How many writers played out story situations first, to experiment with physical effort, space, gravity, etc? In my many years of yard duty while teaching, I saw small kids learn real fast that cartoon bend and stretch doesn’t work in real life, which called to mind my own experiments when I was small.
I also watched kids testing cartoon social and emotional exchanges, to discover that those, too, seldom worked in real life.
Oh, I remember those from my own childhood. When I was in first grade, I saw a Marilyn Monroe movie. 90% of it went over my head, but what I did get out of it was that everybody liked her, and so she got what she wanted, and was happy. So the next day at school I walked around with my eyes half shut, and talked in a Marilyn Monroe voice. The result?
“Does your stomach hurt?”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You look like a dead fish.”
I used to make up plays for the neighbor girls to act out. Some of these plays lasted days, and extended over several backyard, the back fences, and pockets of neglected brick and stone between walls and garages, which became Secret Places. We had a couple of favorites that we enacted over and over, while I refined bits, or sometimes they evolved their characters. That was fun . . but not so fun was learning around 11 or 12 that how interactions worked in story and how they worked in similar situations in real life differed a whole lot.
This could be especially painful when I tried a story trope in a real situation, and invariably got reactions of stupefied incredulity or scorn or laughter…or anger.
It wasn’t always childhood. There was a time when I was in my twenties and a would-be lover stalked me. When I finally got the nerve to confront my stalker, the response was a softly uttered quote from a book we both loved. I think I was meant to swoon the way the character who heard the words did in the book.
But I had to bite my lip hard to keep from laughing. My wooden face was enough to indicate that the tender pash wasn’t happening, and the ensuing conversation was both painful and painfully real rather than romantic.
The real difference is, of course, that in play, we know what comes next. Sometimes we even negotiate what comes next. In real life, nothing is scripted.
This is most dramatically obvious in emergency situations. Those who have been in these situations recognize that the instant competence of heroes in movies, the sense of everyone knowing just what to do, only comes with hard experience and practice, unless you’re one of the rare ones for whom instinctive sequencing in high-adrenaline situations works. A busily jerking steadi-cam gives the impression of high adrenaline, but the clipped, controlled voices of actors (even their shouts) are far different from the high, strained, often invective-laced, almost inarticulate barks of those in a real situation, the adrenaline-shedding purposeless moving about as people try to make order out of chaos.
Some fictioneers (movie, book, comic, manga, whatever) endeavor to show reality as truthfully as possible, but clear back in the days of Samuel Johnson, when the novel was just evolving, there was an argument that that was not art. Art required discrimination in choices of what to depict, and also, there was the debate about moral or ethical truth. I remember the debate in the late sixties or early seventies that Andy Warhol’s eight hour film of a guy sleeping was real as all get-out, but not art. Oh yes it was art, he retorted. Some argued that art is what I point at, even to you it’s a tin can on a pedestal, or a canvas with paint splashed all over.
Back to writing.
At some point, the writer realizes that no matter how much she plays, she is still anticipating what comes next. Just as on film and TV, the subtle signs are there, especially in fights, that the actors know the next move, whereas in real life, we don’t.
So the writer has to imagine the shock, surprise, dread of not knowing.
Writers draw on experience they’ve had. They draw on experience they’ve witnessed. They draw on experience they’ve read in news articles, interviews, diaries, letters, memoirs. Writers sometimes draw on experience of other art, many times because they’ve grown up seeing the trope over and over so it maps as real.
Sometimes, we want it to be real—to evoke that sense of how the world ought to work. (Like my stalker.)
As for emulating reality, many readers enjoy the shock and surprise. Is that because they are able to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief? Or the catharsis of emotion followed by the remembrance that this is fiction? Other readers feel anxious, and so, as a safety net, they ask for spoilers. If the story is going to emulate real life, well, they are exercising the option of knowing what’s ahead, which we can’t in real life.
So, back to art. How’s this for a conclusion: art is a combination of real experience, imagined experience, and learned experience. Make any sense?