Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Your Story CAN Go ANYWHERE. Really.

Yesterday I had the following conversation on Twitter that really got me thinking about what makes a book "work":

He did WHAT?!

AUTHOR (Who shall remain nameless): If someone chewed a fetus from its mother in one of *my* books, people would say I was just being gross. But this is OK in YA, apparently.

@AimeeLSalter to AUTHOR: I think it's an example that you can do ANYTHING in fiction if you establish the characters / motivations strong enough.

AUTHOR to @AimeeLSalter: or just an example of something really silly :)

@AimeeLSalter to AUTHOR: That too. Like I said, you can do ANYTHING...

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the age old 'plausibility' factor isn't dependent on your plotpoints. At all.

Bestselling Examples (10 points if you can name all the books without use of anything but your grey matter):

- Children killing each other for televised sport.
- "Demonbabies" bitten out of human mother's tummy by vampire father.
- An entire magical realm hidden accessed via a London train platform.
- Greek mythological Gods alive and well in modern-day America and hiding their children behind 'stinky' stepfathers.

The list goes on - fallen angels who fall in love with humans, reincarnated lovers, a world where everyone dies before they reach the ripe old age of 25...

See what I mean? I write fantasy, so believe me, I hit this a lot.

If you describe plot-points out of context you'll get everything from blank looks to revulsion. But that's because taken in isolation, most fiction is purely unbelievable.

The skill is in weaving a world so tangible, characters so relatable and (the element lacking in many maiden manuscripts, I think) the motivations so solid that the reader can't doubt them.

The technical term is 'suspension of disbelief' and it means that you've captured the imagination of the reader so completely, they stop asking questions.

The problem is, suspension of disbelief, that magical moment in which anything is possible, requires engagement of the logical brain. (Reader says, "Say what?").

Bear with me:

Element #1 - World Building. Set the rules, then stick to them. Readers are fine with a different kind of law, just as long as the author is an adherent. Problems only arise when you change the game - when the author springs something unestablished into the mix to save the day.

Element #2 - Relatable Characters. Your protagonist can be human, creature, past, present or future, or a conglomerate of everything. But whoever they are, they must experience real emotion. (And you should define 'real' as: What the reader believes someone would feel if they were in the Protag's shoes). The thing a reader resonates with isn't the world. It's the character whose eyes they're watching the story behind. If that character doesn't feel in realistic ways, no manner of world-building or plotting will save your story.

To hammer the point home: Feeling realistically doesn't mean author-telling-reader how to feel. It means letting them see the events unfold, see the body language of the other characters, and giving them enough information about the people to measure the emotional journey for themselves.

Element #3 - Established Motive. Let's take the currently abhorrent-to-some plotpoint of a certain book / movie in which the vampire father of a half-breed baby literally bites the child out of the (conscious!) mother's womb.

Taken at face value like that, it sounds horrific. But for readers of the series, who've bought into the world and fallen in love with the characters, the development is so logical as to barely warrent notice.

- We know the physical strengths and limitations of these characters (including the child).
- We know the world they're in, and the clear and present dangers.
- We know the apparently brutal physical interaction is actually a desperate attempt on the father's life to keep his wife and child alive.
- We know the mother has risked her own life to this point for the sake of the child, and wants the people around her to do anything to save it.

When we're deep in the world and the characters heads, it makes sense.

When you write it down, it looks awful.

So, take heart dear writerly friends - it's my belief there's no such thing as a 'no go zone' in plotting. But, you have to have the character development and motivational foundation to make the scary, gory, freakish or fantastical seem logical.

Your Turn: Have you ever read a book that didn't provide the motivational foundation to let you suspend disbelief?


  1. The person you were talking to just had a problem with Twilight is all. Probably jealousy that Miss Meyer has made so much money. Jealousy is a big thing in the world, especially true amongst writers who kinda/sorta support each other but then for the most part, turn around and stab other writers in the back later.

  2. I get 10 points!! :) :) :)
    This is always really hard for me to remember. I'll write something and be like, "There's no way anyone would take it seriously!" But then, it's all how it's written...provided your world-building is concrete, hehe. :)

  3. - Hunger Games
    - Twilight
    - Harry Potter
    - Percy Jackson and the Olympians

    You made it purposely easy. ;) Those are the four most well-known YA series out there, or the Big Four, as I call them. (Oh, and you put "The Twilight Effect" as a label).

  4. I'm not jealous of anyone who writes something that is not worthy of respect. I personally believe that with all the fine examples of YA fiction out there it is a deep shame that Twilight grew to be such a huge phenomenon.

    I believe that it is indicative of the fact that marketing can work (they really, seriously pushed those books HARD), and that there's no hard and fast requirement to make any sense whatsoever when writing fiction.

    It is, as you've said, "ok" to go strange places. I would submit that there was nowhere near enough context for where book 4 in the series went, and I honestly feel like she'd run out of ideas, and just threw things out onto the page.

    A lot of us do that. Some of us recognize when we have jumped the shark. Others don't, and somehow convince their editors that this is brilliance, not insanity. *shrug*

    I take solace in the fact that we are unlikely to see much in the realm of books that really take of being as poor as the Twilight novels are. Then again, James Fenimore Cooper was popular enough that I was subjected to the Deerslayer in an English class. ;)

  5. I can't think of anything I've read lately that did not allow me to suspend belief. But another great example of what you're talking about is this: How about a whole alternate world that exists through the back of some guy's closet? :)

  6. Great post, Aimee. I read a book recently (the name escapes me) that had plot points that weren't really that crazy compared to others but that failed to engage me because of two dimensional character motivations. I didn't finish the book. Just shows you how important realistic motivations are!

  7. @Anne Riley - Magic realism is the bleed of the real into the unreal, and it's an established genre. I have a good friend who writes nothing but magic realism. Typical of his work is that normal people are doing normal things and then the world changes around them into the fantastic. This could include (easily) alternate worlds in the backs of closets. :)

    There's a large (colossal, really) gulf between suspension of disbelief in an otherwise "mundane" sci-fi/fantasy work (one in which there are normal rules in place) and a magic realism piece. In the first, everything is supposed to happen for a reason. In the second, you've thrown reason out the window and popped a few tabs of acid to see where you go.

  8. Aimee, just read the Twilight Debate blogs and was impressed with your debating skills. My opinions line up fairly well with your own.
    When my sons, daughter, and niece (ages 25, 20, and 19) all give the "Vampires don't sparkle!" *face-palm* as the first reason they don't like the series, I tried but was unable to get them to understand. The effect of sun on a vampire's skin is determined by the writer and can be changed. Bram S. didn't create the vampire myth, he just used it very well. Stephanie M. did the same but changed the mythos. She did an excellent job drawing me into her world. (If I can be completely oblivious to the spelling and grammatical errors the first time reading, I am immersed.)
    Another complaint that I have heard any number of time is that Bella is captivated and enthralled by Edward's beauty and goodness while she sees herself as plain, clumsy and ordinary. I find it curious that no one else seems to see Bella as an unreliable narrator, especially in regards to herself. The author shows Bella's awkward nature but at no point do we see Bella interacting with anyone in Arizona. We only have the example of her classmates reaction to her and her own vision of herself to gauge her appeal. Going by that I would judge her to be pretty and/or interesting, as opposed to the way she sees herself. Honestly, what person, especially teenagers, don't see glaring flaws when they look at themselves.

    Those that object to teenagers reading this book because Bella isn't a good role model should also vehemently object to them reading Romeo and Juliet (which was required reading when I was in school).

    As a writer, I am curious about what elements of this series draws or repels readers because either way you have captured their attention. ;-)