Making a big impression on readers of fantasy and science fiction can be pretty difficult. Impossible things, new worlds, and strange events abound, and some simply don’t have the impact their creators hoped they would. Thankfully, honing a few writing skills as well as tuning in a bit more to reality can crank up the power of these fictional elements and further suspend disbelief in the audience.
Handholds in Reality
It seems a bit strange to say a fantasy or science-fiction element can be stronger with a better dose of reality, but it’s true. The three points discussed here come from M.B. Weston’s post on writing speculative fiction. For anyone who wants deep examples and more detail on these techniques, visit her site, but be warned. This is only part of a week-long series on her blog and it could take quite awhile to get through all of it. Follow the link at the bottom of the article.
The first tip for enhancing the impact of impossible elements is: “Surround the unbelievable with the believable”. This operates on the same principle that drives the jewelry industry to display their best pieces on black velvet. A diamond necklace is smooth, shiny, and hard and those qualities show even clearer when laid on a surface that is textured, matte, and soft. An example of this in fiction can be found in a recent episode of TNT’s fantasy show, The Librarians. In this episode, a magic artifact is making fairy tales come to life. The team of fantasy investigators arrive in a small, rural town and go looking for a troll under a bridge, as in Three Billy Goats Gruff. However, instead of a picturesque footbridge from a kids’ book, the bridge is a steel commuter’s bridge with construction going on and drivers impatient to cross. This technique doesn’t always require a modern setting, all it needs is concrete detail the reader can recognize.
A second tip: “Make the unbelievable feel believable”. The key word here is “feel”. Sensory description and concrete details connect the audience with what would otherwise be dismissed as ridiculous. Continuing with examples from the fairy tale episode, the team later encounters an over-sized wolf drawn from the story Red Riding Hood. The animal is killed before it hurts anyone in the town, and the examination of it is a major plot device. The writers made sure to comment on the reality of the animal by pointing out the general weight, size, and even the strange fact that a bonnet on the wolf’s head was actually a part of the beast rather than an article of clothing. Another dose of realism came from when one team member cut open the animal to release a woman, like in the fairy tale. The sensory description and realistic touch was the ick and goo all over her.
The final note M.B. Weston shared is: “Govern the unbelievable”. Stories cannot exist without restrictions on the fiction. Rules of conduct, class, and action provide necessary obstacles to the protagonist’s goals, and without these there would be no such thing as plot. Where impossible things are concerned, governing rules make them subject to the world they live in. Everything has a weakness, and everything has needs like eating, drinking, partnering up, or defending itself. Rules allow interaction with characters and help level the playing field. The episode example follows this tip as well, and the governing power operates as the crux of the plot. The fairy tales come to life only because a magic book is being read, but the rules for the book are as follows: the person listening to the story is drained of health to fuel the living fantasies, the reader of the book gains strength the longer they read, and the longer the book is being read, the more the stories can be changed to suit the reader. Using these rules, the trickster on the team successfully defeats the villain and gets the book to the right hands.
Writing fantastic creatures, characters with special gifts, and unusual worlds is a staple of fiction. Sometimes, even non fiction writers find themselves struggling to make a surprising real life event real to readers. These tips apply to crafting any story, so give them a shot.
- Surround the unbelievable with the believable
- Make the unbelievable feel believable
- Govern the unbelievable
- Everything needs to happen for a reason
- Warning Points: Coincidence and Luck, miracles, the cavalry, Jekyll/Hyde characters
- Any unbelievable things should be negative, not spontaneously amazing
- Long stories, episodic stories with unbelievable elements that need to be fixed
- “lampshade it”; acknowledge it (Dr Who)
- “make it a mystery”; not too interesting, give a “guess”
- “use irrational actors/characters”; people don’t always make sense, use this tool
- “build on what exists”; go back and pick up the pieces you’ve accidentally dropped and extrapolate the solution