Nano Tip #11: Passages of Disbelief

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.

See you in two days! In the meantime, don’t forget to check out Justine’s tip tomorrow. And if you haven’t already, click here to buy Leviathan, or grab it at your local bookstore.

41 thoughts on “Nano Tip #11: Passages of Disbelief

  1. For my NaNoWriMo novel, I pulled a #2, started after the POD. Really, the whole thing started with a single scene. Might still have to write some POD, not sure how I want to deal with that in this draft.

  2. That is really good advice! (I’ve said that like a million times this month, but it is really good advice!) I try to use original ideas in my writing, but more often, I find myself using ideas from my favorite authors and molding them into my own idea. 😀

  3. Whoa, it’s like you read my mind or something! I’ve been struggling on this for days while working on my nanowrimo. Thank you so much for the tips!

  4. nice advice.

    most of my writings are set in “open fantasies” as you call them, however.

    still, if I branch out {I oughta one day}, I’ll keep this in mind.

  5. My PODs always suck hard. Or I just give up before I reach them, because I know they’ll suck hard. thanks for the advice!

  6. I always think about this….I think you’ve mentioned it before? Don’t remember where. Just the fact that SO MANY books, tons of my favorites, have “WHAT!?!?!? Such and such is real?????” moments. I sort of like worlds where everybody already knows…..but I’ve used both. Thanks for the tip!

  7. isnt today the 11th? anyways; i havent been on here for three days [which to me seems like an eternity] because ive been trying out for basketball and made the team!!
    i just felt like saying that but anyways good advice scott-la(:

  8. Some really great advice. Thanks also for the great press for my forthcoming book: AVWP (Alien Vampire Werewolves from Poughkeepsie).

  9. I *hate* writing Passages of Disbelief. Hate hate hate. They’re where everything I wrote when I was twelve stalled, because even then I was so unbelievably bored with them and sure of the fact that I’d have a much better reaction if I discovered something that awesome, but they still felt obligatory. Nowadays I tend to go more for the “already knows” or, when forced, trying to at least have them deal with the revelation in an interesting and non-long-and-whiny way…

  10. Too bad the only real solution to PODs is writing open worlds, because I can barely stand reading those, let alone writing them. It’s a completely selfish distaste and I admit it… I want secret magical underworlds, not boring everyone knowing! I’m elitist like that.

  11. Interesting. In your essay you write about how things go back to normal at the end but what i’ve realized is that it is unbelievable in a way and instead there should be a realization time in that we are able to see how the society is impacted by the revelation. But also books with the secret world of magic and that stuff can work as well like in Harry Potter the wizard world and the “muggle” world seldom mixed and when they did it wasn’t very big and just passed. This type of thing leaves a sort of suspense as well as the ability to avoid a POD moment.

  12. great advice ^_^ all of my writing is weird and ive been having trouble with POD’s recently but now im off to write until my fingers catch fire. *is stupid, but what can you do?*

  13. Well since I’m writing in an open fantasy world (kinda? There are two main races and my character doesn’t know much about the other? Plus the majority of people have no idea what “Earth” is?) and it’s a someone goes on an adventure story I feel thoroughly cliched tonight. But I would rather do world building than trying to set a story in this world, I just don’t know enough cool places around me to justify trying to set an entire fantasy novel there.

  14. Or use the Meyer approach: have your character act totally unsurprised/unafraid/unrealistic/happy about the discovery.

  15. I will make a completely unrelated comment and say that I loved your ceiling projections at Books of Wonder yesterday and I’m very much looking forward to reading Leviathan. Thanks!

  16. Ah-ha! This suggestion touched exactly on the point I am leading up to in my story… unfortunately, I am not too sure I have been completely new and exciting and original for POINT 3 to work. But, I bet I can work that out in the rewriting, so we will see what happens there.

    Thanks for the tips! They have helped keep me motivated. As have Justine’s.

  17. “Or use the Meyer approach: have your character act totally unsurprised/unafraid/unrealistic/happy about the discovery.”

    ping @ Name-la —> ya made my day ^_^

  18. yeah… I typically like “open fantasies”

    but then like I mentioned a blog post or so ago, I discovered Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.

    and I finished the first two mad quick… now I need Glass… but my scool lib doesn’t have it… hopefully the local lib does

  19. I started reading the essay you linked to but I had to stop to burst out laughing here:

    In C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, at least one of the kids, George, grows up to “remember” that his trips to Narnia were all a game. He manages to enter adulthood only by repressing the fantasies of childhood. Only they weren’t fantasies; they were alien realities! (Naturally, he’s the one who winds up with the best-paying job.)


