There’s a story I heard a few years back about author Dan Brown. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. The story said that one of the secrets to his success with books like The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons is this: he tells you two verifiable facts to get you to believe his authenticity, then hits you with the big fiction. You suspend your disbelief and accept that maybe, just maybe, Jesus had descendants who are still around today, and that there is an organization in place to care for these people.
This past weekend, I was hashing out a plot line with an author friend of mine for a novel that will sort of be about a modern day John Dillinger. I don’t wanna give too much of the plot away at this point—it’s still way too early in the development stages for that—but it naturally involves robbing banks.
At one point, I went online and found that the average take for bank robbers is really, really low. Less than ten grand. Armored car robberies, on the other hand, averaged around three hundred grand.
So we decided my guy would start out robbing banks, but move on to armored cars. Except, the more I thought about that idea, the less I liked it. Can’t really tell you why, other than to say it just doesn’t feel right for my character. I don’t know him all that well yet, but I know he wouldn’t do armored cars. Too much trouble. They’re moving targets, after all.
But during my research for Spree, I came across another little factoid: banks really do keep a lot of money in their vaults. I’d thought that was just a Hollywood thing in these days of electronic transfers and such, but a lot of folks still deal in cash, so the banks—especially main branches—need a lot of operating capital on hand each day.
How much? Depends on the bank and location, from what I could find, but anywhere from three hundred grand up to a million. For big banks, it could go even higher.
So why hit an armored car, a moving target of dubious value, when you could have a stationary target? Well, there are pros and cons to both. Banks have cameras, armored cars don’t. Or, at least, they didn’t when I worked in the business for a short time back in the eighties. In these days when every cop has a dash cam on his unit, the armored cars could very well have several cameras onboard (note to self: research that, man).
As fiction writers, here’s where have to make a decision to go bigger than life. Like Dan Brown, we need to feed you two verifiable facts so you’ll believe the third “fact” we give you. My supposition here is that, yes, if you do the usual bank robbery where you walk in and demand money from the teller(s), you’ll net money somewhere south of ten grand. The tellers keep enough on hand to operate with and, if they need more, get it from…somebody (note to self: find out who). We also know that banks have vaults. I’ve seen several in construction, and they always set the vault first, then construct the building around it.
Because we write fiction, we have to go bigger than life at some point. Otherwise, who’s gonna believe it when we write twenty books about the same character –say a cop or private eye—who kills several people each book, sees more action in his life than most combat vets, and never serves time in jail for it? The truth is, most cops never fire their weapons in anger. There are cops who pride themselves—justifiably, in my opinion—on having thirty-year careers where they only fired their sidearms when qualifying each year at the range.
Makes for a boring story, though.
So, if you write crime fiction, your crimes are bigger than life. If you write fantasy, the magic works. If it’s science fiction, the tech is beyond anything we experience now and always works (unless you need it to malfunction for plot purposes, of course). And if you write romance, the women are always sex goddesses and the men hunky gym rats without an ounce of fat on their bodies or blemishes on their skin.
Unreasonable? Yes. But we as readers believe it because, if the writer has done their job right they’ve already fed us two verifiable facts to get us to believe what they’re telling us. That way, when they feed us the whopper, we’re ready to believe it, too, even when it’s way bigger than life.
Because, in the end, that’s what we read fiction for: the bigger-than-life aspects that titillate and thrill us, keep us on the edge of our seats, and allow us to experience a virtual life we’d never experience otherwise.
So keep makin’ it bigger than life, writer. It’s what the customer wants, and the customer is always right.