Realism Versus Plausibility, Or Killing the Minnows

The late Gary Gygax once noted that a reader will swallow a whale but choke on a minnow. This statement strikes to the heart of the problem I have with a great deal of speculative fiction today. Far too often, writers allow these “minnows” to overrun their work and completely jar the reader out of the moment. This is particularly problematic in speculative fiction set in the real modern world, where the readers have a strong understanding of how things actually work.

I often quote Gygax when sending responses to writers in regards to submission to the Quarterly journal. More often than not, I get a reply back that is some variant of “well, it’s a fantasy! It doesn’t have to be real.” But speculative fiction has never been about writing that is realistic. It is about writing that is believable within the confines of the setting you present.

One of my favorite examples is a very talented writer named Milo James Fowler, a good-natured fellow I quite literally put through the virtual wringer on this matter. Fowler’s story, The Second Option, appeared in the July 2011 issue of the Bards and Sages Quarterly. But not before I made the poor man rewrite the story I believe three times. The story about a “Soul Smuggler” and a katana-wielding priest had a great plot and interesting characters, but it was full of crazy “minnows” that needed to be addressed. In the first rendition of the story, Fowler had the priest pulling the sword out of his pants.

Now as a speculative fiction reader, I am more than happy to accept a story about a soul-stealing immortal doing battle with a katana-wielding priest. What my head couldn’t wrap around, however, was what I call the “Highlander” problem. How in the Blue Hell was he able to walk with a katana in his pant leg?

Things like this, though seemingly innocuous, can completely throw a reader out of a story. Particularly if the reader is knowledgeable on the subject matter. Educated readers will trip over these little things that shake their ability to immerse themselves in the story.

There is no such thing as a lithium-based bullet that explodes on contact with blood. And yet this concept is one of the central plot devices in A Game of Blood. I know it is not realistic, because I did the prerequisite research on the subject to know it is not realistic. But as many readers have in their own ways acknowledged, within the confines of the setting I presented in the story, the bullets are believable.

So how does a writer take something that is completely not realistic and make it believable?

The key element is that just because you are writing speculative fiction, you can’t just ‘make it up’ as you go along. It becomes your job to set the parameters of what is and is not real in your setting. You have to define the rules of the world you are writing in, and then stick to them consistently. In the case of A Game of Blood, the bullets don’t just appear at a critical moment in the story. I set up the parameters of plausibility early in the story to ease the reader into it.

Spoiler Warning: In Chapter Three, Detective Mitch Grogan is offered a deal by his adversary, the vampire Darius Hawthorne. Hawthorne agrees to leave Mitch’s partner’s daughter alone in exchange for Mitch killing a rival vampire. When Mitch asked exactly how is he supposed to pull the assassination off, Hawthorne presents him with a “prototype” firearm designed to fire a specific type of ammunition and sets up the parameters of plausibility.

“I have an associate that is both an engineer and a chemist of no small talent. Firearms, Mitchell, are of no significant consequence to my kind. Our skin is too resilient. It merely absorbs the impact. Even the most powerful firearm is no more threatening to my kind that is a pebble thrown at you by a child.”

“You bleed,” said Mitch. “I’ve seen you.”

“That was during the day.”

“So maybe your skin doesn’t absorb so well during the day, then?”

“I am not going to engage in a lesson regarding the differences between blunt force impact and an edged weapon. Suffice it to say that, to date, bullets have generally failed to do much more than prove a nuisance to my kind.”

“To date?”

Hawthorne smiled. “As you no doubt have surmised, fire is one of the few threats my kind truly worry over. As we age, we develop some resilience to it, but it also takes us longer to fully recover from any damage that we do take.”

“That’s why you’re still here.”

Hawthorne nodded. “A younger vampire would have immediately turned to ash; its body unable to resist the flame. Now, of course, your failed attempt at burning me was sloppy. Not your fault, mind you. It was simply how the situation played itself out. The fire was weak, spread out, and I had a ready source of water to save me.”

“Your contractors did a good job repairing all the water damage,” mocked Mitch.

“Do you need some work done? I could give you their number. Though I doubt you could afford them on your salary. Back to the point; imagine a flammable substance that would produce concentrated, intense heat, but that instead of being suffocated by water, reacted violently to it. That is a substance that would fell even the most resilient vampire.”

