Please Don’t Think Too Hard about This

January 19, 2015

My writing here at Lost Caws often follows a pattern, one that’s common to a lot of blog writing (and essay/editorial writing in general). I use the title and maybe the first paragraph or so to articulate a problem or a question and then spend the rest of the post addressing it. Here are a couple of examples that, to varying degrees, follow that pattern.

Today I’m still doing the first part but less of the second. Bear with me.

As part of my fiction writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about suspension of disbelief, internal consistency, and plot holes. My worry about these things is beginning to gum up the works in my brain, and I want to just get it out. As a result, this is a post with questions but few answers. I have a mess of thoughts in my head that I need to try to tidy up so I can make room for other things. It’s the digital equivalent of untangling headphone cables or Christmas lights.

Defining the Terms

Before I get going, a few definitions are in order. Although these concepts are probably at least marginally familiar to most, there’s a bit of overlap and interdependency among them. I want to be clear about how I see them.

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“Whatcha doin?” “Just thinkin”

First, suspension of disbelief was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, probably best known to most for writing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”* It was originally used as a concept for helping to justify the use of fantastical and supernatural elements in a story. As belief in these things dwindled among the educated elite, their use in storytelling fell out of favor. Coleridge’s idea was that audiences would look past implausible or impossible happenings so long as the root of the story held human interest.

Today it’s often used in a more general sense to evaluate whether something — a story, video game, movie — succeeds in getting its audience to overlook limitations of various kinds. These limitations might be technical – like graphics in a video game or black and white film. They might be practical, like when a movie is set in, say, Spain but the characters speak only English because it’s intended for an English speaking audience.

But the ways we use it today often have just as much in common with Coleridge as they do with these other sorts of limitations. If you’ve watched an action movie where the hero blew up the villain’s car with nothing more than a pistol and did not immediately stop watching in protest, you have suspended disbelief.**

Internal or narrative consistency refers to the extent to which the rules established in the story are followed. For example, say you have a story where the main character is a werewolf. If the author says the person only transforms into the creature on the third Tuesday of the month and in the next chapter it’s the first Monday and the transformation occurs, internal consistency is violated.

Finally, plot holes are inconsistencies in a story that cannot be resolved within the story itself. There’s really little difference between this and internal consistency, but plot holes are generally seen as major violations of consistency specifically related to events in the story. Saying that a character has blue eyes and then later saying they are brown violates consistency, but it probably doesn’t ruin the whole thing for someone unless eye color is critical to the story. Plot holes have the potential to outright destroy someone’s enjoyment of the story. I worry about both.

Will You Buy What I’m Selling?

As part of working on my novel “The Witches of Nicollet Island,” I think about whether the reader will accept the reality I’m creating in the story world. The very premise of the novel requires at least limited suspension of disbelief: that witches who can perform magic are a real thing in the world. If the reader cannot get past that or is not interested in a story with this element, it’s probably best for that person to move along. No harm, no foul.

Beyond that, I worry a lot about adding something to the narrative that unknowingly violates rules that a reader has come to accept as part of the story. The onus is obviously on me for this. Where I have been explicit about how things work, I have complete control about whether I break the rules. I should be able to avoid this with thorough attention to detail during the revision process.

What worries me more is implying that things work a certain way even if I don’t necessarily mean to. I  I don’t want to put the reader in the position of cruising along and then rather unexpectedly feeling like everything I’ve told them is a sham, all because how something was stated was unclear.

I know that I can’t make everyone happy with this. There’s a pretty good chance that some aspect of my story will strike at least some readers as a little too far-fetched or, perhaps, too convenient. I’m trying to come up with some personal guidelines for what “success” might look like knowing full well it’s a nearly impossible thing to measure. Here are some questions I’m asking myself as I go along.

Have I articulated the rules in enough detail for the reader to believe what happens?

  • My story has magic in it. If I never explain how the magic works, how will the reader know what to expect when some magic business starts to go down? This is a thing that bugs me in fantasy stories. If, within the context of the story, “magic” seems like it’s pretty easy to do and it’s unclear what its limitations are, then why don’t the characters just do magic stuff all the time? Like, why wouldn’t you just “magically” transport yourself to where the bad guy is and then “magically” zap him into nonexistence? On the flip side, I don’t want to spend 20K words explaining every last rule for how things work. At some point I need to ask the reader to accept that I’ve explained enough. My problem is that I’m struggling to know where the line is that demarcates crossing from “not enough” to “too much. I’m bored now.”

Does the reader have a reasonable understanding of what my characters can do?

  • This item exists somewhere on a continuum between the item above and the next one. If I give a character a gun who we have no reason to believe can shoot one properly, I need to make it clear that he or she got lucky when they took out the bad guy from a hundred yards away in the middle of a firefight during a dust storm. This is a common problem in action movies, and it can really take me out of a story when it’s just impossible to believe that a character has a competency we have no reason to expect.

Do the actions my characters take, at minimum, make sense within their personalities?

  • I don’t mind if a character fails to take the most logical course of action if it’s at least believable that the character might fail to do so. People make mistakes and so do characters in fiction. We don’t always make the most logical choices in life so it’s silly to think our fictional characters would. That said, I don’t want to have my characters fleeing from a bad guy by heading to the roof of a building when there’s no good reason to go that direction and no reason to think my characters would make that big of a mistake in judgment. I am constantly asking myself things about my characters like “would she lie about this?” “Would he fight back here or just sit back and take it?” “At what point might he cross a threshold from passivity to aggressiveness?”

Are events early in the story doing enough to at least suggest what takes place later on?

  • As a writer, I want to keep some things up my sleeve. I don’t want every part of my story to be obvious right from the jump. Having said that, when you get to the end of one of my stories I want you to be able to look back at the narrative and not have things seem entirely out of place. I’d like to be able to surprise you every now and again, but I don’t want you to feel like you were swindled. Improbable things happen in stories all the time. How many times does Harry Potter escape what should be certain doom? I don’t care about that. At times we need that in a story to make it fun, but I don’t want events unfolding in a way that seems impossible within the story world. 

Feels good to get some of this down. It’s a bit like how good it feels to suck in fresh air when you realize you’ve been holding your breath. As I get close to finishing the first draft of my novel, worrying about this stuff has been consuming me. A big part of my first set of revisions will be trying to resolve inconsistencies that violate the questions above. Though I outlined a great deal, I made sudden changes on the fly with some frequency.

No matter how much revision I do, it’s likely that some people will find nits to pick about how I handled certain parts of the narrative. I can’t help that, not entirely, but I can ask a favor to any future readers: please don’t think too hard about it.


*If you’re willing to cope with the language and style of the piece, the thing still makes for a good read. It was considered difficult to read and archaic when it was first published over 200 years ago. Both the Wikipedia and SparkNotes pages can make useful companions to reading it.

**Assuming you know it’s not that easy to blow up cars.

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