[— Karen Myers —]
As fiction writers, we are the magicians who mesmerize our audience and keep them from remarking on the improbability of finding a rabbit in the hat, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Far too often, the rabbit ends up in the wrong place and everyone notices.
When I read a work of fiction, the primary trigger for (metaphorical or real) book-flung-at-wall is being broken out of my reader’s trance. I consider that the most significant craft sin a writer can commit. To tell a story is to entrance the reader/listener, and if you can’t do that, nothing else matters. You could have a wonderful tale to unfold, with a lovely message, demonstrated by appealing characters, but if you can’t keep the reader in your story, they’ll never make it to the end.
The typical situation for me is to find myself tooling along at high speed down the prose highway on a cheery summer day, when suddenly a dark, thunderous, and outraged voice rises from my depths and declares “That’s not how that works!” and I crash to the ground and skin the palms of my hands.
Considering that my reading genre of choice is SFF (among many others), I am trained to overlook all sorts of strangenesses as part of the “given” that we grant to the genre: given that we can travel faster than light; given that magic exists; given that the fair folk (or maybe vampires) are watching us; given that dragons can interbreed with humans; given that telepathy is real; given that aliens live among us; etc. The author gets a limited set of such “givens” of their choice, as part of the world they propose. No matter how impossible/improbable they may be, that’s the given framework for the story. Them’s the rules.
Everything else, however, has to adhere to quotidian reality or internal story logic. And that’s where all the reading trance disasters occur.
Here’s my (partial) list of impossible things that throw me right out of a story. Got some more you’d care to share in the comments?
- You told us X about that character/situation just a little while ago, but you seem to have forgotten, because now it’s not-X.
- The object the character is looking for isn’t where you thoughtfully explained a few chapters ago. No, now it’s turned up somewhere else (without any outside agency).
- Wait — I thought he was dead! I mean, you threw him into a vat of acid and we heard him sizzle.
- Wait — I thought he was alive! I mean, didn’t you just show him walking around after he missed the vat of acid?
- Wait — I thought his name was _____?
- Given that Heaven has Pearly Gates™, I still have a problem with the notion that it has 24-karat gold hinges and pins. Gold’s not strong enough for that. (Yes, it could be “heavenly” super-gold, but that wasn’t given.)
- You can’t postulate a river large enough for a boat on the top of a mountain. At least, not convincingly.
- If you give your main character a prominent pet, you need to remember that it’s supposed to be alive. (The number of dogs that no author ever lets out until after a shower and breakfast is truly staggering…)
- If you’re going to use a Regency setting, you should consider that perhaps young women don’t live all by themselves in their gentry-or-better family homes without relatives or servants. Any servants.
- In a detective-procedural sort of book, I recommend not having the knowledgeable main character refer to the sight of a cartridge as a “glimpse of bronze” (vs brass).
- Knitting is not actually done on a single needle. (Yes, yes, I know, but not by conventional beginners in conventional settings not making anything circular.)
- If you set your story in a real historical period, you might want to remember that:
— Textiles are not cheap and abundant like T-shirts.
— Horses can’t be parked and forgotten.
— Saddles can’t just “fall” off without any mention of girths.
— Getting on a horse bareback from the ground is not a trivial matter, especially for the height-challenged.
— A small woman can’t pick up a military longbow and pull it to full draw.
— Not all dances are for couples and the waltz has not been around forever.
Got your own lists? Have at it in the comments!