My Hand to God, That’s How it Happened.

This week, I want to ask you writers and readers about believability.

I was recently workshopping a story set here in Mexico, where two cab drivers get in a fist fight and one ends up with a broken nose. They calm down and the nosebreaker sets his opponent’s nose.  This tripped several readers up, because the story didn’t state facts that I took for granted. First, the wait for medical attention at a government run hospital here can be very long, so setting your nose on the street makes perfect sense; second, that most working class Mexican men know how to set a nose, even their own, if necessary; and finally, that honor among adversaries is not too uncommon here. Two Mexicans read the story and didn’t say a thing about that part.

My question is this: how can a writer make the reader believe without using the dreaded info-dump? My thinking is that this is problematic in narrative as well as dialog.  As a reader, how much do you want explained to you, and how?

I look forward to any insight here.

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6 Responses to My Hand to God, That’s How it Happened.

  1. CJ Jessop says:

    That’s a difficult one, George. Depends on who the POV is. If it was someone from outside the culture, you could have them maybe internalise their surprise that it happened, or something like ‘No matter how many times I saw something like that, it never failed to surprise me, but that’s Mexico.’ Or have them comment on it to someone and that someone say “You’re in Mexico, this is our way.” (or something less cheesy :D).

    If it’s one of the two combatants. Well, if it’s the nose-setter, he can internalise that he’d better set the guy’s nose, that maybe he doesn’t hate him that much he’d see him walk around with a bent nose for the rest of his life. If it’s the one whose nose got broken, maybe have him express his thanks and the other guy say ‘yeah well, don’t think this makes everything all right. You’d do it for me. I still hate your guts.’ Again, I’m sure you can word it better, just pulling examples off the top of my head.

    • Thanks. There is a bit of dialog about it, so maybe that’s where I need to look.

      But how do you deal with this in your writing, especially since you are creating worlds, while I’m reporting on real worlds. Is there a difference in how this is dealt with in other genres, or do the same rules always apply?

  2. Jim says:

    As a former cab driver of five years, I HAVE to chime in on this. My comments will be RIFE with assumption, presumption, and whatever other kind of “umption” you can think of.

    First of all, I assume that these guys are working the night shift. The fight took place at three or four in the morning after everything has calmed down, and whatever it is these guys are arguing about probably happened hours ago. Because I can tell you as a former cab driver that this line of work takes a lot of hustle to make that money, and you really just don’t have time for jack shit if you wanna make that money. Pretty much the only way a cab driver is going to stop trying to make money is for food (maybe), or a blowjob (definitely) from some cute little chica. If you don’t eat, you die (Google “Ethiopia” for more information on starvation and malnutrition if you’re not familiar with this subject). And blowjobs from select female passengers is pretty much the only intimate activity you’ll ever have, because you work six or seven days a week, usually night shifts, which means you simply don’t have time for a steady girlfriend because your life is your work and your work is your life. Not to mention, after driving people around all the time when they are displaying all the worst qualities of human beings by talking to each other as if you’re a piece of furniture about all the different ways they fuck people over and are completely obsessed with their own interests, saying they feel fine then puking all over the car and then telling you they don’t have any money, having absolutely no concept at all whatsoever about other people’s personal space or private property, you finally realize that women are generally the worst offenders and you lose interest in them for any sort of substantial relationship and just throw that whole idea out the window like a hotboxxed cigarette that you need to get rid of before you arrive at your next pick up (I’m not bitter or anything…)

    I digress.

    Since one guy broke the other guys’ nose and then had the time to set it for him, that also tells me this fight happened in the whee hours. Because if all this shit went down in the middle of the day, there’d be no time to do that because they’d be holding up traffic and missing out on possibly making more money. I’m also pretty sure the fight was about money. One dude, sorry, hombre’, stole the other hombre’s dinero by taking a passenger out of queue or telling dispatch that he was clear when he actually still had a fare in his car. Hombre’ got socked in the nose and was all like “alright alright! I fucked up. Sorry”. Then they sat down on the curb and settled their differences with words. At three or four in the morning, when you’re close to ending a ten to twelve hour shift, the last thing you wanna do is go to the hospital for something like a broken nose. And if he did, all the other drivers would think he’s a pussy and he’d never hear the end of it.

    Also, you must have workshopped this story with some pretty square assed white people or something. Because really, only white people would think that a broken nose is some sort of medical emergency requiring a visit to a hospital. Well, and you mentioned that there were two Mexican men there and they didn’t give any of this a second thought. But than again, I’ve never broken my nose, so I have no idea how much that hurts. I’m kind of a bitch, and would likely see a doctor because my feelings got hurt. But, than again (again with the “But, but than again bullshit…) I did break my thumb once, and it hurt like a mother fucker, but I didn’t really give a shit because I was too pissed off at the asshole that turned left in front of us and ruined our casino run.


    I also have a psychic feeling that the author has never been a cab driver, and possibly has never been a passenger in a cab. I say this only because of the fact that I have had psychic premonitions in the past, and because I wish to be contradictory so I can make the following statement that is not at all contradictory:

    The author MAY have had some cab driving experience, but possibly in some country that is foreign to me where the cab driving culture is quite a different experience from the one here in the US America. A country like, oh I dunno, let’s say, Mexico. And if it a story about cab drivers in Mexico, I wouldn’t have any clue what the fuck I’m talking about because I never drove a cab in Mexico, nor have I ever been there, nor do I want to be, because I’m afraid of getting kidnapped by the drug cartel and having my head chopped off with a chainsaw (see? I told you there were going to be a lot of assumptions in this! No, seriously, go back to the top part of what I wrote, you’ll see it there.).

