Hang A Lantern on It — More Real Than Real
It is an often repeated truism that reality doesn’t need to make sense. Fiction doesn’t.
This is true and not. I found, after years of relentlessly pruning back everything that contradicted the forward thrust of my story, as outlined, that sometimes it’s the bits that stick out that make the other bits shine.
I discovered this when I watched a writer at Milehi read from a scene that was objectively unnecessary for the book. It was also apparently a favorite of all her readers. In the middle of this very serious and solemn quest adventure the characters stop off at a not-very-well-appointed tavern, where everything goes wrong and hilarity ensues with serious elf, very serious elf and deadly serious wizard getting accidentally drunk and planning and playing a massive prank involving a dog and a sausage. (I don’t remember the prank, but nothing bad happened to the dog.)
I watched that reading in awe and went home and wrote what I call “three guys in a car” in Draw One In The Dark. Tom and Rafiel have been at each other’s throats the whole time, and frankly at that point we don’t think Rafiel is a particularly nice guy. Keith, the were-human, is along for the ride, but he knows he sticks out.
Only in the aftermath of a shifting episode, and fighting the really bad guys, they drive through New Mexico, in a stolen car, with two of them naked (shifting) trying to get clothes and food, before they eat someone. (And not in a fun way) and it becomes a long stretch of prank and counterprank, as their repressed hostility comes out, but also they start on the very early, very tentative way to friendship by laughing together.
Normally I’d have written that scene and deleted it, because it’s objectively unnecessary. It is not, however, unnecessary “as to feelings” and it helps the characters and the readers bond, because h*ll, the readers know how many times they are silly in the middle of very serious business.
Since then, often still with trepidation, I’ve learned to let such scenes stay in. Lucius’ first wakening as Good Man in A Few Good Men, in which he finds out there are people who (probably pay to) want to sit around and watch him get up, bathe, etc. His reaction is hilarious, but also sets up his relationship to Sam Remy as a foster-father, and sets us up for the tone of the society. Same with the “I’m not sleepy” scene with Simon and Alexis in Through Fire. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it tells us more about Simon than we’ve learned in four books.
But that’s only one type of scene that sticks out. Sometimes what sticks out and must absolutely be in there is your character acting against his nature, say, or your world behaving in a way you wouldn’t expect.
I don’t mean you can do this very often. You can do it at most once or twice. After that, you’re going to run into “the character was a puppet, with plot up his nether regions, making him move.” But you usually can do it once per book just as, if you absolutely need it, you can have one coincidence per book.
For both counter-intuitive actions or coincidence, it’s best to hang a lantern on it, rather than sweep it under the rug. If you try to sweep it under the rug, smart readers will go “She expected me not to see that?” and be insulted. OTOH if you hang a lantern on it, they go “okay, she knew it was unlikely, but unlikely things do happen.”
So, you know “Of all the worlds in the galaxy, of all the space-ports in this world, how could she have run into the man she’d met as a child, here, in this one?” Hang a lantern on this.
For more unlikely stuff like, that your miser character is suddenly generous, you can do something like “He’d never given bread to a child, but she reminded him of his little sister, who’d died when he was six, and still innocent of the ways of the world.”
Stuff like that.
This can also be used for stuff that you know is true, but which the reader will think is otherwise, because of books or — shudder — movies that portrayed the event wrong. Or, of course, when you’re writing in someone else’s world and about to kick their world in the nadders. I had to do this with Dumas, because in a picaresque adventure it’s perfectly fine to have a stupid character, but in mysteries I couldn’t have Porthos be dumb. So I made him like my younger kid at the time, a visual/tactile thinker, who had issues with words. To sell it, I hung a lantern on it. I explained something like “Many people thought Porthos was a simpleton, but his friends knew better. Indeed, none of them would be friends with an idiot. The problem was that Porthos thought through his eyes and through his hands, and words often came lagging and contradictory to his lips.” I did this at least once per book, but mostly when I was in his head. Because people “know” Porthos is dumb.
This is harder when you’re countering history people of the time/book couldn’t know. You often have to do stuff like “People in Europe thought all Africans were alike. In fact, there were varying degrees of civilization and accomplishment among tribes, sometimes tribes residing very close together.”
Anyway, you get my point. Now go and hang a lantern on it.
Next week: Making it fly: the trend of your world.