Welcome to another tip for all you NaNoWriMo-ers out there. I’ll be dolling out writing advice every odd-numbered day of November, and Justine will take on the even-numbered days. Don’t forget to check out Justine’s tip from yesterday, about not skipping the tricky parts.
But before I get started, you might be interested in this essay by me on John Scalzi’s site, the Whatever. It’s about working on Leviathan with Keith, and about illustrated books in general.
It also reveals a delicious new piece of art from Leviathan, so let me repost it here:
This is the captain of the Leviathan in his office, and that’s Deryn saluting. Notice the nautilus-shell theme running throughout the picture. Keith and I decided early on that all the Darwinist designs would echo living creatures, even furniture and jewelry. (Check out the captain’s cufflinks and hat.) Clanker design is, of course, very different, with everything echoing machines and mechanical parts. Not just two sides at war, but two aesthetics!
Okay, now onto the Nano Tip . . .
Let’s talk about “Passages of Disbelief.” That’s my own pet name for the part of a fantasy (or horror, or sf, or whatever) where the main character realizes that paranormal stuff is happening. The part where they say to themselves, “Holy crap! Vampires (or elves, or aliens, or whatever) are REAL!”
Passages of Disbelief (PODs) can be very problematic for a writer for the following reasons:
1) The average fantasy reader had already read dozens of PODs. Hundreds of them. We are bored with them.
2) The reader already knows that vampires, aliens, or whatever are real in the fictional world, because they read the back of the book. It’s not news.
3) If vampires really did turn out to be real, most people’s reaction would be to say, “Holy crap, just like in [insert name of fictional vampire franchise].” And there’s something unsatisfying about characters in books referencing other books of the same genre. Like when people in bad sf movies say, “Wow, this is like something out of a bad science fiction movie.”
Now, obviously there are many so-called “open fantasies.” In True Blood, everyone knows there are vampires. In Lord of the Rings, everyone knows there are elves. So if you simply decide to write an open fantasy, you can skip the POD.
But sometimes you want the fantastical elements of your story need to be “closed,” hidden from the world at large, mysterious and amazing. So how do you deal with PODs in an artful and interesting way?
Well, you can always steal tricks from other people. I’ve written a whole essay about how PODs work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (You can read the essay online this week for free. It’s from an old anthology by SmartPop, who are the publishers of Mind-Rain.)
To make your thievery easy, here are the most common tricks for Passages of Disbelief:
One: Use Humor
Comedy can make a POD into something new and hilarious. You can take advantage of your readers’ familiarity with POD scenes, by taking their expectations and subverting them.
But this approach has a big problem: many, many writers have already done it. (See my Buffy essay above.) You will have to work hard to top them, and not sound like someone telling an over-familiar joke.
Two: Start Your Story After the POD
If your character has already been recruited into the alien-slaying guild before the first page, then there’s no need for a POD. You just start out with your character explaining alien slaying to the reader in a matter-of-fact-way.
Sure, a quick flashback to the day your protag first learned about the Secret Alien Invasion might be warranted at some point, but that’s much less onerous than a whole real-time scene.
The problem here is that in a closed fantasy, you’ll eventually run into a secondary character’s POD. Like, when your alien-slayer’s boyfriend (or mom, or parole officer) finds out about the aliens. Then you’ll have to deal with it anyway!
So here’s the ultimate answer the POD problem:
Three: Make Sure Your Ideas Are Mind-Boggingly Original
Here’s the thing: If you’re original enough, your reader will ALSO be going through a Passage of Disbelief along with the character. Whatever they’ve read on the back of the book or heard from friends will pale in comparison to your brilliant new take on fantasy. And they will NOT be bored.
Instead of saying, “Here we go again,” they’ll be shrieking, “Holy crap! Alien vampire werewolves from Poughkeepsie! I never saw that coming!”
I’m afraid that this little trick the only real answer to PODs. In a world swimming with paranormal stories, if you aren’t genuinely freaking your reader out, your main character’s little freak out will only be so much wasted ink.