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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Suspending disbelief

Writers tread a narrow line. The stories we tell are made up, and readers know this; but we need to make them forget that fact while immersed. The appeal of a novel is that it imposes shape and meaning on the chaos that is life. Fiction has a beginning, middle and end, and life does not. But woe betide the writer who strains his reader's credulity to the point where it gives way and he/she says, "That wouldn't happen."

I think there are two kinds of implausibility in fiction; the big stuff, like dragons, magic, sparkly vampires, aliens etc. which readers tend to swallow whole, and the little improbabilities readers or viewers tend to choke on.

An example of the second type: recently I treated myself to the complete series of Firefly, and am enjoying an episode each evening. For those who haven't seen it, it was conceived by Joss Whedon, who went on to make Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fox cancelled the series after only fourteen episodes; insane, as it had the quality, set-up and characters to have been as long running and successful as MASH. In one episode, Out of Gas, the space ship Serenity is stranded in space with only a few hours' air due to the failure of a part of the engine; something about the shape and size of a hair drier. And I thought, if the failure of that part is so catastrophic, you'd carry at least two spares. It wouldn't be bad luck if you got stranded that way, it would be the mechanic's fault, or the captain's. [EDIT: I'm wrong. See Wyndes' comment right at the bottom of the comments on this post.]

I put a lot of effort into making my stories plausible and removing plot holes - some improbable things may happen, but I hope my characters' reactions to them are believable. Readers do not always agree with me. "The best science-fiction should surely hold a smidgeon of credibility but the premise of this tale was utterly absurd," is one comment on Replica. Ah well. I have the same problem with most chick lit, James Bond and Dan Brown.

41 comments:

  1. This is a good topic, and I think the key is internal consistency. People accept vampires, magic, etc as long as they behave consistently within their fictional worlds.

    In Firefly (great series - the movie is even better!), the Serenity crew are criminals and mercenaries scrabbling for cash, so it's plausible they just couldn't afford a spare engine part. Whereas if this happened on the USS Enterprise, I'd scoff openly.

    Also, I find it very believable that something so vital has no backup. How many people store vital data on their mobile phones and nowhere else?!

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  2. David, I've just ordered the movie from Amazon so it should arrive as I finish the series.

    You have not convinced me re spare parts. It's one thing to lose data from a phone, quite another for a whole ship's crew to face death from lack of oxygen. At some time, that vital part would fail, and everyone would die.

    In real life, you'd find the money for a spare.

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  3. Lexi, you'll enjoy the film - I saw it whilst on holiday a few years ago.

    I agree it's the small not the large that tends to matter - a lot also has to do withe th eway it's presented on the page - Murakami, for example, drops instances of th eutterly implausible into seemingly normal worlds but we never question them.

    I think the locus classicus for writers on this is the film Scream - in particular the monologue about the rules of the genre which totally deconstructs precisely those things that made so many 80s films implausible - not the fact there was a supernatural killer on the loose, but the fact the characters always insisted on splitting up, and going out without a torch etc;
    (Dan)

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  4. That's so true - if there were scary aliens/monsters/killers on the loose, the last thing you'd say is, "You go down that corridor, I'll go this way."

    Also of course, some readers object to things others are quite happy with and hadn't even noticed.

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  5. Hahaha! I watched that episode several times and it never bothered me that they had no spare parts.

    What bothered me is that the ship was out of power, yet the artificial gravity still worked. Wouldn't they be floating around the ship?

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  6. Ha! I never thought of that. But maybe the artificial gravity was powered by a lump of dark matter right at the centre of the ship. Or something. I learn my physics from Futurama.

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  7. The suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing, Lexi. You ask my mum!

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  8. It's very often the tiniest details that turn universe-busting pulse pounders on their heads.

    But then, the same can be said for ultra high protein croissants...

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  9. There's no answer to that, Whirlochre. Whereas (an expression that has something in common with 'woe betide' and, for that matter, 'whilst', 'furthermore' and 'moreover') the answer to Cassie is woof, woof woof; woof.

