When at a loss to describe the madness of actual events, we often fall back on the escape mechanism of comparing them to fiction. It's probably a natural impulse. Tonight's ABC News reportage on attempts to end the hostage crisis prior to Day 444 plays like a glossy tale of espionage and political intrigue -- like "Z" or Day of the Jackal" -- but reporter Pierre Salinger insists it's all too true.

The cast of characters in the report, "America Held Hostage: The Secret Negotiations," at 10 tonight on Channel 7 (with a continuation on "ABC News (Nightline" at 11:30) would be more at home in a Harold Robbins novel than in a Le Carre spy thriller.Some 50 persons in 20 countries were drawn into the schemes to end the crisis -- among them a Tunisian diplomat, the archbishop of Jerusalem, a leftist French lawyer, a Panamanian general, an Argentine Businessman, and Yasser Arafat.

Salinger reveals, "for the first time," as he keeps noting of the scoop, that U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's mission to Iran was "a disaster" because Waldheim revised the proposal he had planned to make to the militants regarding a commission that would investigate alleged U.S. crimes against Iran. "The fact is taht Waldheim was in a state of panic," says Salinger; the program is awfully hard on the old gentleman. [A U.N. spokesman yesterday denied the allegations about Waldheim.]

The source for the Waldheim story is a "secret tape" made of the meeting between Waldheim and the Revolutionary Council, a tape that is not played on the broadcast. An ABC News spokesman said yesterday that the network has never been in possession of the tape but has heard it.

It is also claimed in the report that the Carter administration, in cooperation with Panamanian officials, considered arranging for the shah to be arrested while in Panama as part of a plan to appease the Iranian militants. But Salinger says that former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler scuttled the plan when he put the shah on a plane to Egypt before he could be thrown in the slammer.

Three hostages might have been released as a gesture of good faith for Christmas 19798 if a French senator hadn't prematurely blabbed details of the deal and ruined it, Salinger says. Salinger also revives the story that the shah's operation didn't have to be performed in the U.S. -- further incensing the perpetually incensed militants -- but that David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger interceded on the shah's behalf and talked Jimmy Carter into the arrangement.

There is so much detail in the program that it becomes confusing and hard to follow, and some disclosures, made with great harrumph by Salinger, seem scarcely worth the hubbub. Also, he uses the word "scenario" so many times that one may feel the urge to scream.

One hopes that on "Nightline" the hard question will be asked: How many times, if any, was the opportunity to end the crisis botched, and who was responsible? Much of the program's content has urgency and impact, and the bare-knuckles documentary style is effective; for once ABC's gimmicky graphics seem conducive to the storytelling process.

ABC News says the documentary, rife with previously undisclosed facts (of varying value) has been in preparation for two months. Ay Westin coordinated production and Robert E. Frye was senior prodeucer. As the first blast of post-crisis coverage, the program has weight and kick. It has, as Salinger says, "all the elements of a fictional spy thriller, but it is all true."

What's cried out for now is an unblinking look at whether television news coverage and the Iranians' access to the American public through satellite technology prolonged the crisis beyond a poing at which it might reasonably have ended, but then, reason has never stood much of a chance in the world , and satellites don't seem to have given it any grand new edge.