“Mitch looked down at the gun. “What the hell is in this bullet?”

“Among other things? Lithium. Highly flammable. Reacts to water. Burns violently and intensely. My associate believes his little proprietary blend there should be stable enough for routine transport, but upon firing should have sufficient power to blow the head off of a vampire.”

“But you said your skin absorbs the impact. If the lithium is in the bullet…”

“The bullet is designed to pierce the skin, much like your armor-piercing bullets can cut through a vest. Once it has done that, the jacket should break apart and release the lithium, allowing it to react with the blood.”

“You keep saying should?”

“Well, we have not had the opportunity to test it in the field, until now.”

In the scene, the characters directly addresses the potential “minnows” that the reader might trip over and then acknowledge the potential for failure. By acknowledging that the bullets may fail it actually makes the fact that the bullets work later easy to accept within the confines of the setting.

Would these bullets pass the muster with MythBusters? I’m pretty sure the answer would be no. But the point of speculative fiction writing is not to present details that are realistic, but believable. Within the confines of the setting presented, the notion of these explosive bullets becomes plausible and allows the reader to continue engaging the story.

The key to disrupting the negative influence of minnows is to do the research to understand the actual mechanics of what you are writing about, and then to address potential conflicts between reality and your plot head-on. Know what you are talking about, and then address it within the story if you are doing something that is contrary to how your readers may understand the world.

I once had a writer submit a story to me about biology school teacher who had discovered a new animal species while traveling in South America, and the creature ended up growing to enormous size and having a taste for human flesh. I love a good old fashion monster story, but there was an enormous problem with the plot. The teacher, in a 21st Century modern world, brought the animal home with her and brought it to class.

Now anyone who has travelled by airplane in the last decade knows that you can barely bring shampoo in a travel bag. Let alone a new animal species that may be one of the last of its kind in existence! Nowhere in the story did the author provide any explanation of how this school teacher managed to convince a South American government to let her take the animal as a pet, convince an airline to allow her to have the creature on an airline, get it through Customs and Homeland Security, AND bring it to a middle school classroom for the children to play with when you can’t even have a cat in most public schools without worrying about some student’s allergies!

But the writer had not done the necessary research first to understand the logistics of what she was trying to do in the story, and when confronted with the implausibility of the chain of events replied that since it was a modern fantasy it was OK to just make it up. But while a reader is willing to accept the idea that there may be unknown and dangerous creatures lurking in the uncharted jungles of South America, nobody is going to believe you would get one pass the TSA when they block cupcakes from airplanes and require patients with colostomy bags to go through special screenings.

Now compare the story above to the movie Gremlins. You have a similar situation: a man comes across what seems to be a cute species of create called a Mogwai but it turns out to be extremely dangerous. The movie addresses the minnows early: Mr. Wing, Gizmo’s owner, doesn’t want to sell the creature and tells Peltzer it is too much of a responsibility. Peltzer obtains Gizmo because Mr. Wing’s grandson, who having been raised in America doesn’t know the cultural history behind the creature, offers to sell Gizmo out of greed. Obviously, a person who knows the dangers of a Mogwai would not sell one, but the story easily addresses how Peltzer comes into possession of Gizmo by having the uneducated grandson sneak behind Mr. Wing’s back.

It is a simple fix, but it works within the confines of the setting presented in the movie. The previously noted story might have been easily fixed by having the biology teach pay to have someone smuggle the animal across the border for her out of some misguided notion of protecting it. The animal could have followed her to school without her knowledge, inadvertently forcing her to explain what it was to the curious children before rushing it home. These would have been relatively simple fixes that would have allowed the story to progress without interruption. We can accept a smuggler willing to smuggle an illegal creature into the U.S. because we know that happens. We can accept an animal following its owner somewhere because we know animals do that sort of thing. These fixes bring the story back into the realm of plausibility so we can get back to enjoying a whale of a tale.

3 Replies to “Realism Versus Plausibility, Or Killing the Minnows”

  1. I’m a big believer in that too that you can ask the reader to suspend disbelief but only so much. Though for my superhero novel A Hero’s Journey a lot of unbelievable stuff can be explained by magic. Which is kind of a good cure-all. It doesn’t have to be realistic; it’s magic!

  2. Pingback: Worldbuilding, speculative noir and a public service announcement | Cora Buhlert