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  10. This was a really thought provoking post, Lexi. One of my all time favourite television series was Carnivale which included dozens of 'impossible' scenarios including a woman with catatonia who had special powers and... well, too many to mention but for the duration I had no problems suspending disbelief. Whereas with Angels and Demons and the da Vinci Code I was so disbelieving I couldn't enjoy the stories. On the other hand, millions of readers clearly did.
    I think it is often down to the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary and somehow tapping into what people want to believe. I don't usally read science fiction or fantasy but I loved the dragon series by Anne McCaffery - who wouldn't want to impress a dragon? - and I thoroughly enjoyed Replica, which for me falls into the 'what if?' category. I hope it will never come to pass but what if it did? And as much as the science fiction or the fantasy if novels are about human relationships then that is what interests me and keeps me reading.

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  11. I missed Carnivale, I'm afraid. I agree it's the human relationships that are most interesting, regardless of genre or probability. I've never read Ann McCaffery, though when I sold a lot of dragon jewellery customers frequently mentioned her books. I always meant to...

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  12. Implausibility - lovely, tiny, thin, no muscles, no bulk but ever so cute Buffy kick-assing all and sunder.

    Plausibility - lovely, bulked up, big proper woman with thighs and arms able to wield a sword in a most believable way and fight legions, gorgeous Xena.

    I know which one I'd want on my side in case of a global zombie attack. :-)

    Take care
    x

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  13. Mary Smith said: "if novels are about human relationships then that is what interests me and keeps me reading." My mum likes hobbits. Anyone got a problem with their 'human' relationships? Apparently some have, as my mum heard that Sean Astin missed out on an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam Gamgee because it wasn't a human character. My mum agrees with David Wailing's comment: "the key is internal consistency". PS: Who am I to talk about human relationships?

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  14. Kitty, in the event of a global zombie attack (not all that high on my list of worries) I'd want someone on my side who made really good wisecracks.

    Cassie, Google tells me Jeff Bridges won an Oscar as the alien 'Starman' in Starman (1984) so I can't see why Hobbit portrayals would be discounted. And Disney accepted one on behalf of Mickey Mouse and made a special MM cartoon for the occasion...

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  15. I think that for novels set within our world some plausibility is important, but for fantasy set on another world (like Anne McCaffery's Dragons on Pern), anything goes as long as it has internal consistency.

    For Replica, the replication of a Human Being doesn't seem so far fetched as to touch the absurd. Anyone heard of the cloned Dolly the sheep?!

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  16. Yeah! And there was Avatar. No, wait, that was a film.

    Q, I thought you'd put us right about artificial gravity and dark matter on a space ship.

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  17. Lexi, Einstein sorted out artificial gravity long ago!
    For a space ship one uses centrifugal force by rotating the ship. LOL

    If I understood 'dark matter' I wouldn't be sitting here chatting to you! *grin*

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  18. So Margaret is right and the crew of Serenity would have been floating about...but no! Look what I've found in the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

    In principle, small charged black holes could be used and held in position with electromagnetic forces. However, carrying a sufficient quantity of mass to form significant gravity fields in a spacecraft is well beyond current technology.

    They'd have that in 500 years' time.

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  19. Nice one Lexi!
    We clearly need more women engineers.

    Though it sounds hellishly dangerous. And more difficult than holding a plasma in place for nuclear fusion!

    If the power failed, the electro-magnets would fail and the black holes would eat up the ship.
    Unless you are proposing a cunning array of (permanent) bar magnets!

    If black holes behave like nuclear plasma they will leak out and some form of 'adaptive' array would be required, again needing power.

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  20. My mum says they solve problems like that on Red Dwarf by peddling faster.

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  21. Oh, didn't I mention the cunning array of permanent bar magnets?

    Maybe I should stop trifling with jewellery and writing and go and make the prototype.

    Cassie, I may buy Red Dwarf next - it's that or Frasier...

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  22. Like I said Cassie.
    We need more women engineers. *smile*

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  23. I think if you like a book (or video) enough and are immersed in its world, you tend to make more excuses for plot holes because you want to believe. Well, I know that's true for me, anyway. It certainly seems true of, say, Dr Who fans!