    In conclusion of my ridiculous statements, I would like to add that I would probably very much appreciate living in a society where honor and respect among adversaries is common practice

    Now, to finally and actually address your question. Whenever there is a story about people with peculiar and exotic careers such as cab drivers, pilots, or private contractors that teach foreign languages to employees of large corporations, you’re going to have one of two reactions from people out in the real world that are actually in those lines of work;
    A) they completely identify with the characters and story and know everything that’s going on because they have lived it, or
    B) they call complete bullshit on the characters and everything going on because they have lived it.

    A lot of fiction is really going to depend on the reader’s perspective based on their experience in life. Maybe they’re too fucking stupid to put two and two together. Or maybe, they have legitimate questions that need to be addressed. You know? Like when the crew of the Enterprise first encountered the Borg, why the fuck didn’t they just beam a nuclear bomb into the middle of the Borg ship and be done with it already and then go home? Perfectly reasonable question to me!

    And what does it matter if the hombre’s went to the hospital or not? Well, if they do go there, it completely changes the dynamic of the entire story and doesn’t allow for it to go in a certain direction or for characters to resolve the matter at hand or to evolve to a new understanding.

    So, it’s up to the writer to assume whether or not their potential readers are assholes or not. If they use the “dreaded info-dump” early in the story, then it makes sense that it would occur in other chapters, if not all of them. My best advice would be to keep it entertaining. It’s not a report on why the Space Shuttle blew up, it’s a story. If the info-dump is not used early on then the writer should proceed with caution, because an info-dump in chapter 17 can really break the reader’s rhythm and the flow of the story.

    Also, when writing a story, write it like you know EXACTLY what you are talking about!

    But than again, what the fuck do I know? I don’t really care for literature, especially fiction.

    Hope that helps!

  3. These are one of those kinds of questions I struggle with because there are at least two things overlapping, craft and confidence, maybe a third, vision, fourth could be the reader, but that sort of circles around to the first. So I will use an example that happened to me. How You Look At Things was a story I wrote, and I started out with a sentence that was strangely constructed. I knew that it was, but I couldn’t seem to fix it, so when I posted it, I was actually looking for people to suggest how to write that sentence better. And sure enough every poster mentioned the sentence and suggested it needed to be fixed; I think it was MaryJane who gave me an example that I used, as I trust her writing skills and she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to technical stuff. But when I changed that sentence it meant that I had to change more of the story, and so when I posted the second version it was cleaner and more logical. Readers who had read it the first time approved of the changes. THEN, I got one reader who said she had read the storyh in its first incarnation, especially at the beginning and particularly in the first sentence, which she liked, and she managed to find the first version and crit it, instead of the second. She said the second version had lost its poetic quality. And the minute she said it, I knew she was right. And I realized that was why I couldn’t figure out how to fix the first sentence. Do you see what I mean? So I reposted the first version with changes, and at least one reader, Mike Smith, came back and said, Damn, i was wrong and you were right. But the freakin frakken bugger of it was, why didn’t I know this? Why didn’t I trust my vision?

    I mean, it is the thing that makes us writers, this vision, but we are told we can’t trust it completely either because we may be holding on to a badly written vision. And it is truly difficult to judge. Is this vision or am I not changing what needs to be changed? I have to tell you, this can only be answered with time and experience, and even then it is probably never a settled question. But I have come to the conclusion that even if ten people tell me there’s something wrong with my story, I’m still going to think harder about it and through it than just make the changes. I’m going to be my vision’s advocate. What’s the worst that could happen? The story won’t get published?

    Trust your vision, George.

  4. steve byrne says:

    Timed myself on this: 7 minutes. It might not be exactly what you want, but maybe with a bit of play? I took it at least one character would already be named.

    The fight was over; Roberto had been proven right by virtue of possessing the better forward jab. As was the way of those indigenous to the city, there would be no more animosity or a anger, “Would you like me to take you to the hospital? They will set your nose for you.”
    “Hospital…Ha!” The injured taxi driver winced and spat a wad of blood, “I would still be waiting to be seen this time tomorrow. I can set the break myself.”
    Like everybody else in this country who could swing a punch, Roberto could straighten a broken nose. “Here, let me have a look,” he said…

  5. ED Martin says:

    I think you have to trust that your readers will believe your story, especially if that’s how it happened, but you might need to help them. I’m running into this while my novel’s being edited; the head editor has lived in the South, where the story is set, and glossed right over a lot of things, because to him it makes sense, but my main editor isn’t from the South so there’s a lot of stuff – character interactions, thought processes, etc – she’s wanting me to take out. However, it changes the story – people react differently in Richmond, VA, than they do in Portland, OR – so in order for her to be willing to leave this stuff in, I have to explain it in the text in a way that makes sense to someone who’s never lived in Virginia or North Carolina. But I also have to do it quickly, without slowing down the story, and for that usually just a line of dialogue or an internal thought, reflecting on why whatever is done that way, seems to be enough.

    But the trust goes both ways because the readers have to trust that you’re telling them the truth, by which I mean, that this is how things happen wherever your story takes place. If readers find out you’re lying to them – adding details that they know aren’t true – then you’ll lose that trust. (On a slightly related note, that’s why I’m having so many problems with a book I just read set in a town I’m very familiar with, that the author got all the details wrong about – she lost my trust on the setting, so how can I trust the rest of her story?)

    I think that mutual trust can easily be built up as long as you get a reputation for quality stories built on actual facts and customs. Try your best to explain, through your characters, what happened, but avoid cultural lectures. The more you write these stories, the more readers will come to accept what you write about as plausible.

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