Believability and the Reader’s Representative

I’m at 4th Street Fantasy Convention this weekend. In a panel last night, there was a discussion about suspension of disbelief. One technique mentioned (by Scott Lynch) was “lampshading,” in which the author, knowing that they’re taking extreme liberties with the laws of physics, or medicine, or whatever, has a character point out the discrepancy so that someone else can confess that they also have no clue how it works, or say, “oh yeah, we found a way around that.” Or in some other way indicate that the author is aware of the problem, and that it’s part of the fantastic premise, not a mistake.

This, it seems to me, is a subset of a more general technique for addressing issues of plausibility – communicate to the reader that you haven’t dropped the ball, by having someone in the story raise the reader’s objection. Then dismiss it, as in the lampshading technique, or deal with it.

For instance, someone else asked about elements which readers will disbelieve even though they’re factual. TV and movies have trained people into unrealistic expectations of the effectiveness of gun silencers, crime labs, and the ease of opening electronic locks. Ancient Roman statuary was brightly painted. And so on. You have to decide whether you want to take time out from your story to fight this battle. Do we include something we know is inaccurate but that people will believe, or just omit that element so as to not have to deal with it? Or do we plunge in and try to correct the misconception? Or hope we’ve established enough authority that the reader will believe?

I think there’s another way. Use the silencer, but have someone else there (besides the shooter, who already knew, and the shootee, who has other concerns) to comment, “Wow, I thought silencers worked a lot better than that.” To which the shooter might reply, “Yeah, you watch too much TV.” No further explanation needed. If the reader’s really curious they can look it up, and meanwhile, it doesn’t look like the author made a mistake. The reader isn’t broken out of the narrative (unless they choose to go consult wikipedia immediately) and their confidence in the author is increased rather than damaged.

Or, if someone behaves totally out of character, you have to decide whether you’ve established sufficient trust as an author to say nothing about it and explain it later (and you’d better do that), or whether you need to show that you realize there’s a problem. Sam, always polite to everyone, is terribly rude to the jeweler. You know why; the reader doesn’t. So maybe someone else on the scene who knows Sam, remarks on it. “Wow, what was that about?”

Of course, you have to be careful not to make matters worse by having a character whose obvious purpose is to shill for the author. To make this work, the situation has to be such that there can naturally be a character who would be puzzled by whatever puzzled the reader.

We also don’t want an “As you know, Bob,” moment. That’s why I think immediately explaining the inconsistency, as opposed to just noting it, is usually a mistake.

So to summarize, the “Reader’s Representative” technique (my term) has three variants, at least:

  1. Lampshading, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem, which you claim as part of your allowed quota of pretend play.

  2. The Promissory Note, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem and you mean to explain later — then you’d better not forget to do that.

  3. The Gentle Correction, in which you show that you know the reader might take issue with what just happened, but they’re wrong and they should look it up if it’s going to bother them.

But don’t do this unless you need it. If you’ve done your homework and shown that you really know weapons, then describe one that works in a way the reader didn’t expect, they’ll likely go along with it. It’s hard to know when you’ve established that credibility, but that’s where beta readers come in.


Believability and the Reader’s Representative — 5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Believability and the Reader’s Representative | Tyler Tork

    • Thanks for the thoughtful post, Tyler. I think you’ve presented a nice categorization of the problem of presenting things to the reader that they are quite likely to take issue with, and leave the story.

      There was quite a debate around the notion of what is “right” in a given context. Several people used vampires and the “well known” vampire characteristics to indicate how “sparkly” vampires just went too far. For readers who aren’t familiar with the canon, that might not be a problem. In fact, it can start a whole new branch of the canon that is “wrong” from some other readers’ perspectives.

      Do you have an opinion about going against a trope with a new “fact” or behavior that perhaps suits your story better than the standard? Would you apply one of the same three methods? It feels to me that you could use them quite nicely, even in this case.

  2. I’ve been watching “Penny Dreadful” on Showtime, a pastiche mixing Victorian horror story characters with a few real people. There are two main characters who hold the narrative threads together have been very mysterious about their past until the middle of the season. The expository episode was one of the best I’ve seen in the series and I wish the writers had simply started the story with this episode at the beginning. As much as I liked the extensive flashbacks, I hated the device framing them: a character writing a letter to another character that talks about all the events that happened prior to the series start. Annoyingly, the recipient of the letter was a part of those events so already knew them and the writer knew that she was never going to send the letter anyway. It just seemed like such an elaborate ploy in order to carry on a non-linear storyline.

    I know your post refers more to information about hardware or technology etc than plot exposition. I agree with about the homework – that’s why you have to talk to experts as part of your research – although that can backfire too so it might be best to talk to more than one. (Withholding a lengthy anecdote here.)

    • That’s interesting, but not an example of what I’m talking about. You might take that as a jumping-off point for a separate post, about ways to fill in background information. The “Penny Dreadful” example sounds like how not to do it; overly transparent.
      I for one would be interested in the lengthy anecdote (though if it’s about how not to do research, it might be yet another post!)

  3. I can’t agree more: research, research, research. I figure I do about two hours of research for every hour of first-draft writing. That way when I put the lampshade on my head, I’m still wearing pants. My current effort is SF, and as a non-scientist, I spend a LOT of time determining how things work, doing a lot of tedious math, etc. But if a reader wants to doubt my figures (such as how long it takes a falling object to reach terminal velocity when falling from and exo-atmospheric craft, depending on the atmospheric density and the shape and density of the falling object) let them give it a try. One recent such problem, falling under category three, is the very here-and-now yet practically unbelievable capabilities of a scramjet-powered aircraft. (In case you’re wondering: it can conceivably be dropped from an orbiting vessel and reach ignition airspeed without any fuel assist, so that it doesn’t need ANY fuel on board, and can then circumnavigate the Earth in about forty minutes. Is that cool, or what?) Just because I’m not a scientist doesn’t mean I can’t love science!