because writers are curious

In fiction, can you break the laws of nature? Which ones and how do you know when you deserve to break the law?

Have you ever read a scene in a story that made you say, “But you can’t do that!” and the story is then ruined? Why did you feel that way? Have you ever read a scene in a story that also broke the laws of the possible, and you fell in love with the story instead? What was the difference?

6 thoughts on “because writers are curious

  1. Loved that video.

    There’s a “standard rule,” isn’t there?, which says that fiction needs to make sense even though real life needn’t.

    I can’t think of any specific examples but I’ve experienced both the “you can’t do that!” and the “how cool — you did that!” moments in reading. What’s interesting (well, to me) is when you encounter the former reaction in reading fantasy or SF, where you can take for granted that at least some Laws of Nature are going to be broken. You read the Harry Potter books and don’t even wince, just marvel, as the kids get to the train at Track 9-3/4 by plunging into the brick column.

    And from a certain perspective, pretty much by definition all fiction is “But that’s not the way it IS” experiences, hmm?

    I’m gonna need to think about this some more.

  2. As someone who reads and writes a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and all sorts of “unreality,” I have the answer to this.

    What is required here is INTERNAL consistency. A story must follow it’s own rules. If we set up a world to be much like this one, then we can’t introduce magic without also introducing an alternate reality to explain it… or some sort of scientific basis for it, or some sort of lost god theory– or whatever, there just has to be a rule to explain it.

    And just because your setting is fantastical and you have wizards and/or superheroes does not mean you can do anything you want. In fact, you might have to adhere to the laws of your universe even more closely to avoid losing your reader’s suspension of disbelief. Let’s say your world is a world of vampires driven by a hunger that is part of the curse that makes them a vampire, and they are ravenous beasts for the first year of their vampiric lives. If then the heroine becomes a vampire, and is composed enough in her first week to sit down and have tea with her non vampire father without ripping him apart and sucking his blood… then we have a problem. The simple solution to that, uhm… hypothetical situation… would be to set the heroine up earlier with a sort of other worldly self restraint or a wildly powerful intrapersonal wisdom. If the girl is set up as some ordinary, regular girl, then this magic vampire power makes no sense… within the crepuscular world as written.

    The rule is: follow your own rules.

  3. I kinda like what Rowena said. But I’m not sure internal consistency is the only sort required.

    Example: the WIP has five(ish) chapters spread throughout the book which are almost historical fiction, taking place in 18th-century England and Wales. A character in these chapters walks from his home in mid-Wales to London, and then a few years later walks back again.

    Now, is it important to know how long it would take him to walk that distance? Is it a big deal if I get it wrong?

    The guy is a brewer’s apprentice for five years, with the idea that he can move up to journeyman status and then become a full-fledged brewmaster. I’d previously determined that apprenticeships at this time and place averaged about five years, so that’s good, right? But then I come across a passage in what is supposedly THE definitive reference book on life in 18th-century London, which says that brewers didn’t employ apprentices in the normal way — with an eye to their becoming journeymen. Uh-oh. Is this a problem? If a knowledgeable reader comes across this misstep, will it lower his regard for the book? Should I care?

    These are all tough questions. Leave it to you to ask ’em. 🙂

  4. I will never look at lamp light or waves the same way again. that was beautiful.

    Where do you find this great stuff? I mean BESIDES YouTube.

    Um, and, ditto on everything Rowena said. (with an enclosed giggle for a fellow Twilight fan – I SO know what you mean.)

  5. Sophie, I found this video because I subscribe to the RadioLab podcast and they sent it to me. I LOVE RadioLab–it makes me wonder why I failed (or almost failed) every science class I ever took. I don’t remember how I found RadioLab.

    rowena and JES, I suppose I asked this question because the impossible happens in my novel and I wonder how believable it is. Of course some readers refuse to accept anything that isn’t actually possible and would never give any story with a vampire or magic teenage boy the time of day.

  6. I think there is also the element of: how much do you motivate the reader with preparation to want to believe it? How much is in it for the reader to go along with the fantasy or the magic with hints and build-up? Are you offering a fun ride, like at the amusement park? Are you offering magical realism? Have you introduced hints of the impossible early enough in the story to show the reader that this is no ordinary story in no ordinary universe? I don’t think you can just break the rules of nature out of nowhere in an ordinary story in an ordinary world. You have to drop breadcrumbs along the way or the reader will not suspend disbelief for the writer, will feel misled, like you didn’t prepare the stage well-enough. Part of it, too, is in the voice.

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