Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A word at a time: Intro

They say to write about what one knows! It’s a good advice.
Personally, I think it’s a better idea to write about what no-one knows!

Actually, if you analyze the past two sentences, you’ll notice they are not quite the opposite. In fact they both appeal to one thing: write about something that others cannot prove you wrong.
It’s true, if an historian writes about ancient Egypt, then there is a good chance he knows what he’s talking about and at most some other will disagree in a point that has never been fully proved, which brings us back to the second sentence: they disagree about what no-one knows, and therefore the historian did not, technically, made a mistake.

Now you can argue that what he could actually have done was a “suspension of belief”, that is intentionally telling a lie in the attempt to improve the story he was telling. We’ll be back at this shortly.

The point is that the first sentence works well, but only for specialists. You can argue that non-specialists can do research, but that either means they become specialists or, very likely, will get something wrong.
The second sentence gives you a lot of freedom, since it is much less restrictive than the first. There are shades of grey between the two, of course, but those would need a post all for themselves.

This is why I think fantasy to be a great genre to write about, because you set upfront that whatever you write will be set in a world that we have no knowledge about and therefore there is nothing you can’t justify (even if the explanation is “magic” you’re still right), but overall any type of speculative fiction possess these possibilities.

However, even in the more mundane types of fiction the second sentence usually takes priority over the first. A good example is love stories!
What do I mean with “love stories”? Well, how many of you know exactly how a relation is supposed to go? Anyone...? No-one…? Oh wait, you in the back! Oh! You just want to go to the bathroom. Second door on the right!
Most love stories usually include someone doing something that no-one in their right mind would do, but that doesn’t mean that someone wouldn’t do it. You can say it never happened, but you can’t prove someone wasn’t disposed to do it.

Suspension of belief is a sort of grey area, it usually involves things that can be proved wrong but that people accept in the context of the story. Like a fictional street on a real city or the ability to clone dinosaurs. However the use of suspension of belief must be used with some care.
While you can justify basically anything in a fictional world, even the most ludicrous things, with a bit of story development and good sense, suspension of belief usually implies the reader (or viewer or whatever) knowing that things are wrong. In fact, one can say that suspension of belief follows a normal curve in which the left side represents what’s too ridiculous to accept and the right side what’s not ridiculous enough to know it’s wrong. The height of the curve represents the amount of acceptance.
What this means is that people are willing to accept an otherwise normal people would survive an explosion, but wouldn’t accept the same person surviving a meteor strike.
Similarly if I said Nero burned Rome was I telling the truth or not? Most people are willing to accept this to be true, however there is no proof that he did and in fact is rather unlikely. This type of suspension of belief can be dangerous if not used with care.

I intend to make “A word at a time” a regular feature of this here blog, focusing with each post a different aspect of story writing. Obviously it will be a personal account, so you’re free to disagree and comment.

See you next time!

Edit: It has been called to my attention that it appears I consider fantasy superior to what I call "mundane". This is not true! I simply meant that I find it easier to write for the first. I used mundane to describe stories that generally take place in the "real world" and not, as it might seem, to describe common literature.


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