, it fails to upset us as audience members when this happens on NYPD Blue. Even though we wouldn't believe it in RL if we heard that at least six sets of detectives from the same police force had gotten married. We accept this. We also think of NYPD Blue as a realistic police procedural. In spite of all the hanky-panky. What gives?

It's really obvious, if you think about it, why the showrunner and his writers let this sort of thing go on. The show isn't only about crime. It's also about the personal lives of the characters. If their significant others were busy at other jobs – at a bank, say, or a car wash – we'd have to waste a lot of time with scenes at banks, car washes, and the like. It's better if they're all in the same place. Which is why detectives have to fall in love with other detectives. Or uniformed cops (who work downstairs), or assistant district attorneys (who drop in daily). The furthest they're allowed to go is exotic dancers who work in the strip clubs they raid frequently.

The thing is, this weird coupling is the only nonstandard thing about the show's 'reality'. The rest of New York City functions normally: taxi drivers run into each other and curse, businesspeople scurry about, the stock market is bull or bear, etc. That's it: you get to break one rule.

Think about what rules are broken in each of these stories:

  • Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel: Rich guy pretending to be a bandit finds that his gf likes him better that way. Conveniently, they fall in love.
  • Superman: Alien from another planet has 'superpowers'.
  • Any 19th-century novel: Everybody in the story turns out to be related to everyone else, only they didn't know it.
  • Mr Ed: A horse talks.

Stop and think about it: each of these stories works because you only add one unbelievable element. The rest of the time, up is up and down is down, and if you leave a sandwich with mayonnaise on the dashboard on a hot day, you will get ptomaine poisoning. Superman may have superpowers, but he can't get the girl. That would be unrealistic….

So: which rule do you break? As Miss Lindquist always said, 'You pays your money and you takes your choice.'

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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