Today we have a guest post from my friend Pete Sutton, a speculative author and organizer of the Bristol Festival of Literature, on a hot topic in the fantasy sci-fi world: consistent rules within a novel or a fantasy world. Thanks for being here, Pete!
All fiction is fantasy to some extent. No book is a direct, truthful representation of place, of people, of dialogue. It is all smoke and mirrors. A piece of writing is the semi-permeable membrane between the writer’s brain and the reader’s brain. The writer’s imagined world seeps slowly (at variable reading speeds) into the reader’s imagination. Creating a jointly constructed story. For, to be certain, the reader is doing a lot of the heavy lifting with their imagination. You as a writer may say – “The church was tall, casting chilly shadows across the cobbled square, its spire like a hand reaching out to try and touch God” but rest assured that the reader will fill this in with their idea of what such a church looks like and their idea of what such a cobbled square would look like.
This is why Verisimilitude is a tricky beast. Your concept of what is plausible, may not be the same as the readers. Your mental construct of the world may be different to theirs. One thing that should be easy though is internal consistency, believability within the framework of the story. You can set up a world where school children ride broom sticks and throw spells about but as long as the world appears to have rules that are consistently adhered to then actions within those rules become plausible.
An example – in Star Trek: Into Darkness (spoilers) Khan teleports from Earth to the Klingon planet in one scene. In a later scene the transporter will not transport men from one spaceship to another which is within sight because “there is too much debris in the way”. There is a fundamental inconsistency here that is not addressed. You, as the viewer are left with forming an opinion why it would work in one situation but not another, ignore the inconsistency or be annoyed that the scriptwriters were too lazy to create plausibility within the rules of their created world.
Readers will swallow implausible things e.g. in this world magic exists. But not a whole slew of them, not if the world of the book doesn’t seem to have rules. “That makes no sense” is not a reaction you want from your readers!
Description is not the truth, but a representation of a true or imaginary place. Dialogue is not the truth, but a semblance of how real people speak. Plot is not truth, but an approximation of how one thing followed another. And yet, stories have a deeper truth to tell us.
Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot. Neil Gaiman – The Sandman Volume 3: The Dream Country.
I write stories that I usually describe as “the present, but with a speculative twist.” I seldom write second world stuff, or historical, or flat out futuristic. Although there are some of my stories that would fit that mould. I try to stay internally consistent (and hope for some success in that endeavour) and a couple of my stories scratch at the deeper truth (when I’m not trying to be creepy, or funny, or both). I am at the beginning of my journey to find that deeper truth but it is one that I feel all storytellers should strive for.
Pete Sutton is one of the organisers of Bristol Festival of Literature and community engagement manager for Vala coop.
He has stories published online at 1000 words, Hodderscape, Visual Verse & elsewhere and on paper in Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion, which you can hear dramatized here. He is editor of Far Horizon Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @Suttope and read his blog.