Sometimes life really is stranger than fiction, but where does that leave the writer: Ian McMillan

Life, as we all know, usually proceeds at a steady pace, striding along time’s tarmac until every now and then something unexpected happens.

Poet and writer Ian McMillan
Poet and writer Ian McMillan

To carry on the road analogy (and perhaps stretch it a bit too far), life falls down a pothole or gets stuck as the tar melts in the unseasonal heat. When something like this happens to disrupt the unremarkable flow, we turn to our mate and say: “You couldn’t make that up!” just as he falls down the same hole.

We’ve all got examples of this: mine would include the time my mother, leaning over the table one dinnertime, accidentally dropped a potato into my dad’s dandelion and burdock just as he was raising it to his lips, so he ended up glugging the first and last version of a new potato-based cocktail; or the time a bloke at one of my poetry readings walked off in my glasses that I’d put down on a table and I spent ages trying to find them and then he strolled back into the room and said: “I think there’s something up with my eyes; my vision’s gone all blurry!”

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How a posh woman slurping tea in Bettys in York could be a short story in the making - Ian McMillanWe’ll all have examples of our own and we always say “If you put that in a script nobody would believe it!” and it often seems that if you just hang around somewhere for long enough something utterly remarkable will occur.

But the writer in me asks “If you can’t make it up and if you put that in a script nobody would believe it, then what is the author to do?” It’s a thorny problem: we’ve all seen films and read books where the coincidences that drive the plot just seem that bit too far-fetched so that we somehow begin to lose confidence in the entire machinery of the story; as soon as we stop believing in the plot we may as well put the book down or saunter out of the cinema.

Presenting a radio debate with a Yorkshire accent! Whatever next? A Yorkshireman reading the news on the telly: Anthony ClavaneIt’s a fascinating dilemma: it’s the writer’s job to make us believe that this could really happen and yet when it happens in fiction we don’t believe it even though if it happened in real life we’d be forced to. And it’s no good saying “It really happened like this to my Uncle Les in 1974!” when somebody challenges you, because they won’t believe you.

So what is the writer of fiction that accurately reflects the amazing things that happen all the time to do? Might a different font or colour be the answer? Each time a story seems unbelievable WE JUST PUT IT IN CAPITALS or in bright green. That might work. Or we put asterisks next to a fantastic paragraph and put a footnote that says “This is true, believe it or not.”

And, as I was typing this column, I stood up to stretch my legs and I slipped on a toy car of my grandson’s and careered across the room just as my wife was coming into the room with a cup of tea and we collided. You couldn’t make it up!