Bull in a China Shop

What does a bull in a china shop have to do with writing a good novel? Read on to find out.

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “like a bull in a china shop” to refer to something chaotic and destructive. It brings to mind images of a bull rampaging around, smashing everything in sight, and creating a godawful mess.

Then the Mythbusters proved that a bull let lose among racks of china dances among them like he’s at the ballet, running around graceful and free, without causing any damage at all.

There are plenty of other common phrases similar to this one that have no grounding in reality. Just to name a few, you should be aware that ostriches do NOT actually bury their heads in the sand, Columbus did NOT prove the world was round, and despite what people claim, Alanis Morissette actually did use the word “ironic” correctly in her song (one of the definitions of “ironic” is simply something “unexpected,” and every example in the song fits that definition, despite what critics try to say).

So what does all of this have to do with writing? Glad you asked.

Sometimes, when people are writing a book, movie script, or what have you, they use phrases like those listed above incorrectly. Now, if it just falls in a character’s dialogue, it’s probably not a big deal. After all, if a character in a book or movie says “Columbus proved the Earth was round” it might just be because the character thinks that’s true, the same way most people do. However, the problem comes when a character is supposedly an expert in a certain topic or an otherwise intelligent figure and they’re repeating things that simply aren’t true. One example of this is Sybok quoting the Columbus myth in Star Trek V.

The worst way to screw this sort of thing up would be if you have a character who is a scientist or who has a PhD in their field. You might decide to have them quote some important “fact” as part of how you show their knowledge, but if that fact is just dead wrong, you may end up making your character (and yourself, as the writer) look like an idiot. It’s something that can be avoided pretty easily if you just do a little research. I frequently head to Google to read up on various topics that come up in my writing, just to make sure I get the facts straight. A good example of this is one of my main characters, Dr. Patricia Caldwell. She’s a psychiatrist with Medical Degree in Psychology, and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (I even extensively researched what kind of degrees she would need for her position, in order to make them as accurate as possible). Dr. Caldwell is the most intelligent and educated person in my books, and it usually falls on her to discuss anything scientific. Now, I get a certain amount of leeway in some things since my books involve a lot of magic, and with magic, I make the rules. But when anything medical or scientific comes up, I do as much research as I can to make sure it’s accurate. There might still be mistakes that slip through (after all, my degree is in the Writing Arts, not Psychology or Biochemistry), but I make sure to research my facts as much as I can.

There are some other ways getting the facts wrong could cause problems in your writing. A few simple examples are things like how cars will generally NOT explode if the gas tank gets shot or if the car falls off a cliff (Mythbusters busted both of those), a pressure breach in an airplane probably won’t suck people out the window (Mythbusters again), and getting shot doesn’t actually make you fly back five feet in the air (hey, Mythbusters did that one, too). Many of these things are used in movies because Hollywood likes to make things dramatic and exciting. Having such things happen in your book, however, might make people think you just didn’t get your facts straight before writing it.

It can be a good idea to have your critique partners or beta readers be on the look out for these things as well. When I critique a story for someone, I always point out anything that seems wrong or inaccurate to me. I also like it when someone brings those things to my attention in my own writing. Sometimes it’ll be something I didn’t realize at all before they mentioned it. Other times it’ll be a situation where I facepalm and realize I should have KNOWN better. In either case, however, it’s best to catch this sort of thing during revisions rather than letting it get printed on the page. Nobody is perfect, but a writer who takes the time to do the best research they can will be more successful than one who never pays attention to the mistakes they made.

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