    And I can start with almost any premise if the book (or video) is self-consistent, although if a book is presenting as sci-fi I prefer the science to seem vaguely credible. I had no problem with Replica because for me it was a case of "if this [impossible] thing were to happen, what would happen next..."

    Oh, and I loved Firefly and can't believe that Fox was so stupid as to cancel.

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  24. I've only got one episode of Firefly (and the film) left to watch, and feel that it's got a lot of mileage left. Really annoying some idiot at Fox cancelled it, no doubt a result of looking at figures and past series instead of the product. A lot of that goes on in publishing too.

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  25. You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. I want to award you with one of my homemade awards: the Powerful Woman Writer Award. There are no pass along requirements. This is just to reward you for all the hard work you do!

    Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.
    ~Deirdra

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  26. Thanks for dropping by, Deirdra. I can feel an award acceptance speech coming on...

    "I just want to say I wouldn't be this awesome if it weren't for all the little people who have helped me along the way - and I hope that one day, with a lot of luck and hard work, they will all be as awesome as me. Thank you so much!"

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  27. I think I can be quite gullible about going along with plots but less so about implausible characters. If I think 'that person wouldn't do that' it's much more likely to drag me out of the story than 'that thing wouldn't happen'. I wonder why?
    K

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  28. K, I started to write two answers to your query then realized I don't actually know what the answer is...

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  29. Perhaps I think I know more about people than I do about many things: replicating humans for example. Much more likely that I know very little about anything and should be more cautious in my opinions!

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  30. A blog is no place to be cautious about one's opinions :o)

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  31. Is that Nathan Fillion in the photo? He does a terrific job on the current television show Castle. Of course, part of the attraction for this viewer has got to be the fact that the title character is not only a writer, but incredibly successful and has the time and opportunity to become involved in real life murder investigations. He is the writer many of us dreamed of being back before we learned just how difficult and time consuming it really is.

    I hadn't heard of Firefly, but now will have to check Netflix to see if it is available.

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  32. Yes, that's him.

    Paul Temple was another fictional author/sleuth - did he ever make his way across the Atlantic? It was a radio show from the 1950s, which was recently aired on BBC4Extra. His wife, Steve, was played by Marjorie Westbury, whose voice was so delightful one listener left her everything in her will. Paul Temple never seemed to do any writing...

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  33. Actually, one of the really, really great things about Firefly is that in the pilot episode, Kaylee tells Mal that they need a new compression coil. He says they need passengers that can pay, she warns him, "The compression coil busts, we're drifting," and he answers, "Best not bust then." Whedon foreshadowed the 8th episode in the pilot! He's made it clear from the very beginning of the series that a) the part is crucial and b) they can't afford to fix it, replace it or have a spare. I'd say it's brilliant, and definitely not a plot hole. (And yeah, I'm a major Firefly fan. It's amazing story-telling.)

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  34. Thanks for telling me that, Wyndes - I've only watched the series once and missed it. I'll amend my post.

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  35. And--because I got a little obsessive about this--she mentioned it in "The Train Job", too, with "somebody won't replace that crappy compression coil". I love clever foreshadowing and I know of no other television show that's done it so well.

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  36. I somehow missed the first episode and started with The Train Job, then realized at the end and watched the pilot last. When I posted, I hadn't seen it.

    (Not that that's an excuse - I still didn't make the connection. Or notice the mention in TTJ.)

    Hats off to Joss Whedon.

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  37. I'm so glad Wyndes came up with that explanation! I really should rewatch Firefly to see what I pick up that I missed the first time.

    And Joss Whedon is a true master of storytelling and what I love most is the interactions between the characters.

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  38. I'm going to rewatch too, FH, but I've lent the DVD set to the offspring so it may be a while...

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  39. So I was right - it WAS plausible they couldn't afford the engine part or have a spare! [smug mode engaged]

    This has made me want to rewatch the entire series and see what else I missed. Lexi, hope you enjoyed Serenity if you've seen it by now!

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  40. Okay, you were right, smug person :o)

    I liked the start of Serenity but was fed up they killed off two of the characters. It's escapism, not real life, dammit! In real life, Mal would be missing front teeth with all those bar room brawls he goes in for. I think you have to be consistent with the fictional world you portray. So I prefer Firefly.

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