Look at a hill. A gorge. A plain. You see… let me guess, a hill, a gorge, or a plain, depending on which one you happen to look at. Unless, that is, there are further features… like, for example, forest. Then you see… the forest, possibly with hints of what lies under that cloak — if you happen to be high enough to look at the trees from above. Otherwise, you see trees. Trust me on this, I have been searching for lost people in dense forest. What looks fairly level from the outside may be full of hidden structures. Or a heavy mist… The hill sticks out (if you’re high enough to see it) but the plain and the gorge vanish. You find the gorge by falling into it.
But even if you strip the cloaks away, what you see… is superficiality. Some of us are quite content with that. There are the audiences who are happy with that. They exist, the mainstream media exists because they exist. So do some successful authors. The cognitive dissonance of a hill or a gorge in the middle of a vast plain never occur to them. Now there are reasons, possible, for both. To those of us who like it to make some kind of sense, some grasp of that reason has to be there, or well, we’re not going to believe it. And if a reader (or viewer) suspends disbelief, they begin to nitpick as to why they have done so. Tryingly, they don’t just stick to whatever popped that bubble of belief in the first place, but pick on everything. Your narrative, for them anyway, is toast. Nothing really survives that sort of scrutiny. Perhaps someone needs to explain this to CNN’s board when they ask why audiences are declining steadily.
Let’s face it, any work of fiction (so that often includes ‘news’ these days), is… duh… fiction. The metaphorical ‘hills, plains and gorges’ are there because we want them to be, for purposes of our story, not necessarily because of the underlying ‘geomorphology’. Of course many a smart author has ‘borrowed’ from the real world existing ‘geomorphology’ and merely added plausible small fictions… or even large fictions.
Because here’s the thing, that hill, gorge, or plain exist plausibly as features of the underlying strata. Sometimes even the geologist is going to look at them in puzzlement, but enough cores, examining the surrounding countryside and experience, explains why they’re there (if they’re real, that is. Or if you want me not to suspend my disbelief). Of course… that’s farce-about-ace to what geologists really do with surface features. They’re using them to tell them that hidden story. That, unsurprisingly, is what many authors do too: in fact with both reinforcing each other. The problem of course is when your surface feature (or story) makes no sense to its setting. You have a Silbury Hill sitting on chalk plain. Now Silbury Hill is explainable enough. People piled up a lot of dirt. We have no idea why or who made the Neolithic people perform a truly astounding amount of labor. But no one looking at Silbury Hill just thinks it an ordinary hill.
In story terms, this is typically a feature of someone writing about something they know nothing about, except perhaps some stereotypes that they want to believe – the equivalent of ‘all of Africa is full of cannibals, whose favorite meal is boiled missionary’. Might have worked in 1880 in Europe, but is not going to be believed by many Africans (Cannibalism, in South Africa, anyway, possibly did occur… in extremely rare instances. It is regarded as utter depravity and with horror by both the Zulu and Sotho).
Now: sometimes the author WANTS a Silbury Hill. Something the reader knows automatically isn’t congruent with what they’d expect – and as often as not, the story is about how/why that got there. The character is black in 122AD Northern England… if it doesn’t throw you out of story you might get to reading about a Legionary from Nubia or even Ethiopia who had found his way there. If the author is being a PC ass who wants the obligatory black hero without the context of the Roman Empire… there goes your suspension of disbelief. It is very important to work these things in carefully, establishing underlying substructure (at least in foreshadowing) before you do this.
But really, books that stick with me, anyway, are not just books that tell a story – that is vital – but books that let you look into the underlying ‘story’ keep you thinking about them, remembering them for ages. Books where it’s a little more than ‘Character X is in a situation Y and does Z.’ might (or not) be entertaining. But the book where I find myself carried with the story have Character X is who he is because of ABC. In situation Y the effects of ABC in situation Y make him choose to do Z. Of course if your Character X is a missionary-eating black cannibal (or whatever stereotype that I know to massively unlikely) I’m never going to read as far as Z.
Make your under-layer feel real. Use reality if possible. If you’re writing a neurotic cat woman, work out (plausibly for your audience) why she’s like that. She doesn’t just exist in vacuum. Show foreshadowing and hints of it, if it is not going to be a hill where you expect a hill to be. You don’t have to show me entire backstory (you need to know that to make her behave consistently, but I only need know it exists and keeps the behavior to plausible pattern),