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But It Really Happened!

When I took creative writing under  Robin Hemley he  had a lot of things to say about using material from real life in fiction.
In particular, he  stressed that the truth of a detail does nothing for it's credibility.If someone argues that a particular incident is unbelievable, it is no defense to say "but it really happened!".

He must have done a good job of stressing this point because I am always finding movies and fiction whose creators could have benefited from his advice. One example is a scene from Almost Famous (which is for the most part an excellent film) where the young protagonist just happens to run into his sister in an airport far from home. 

In the DVD commentary, director and screenwriter Cameron Crowe explains that he really did run into his sister at an airport once. Sorry Cameron, verity is no defense. In fact, I didn't really find the scene all that unbelievable until Crowe  insisted on defending it in the commentary! If he'd had Robin's class (or read his book on the subject) he would have known better than to do that.

I cam across another example more recently in the short story The Martyr by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. It's the story of a young orphan taken into a Christian monastery who leads a happy and blessed life there until he is accused of impregnating a village girl. He is then cast out and shunned. For the most part it's a compelling story about Christian charity and forgiveness. At the end though, there is a rather jarring plot twist. I won't say what it is, but I can tell you it was a distraction from the story's main points. It was also pretty hard to square with a lot of things that went on earlier in the story. I wondered why Akutagawa put it in there.

I didn't wonder long.  The story has a postscript giving some background on the source of the story. It's from a book called Legenda Aurea. Akutagawa quotes from the introduction to the original story. It "is presumably a truthful record of a happening which took place  in a Christian Church at Nagasaki." Maybe the plot twist I found so incredible has some truth to it after all. Even so, it should have been left out. Even if it really happened.

But  I can't be as hard on Akutagawa as I was on Cameron Crowe . He died 29 years before Robin Hemley was born and was unable to avail himself of Hemley's wisdom. Crowe has no such excuse.