Here’s a story I’ve seen a few times in my slush reading for Stupefying Stories. A few times; you have to know already that’s a bad sign. It goes something like this. Suddenly, for no reason, some miraculous and silly thing happens to everyone in the world – for example, everyone suddenly grows a second head. We then have about three paragraphs each about how this affects various people. Some consequences are tragic. Some are slapstick. There’s no explanation of how any of this happened.
I can understand the attraction; it’s fun to think about what would happen if…. The problem is that it’s only fun for the author. Being told about what would happen if, isn’t entertaining.
There’s not really a story there. The thing jumps from person to person like a stone skipping on water; and like that stone, there’s no depth to it. We never learn to care about any of the affected people, because we don’t have time with them. And generally, the characters’ reactions are very surface, too. The most interesting part of a miraculous event (assuming it’s not the end of the world) isn’t the direct effects, but the implications. As in, holy shit, the fact that this could happen means that we have to rethink everything we thought we knew. And you’re wasting my time with the comical predicament of the couple who can’t decide which head is married to which other one?
The miraculous event in a story like this is treated like the miracles in magical realism; people sort of accept it and just deal with the consequences, without considering the theological or scientific aspects. So, it’s not a realistic treatment; it’s allegorical.
I don’t have a beef with magical realism; it’s fine for what it does. What it does, when done properly, is use the emotional power of magic as a symbol to illuminate something else that’s going on in the story. If you use this treatment on something that isn’t symbolically relevant to the people who experience it, you’re wasting the power of magic on trivia, and instead just writing a story where people behave in annoyingly unrealistic ways. An event can’t possibly be symbolically relevant to everyone in the whole world on a personal level. Maybe if one person grows a second head, it’s to represent their deep inner conflict, so the heads can argue with each other. If everyone grows a second head, it’s just stupid.
Stories are personal. Stories are about people; they have to be more than silly what-if games. We need to zoom in on someone.