Handling the Baggage


But that’s the way it works. That’s how it would happen.

We’ve all said that at one time or another as writers. An editor or critique reads our carefully researched darling of an idea or scene and tells us that it’s not believable. Or it didn’t happen that way. And we want to drag out our piles of research and rub their noses in it. Or we just want to write the naysayers off as being too thick to get it and go on our merry way.

But we can’t do that. Our job as fiction writers isn’t telling the truth. Our job is creating the appearance of truth, aka verisimilitude. If the readers don’t get it, then we’re the ones being thick.

So, how do we get them to get it?

Readers of any age come into a story with some baggage, some preconceptions about how the world works. Readers of science fiction and dystopia already have ideas—from movies, TV, and other books—of what, for instance, a post-plague world might look like. They’re generally willing to suspend disbelief—until they encounter something that doesn’t jive with their preconceptions, until they run over the baggage-shaped speed bump in the road through your story.

What do we do? We writers either have to cleverly convince the readers the story could happen that way or remove the speed bumps that jostle them out of the story.

I know of two strategies to do this:

(1) Take it out. Do you really need the detail? Although you did the research, you don’t need to include everything. Don’t fall in love with a detail or even an idea. (I do this all the time.) Is it critical to the story? If not, maybe you don’t need it. If this one thing that’s not critical to the story trips up your readers, then axe it.

(2) Debunk the popular wisdom. Use the truth to give the story even more authenticity. The best example I’ve heard to explain this strategy is from another genre—mystery. (And I’m going to steal shamelessly from a class I took from Michaela Roesner years ago.)

Let’s say you’re writing a scene where your protagonist has to identify a body at a small town morgue. Being a stickler for authenticity, you visit your local medical examiner, and she tells you no one ever identifies the body by actually looking at it. They use dental records, finger prints, and DNA testing. As a last resort, they might show a photo of the deceased to his or her family. And you find out most morgues are like that. So you write your scene in which the hero is shown a photo, but your editor later says it’s not believable. On TV or in movies, they always get to see the body.

But that's the way it works, you want to tell her.

Now what? Let's say the scene is crucial to your story, so you keep it. How do you make the truth believable? You could have your protagonist storming in, demanding to see the body. Then the disgruntled medical examiner could quip something like “What do you think this is? CSI: Miami? Those TV guys have ruined this profession.” In a few lines, you’ve turned the reader’s preconception on its ear--plus you've given them the feeling that now they're going to hear how it really works.

Can you guys think of other strategies you’ve used or read to create the appearance of truth? Also, what particular "baggage" do young adults (and adults) bring into dystopian fiction? Do teens bring fewer preconceptions just because they're younger? Or do they just have a different set of luggage than we adults?

9 comments:

LM Preston said...

Setting up the parameters for a viable and believable environment for your story is what sets the stage for making it believable.

Angie said...

Thanks, LM. Yes, that sets the stage. However, sometimes that's not quite enough.

Bittersweet Fountain said...

I think to a certain extent, teens bring fewer preconceptions just because they aren't as set in their ways. That being said, when I was a teen oh so many years ago (ok, it's only been three years), I was fantastic at ignoring what authors told me in favor of my preconceived notion. Example: JK Rowling clearly describes Dumbledore as having long hair and a beard he can tuck in his belt. Long-haired, bearded men didn't fit into my idea of the world so I always imagined him as clean shaven with short hair. Seeing Dumbledore in the first movie was something of a shock for me.

And even as a teen, I was a stickler for accurate science. Every time I watched a SF movie and there was sound in space I would cringe and want to yell, "Space is empty! How can you have sound?? Do your research!!!" (Seriously, it's like 7th grade science).

Laura Marcella said...

Interesting topic! Great example; I never really thought about it like that before. Thanks for the tip and reminder about creating the appearance of truth!

Three Turtles and Their Pet Librarian said...

Yesterday we were reading a Noah's Ark story, and I mentioned that there were actually seven of each kind of animal on the ark (look it up). The kids were fine with that shift to their knowledge, the adults were horrified (not by my mention of the Bible in public, but by the number change). Some things (like the body at the morgue) are so firmly imbedded in our brains as things we KNOW to be true, we take it personally when we hear differently. I am still trying to recover from finding out Lincoln did NOT write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope.

Elana Johnson said...

Excellent tips! For me, the easiest thing to do is take it out. I'm a huge deleter, and if something isn't making sense and I can't figure out how to get the point across succinctly, I just cut it. It's usually just fine, in the end.

beth said...

I'm reminded of Stephen Colbert's word, "Truthiness" with this one :)

Me? I like your method of explaining it away, but I do tend to just cut it more often than not.

Angie said...

Yes, we are in the business of Truthiness! I'm becoming more of a deleter myself. I'm finding that even if you have this amazing backstory about tensions between the characters all worked out, but it doesn't ultimately serve the story, you gotta let go of it.

3 Turtles - I did not know that about Noah!

Bittersweet - I am with you on the science bit. In space, no one can hear your ship swoosh by.

Jean said...

"Don’t fall in love with a detail or even an idea. (I do this all the time.)" Oh, I know. I frequently come up with a word or phrase that I try to painfully squeeze in simply because I've fallen in love with it!

Regarding the Noah's Ark comment: To be strictly accurate, both two and seven are correct. "Of every clean beast you must take to yourself by sevens ... and of every beast that is not clean just two, the sire and its mate."