When I was a kid, every Sunday night at 7 o’clock danger and high drama came into young Timmy’s life. A forest fire was a-kindling or a convict was on the loose or somebody fell down a well. And Timmy’s beautiful collie Lassie saved the day. My siblings and I were entranced in our living room, maybe peeking from behind a chair as the tension built. And never did we critique the program for being unrealistic. We didn’t say, “Wait a minute? How is it possible that one kid could have such crises on a weekly basis?” No, we accepted the unrealistic premise for the sake of entertainment, for the sake of transcending reality. This is what we do when we read fiction or watch movies and plays. I dub this suspension of reality and acceptance of unlikely circumstances the Lassie effect.
And yet, I find that the highest compliment to my writing is that it’s realistic.
I write literary fiction.* One of the characteristics of this genre: readers can identify with the characters and stories. They are compelled to keep reading because they can relate what’s going on around them to the made-up story.
When I was writing Sunday by Sunday, I would ask myself and others if the events in Rose’s life seemed too “Sunday nights at 7 o’clock.” In other words, were the story threads too dependent on the Lassie effect? Quite the tightrope; lean a little to one side and it’s unbelievable; lean to the other and it’s dull.
A test I would use: compare a week of main character Rose’s life to what had occurred in my world in the preceding week and what I had heard from the people in my circle. Repeatedly, that comparison confirmed the adage that life is stranger than fiction.
For farce and fantasy, of course, there is no tightrope to negotiate. Writers of genre literature like romance, suspense, and science fiction can safely assume that readers will apply the Lassie effect. But we writers of literary fiction must walk the tightrope, with plausibility on one side and compelling storytelling on the other.
Do you remember Lassie? BONUS QUESTION: What was the name of Lassie’s original boy master, before Timmy?