    A well-paying job?

    Er… You haven’t actually read any of the Narnia books, have you?

  20. ping to nckryves: Yeah, I noticed that one too, Susan forgets in the end (although there is hope that she will remember and believe again one day) in order to be more adult like. Actually, can’t remember any characters named George in the series.
    and a ping to julie-wa: One of the reasons I loved the Mortal Instruments was because even though it was a “closed fantasy” it was written in the way that a lot of other modern dark fairy tales could fit into the same world, that’s what really made me love them.

  21. I’ve noticed it’s extremely hard to try to make the character surprised for something that you (the author) knew was going to happen all along. So when my character discovers something huge about her past, I try to give her a big reaction along with some disbelief. But it’s hard to tell when that disbelief starts to melt into acceptance. I don’t know. It’s tricky, pulling twists like that, but not because it’s hard to come up with them – because it’s hard to make your character believe it’s really happening, and then make sure that character accepts it enough for the story to continue. *long sigh*
    I like these tips. It encourages me to keep writing. 83,500 words! My goal is about 100,000…But we’ll just see how the story ends.

  22. I might be super late to the party, but I just read your essay on Buffy (and speculative fiction) and LOVED it. I had forgotten just how good Buffy was; plus you explained why!

    Independently of that, I’ve also been dying to read your books (the Uglies series in particular) and will get on that ASAP.

    In the meantime I was going to read your blog. But you don’t have an RSS feed?! This makes the baby unicorns cry, and their tears become asteroids that rain down destruction on planets far far away. Why, why do you do this to the unicorns and the far away planets? :'(

    Please get an RSS feed! (Or point me to it, if I’m just a moron that couldn’t find it.) Your wife has one! Thanks!

  23. have i mentioned how totally fawesome the artwork for leviathan it? the detail is amazing! props to the illustrator.

  24. Currently working on a story where the protag IS already part of the supernatural world and she’s trying to come out to her best friend (who is not). I’m working on a mixture of humor and subversion of expectation, because the PoD still has yet to arrive for one character…just not the protag.

    (I had a writing class with Nick Mamatas, and he said when writing urban fantasy with magical types running amok, you’ve got two types of setups, Concealed and Revealed. Buffy operates in a Concealed world whereas Sookie operates in a Revealed.)

  25. name-la
    3 people’s day.
    unlike that series, scott’s books tend to have a lot of “holy crap look what’s happening” (mouth falls open) moments

    nice buffy essay
    (it was the best, smart, very funny, and sensitive show ever on tv)

  26. When read a POD, I need to disbelieve along with the character. That’s probably one of the telling points of a book. Bad POD, most likely not an interesting read.

    P.S. I just finished reading Skinned by Robin Wasserman. I thought it was a cross between Uglies (Yay Scott!) and Feed (M.T. Anderson). Scott-la was even quoted on the cover!!

  27. Four! Whoot! Feels like an MLIA post coming on: “Today, I realised that I had made 4 people’s days. It made mine.”
    Get way to happy over it, but many people fail to realise my wry humour.

  28. With all due respect, I disagree that it’s wasted ink if your story isn’t literally freaking your reader out…but that’s just me, as long as it keeps the reader entertained and interested.

    Also, I am an empathetic person, so PODs are easy for me, it’s what happens after that I find difficult. “Filler” is my other difficult part…but I’m reading these tips backwards…this is where I started, I’ll see if I can find any other help ones 🙂

  29. I’m way late to this, but for me the most important thing with PODs is that the response has to be realistic. Most people wouldn’t say, “Oh look, there are vampires.” and be used to it just like that. Nobody wants to read for very long about someone’s shock and disbelief unless that’s a major point of the story, but for me books lose points when the POD is basically a non-event.

  30. OK wat about 2 say might make me seem like a crazed fan BUT u have2 make the UGLIES serious into a movie using some of the songs from KE$HA’s cd ANIMAL. I’M tellin u think about ur books and listen to the cd UGLIES AND PRETTIES mite only go with it but neways making this movie cud b a hit like TWILIGHT u can make millions. i just want to see them turned into movies that would be so cool

  31. I’ve read several good stuff here. Definitely worth bookmarking for revisiting. I wonder how much effort you put to make such a great informative website.

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