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?
The League of Extraordinary Writers is a group of debut YA authors who write science fiction and dystopian works. The ten of us have works that run the gamut of near-future mind control to far-future space travel, but they do have one thing in common: a future where the Earth we know now is twisted, gone.