Monday, April 20, 2015

WalkingThe Bridge Can Be Dangerous

Suspension of disbelief: Imagine a bridge, a solid, steady structure designed to handle cars, people, hell, the weigh of a world, and consider the foundation. If the foundation is solid and the structure well built, you can cross it safely.

If the foundation is weak, if the materials are shoddy, that bridge is going down and it's likely to have casualties. In this case, the foundation is the belief of the readers. The loss is their trust, and as a writer, there is nothing more important.

There is a contract that you make when you are writing fantasy. That contract is between you and the reader. They pay you money, and in exchange you promise to entertain and help them escape for a while, into worlds of wonder and imagination and maybe even some serious fun.

Don't break the contract.

Earlier today I was at JordanCon here in Atlanta. A wonderful convention with a lot of well thought out panels. I had a great time. I also had several conversations with future writers and curious readers. I was not alone and the following is an example from Charles R. Rutledge, a good friend and frequent collaborator. I hope he doesn't mind me stealing his example.

The gist of it was this: He's getting into a fantasy novel, a good, solid, sword & sorcery tale of daring-do and action. We all like those, right? Well, as he's diving deeper into they narrative and losing himself in the tale, the two characters, thieves both, have broken into a temple to steal this treasure or that. They are looking, as thieves are wont to do, for loot. In the process one of them touches the wrong thing and behold! A demon enters the room, ready to kill anyone who might dare take from the temple what does not belong to them.

The reaction of the thieves? They start bantering back and forth as they prepare for their combat with the hideous servitor demon. Charles's response was much as mine would have been. He threw the book across the room and called it a loss.

Just that fast the contract between reader and writer was broken. Sword and Sorcery isn't quite like high fantasy. There are beasts, to be sure, and demons and sorcerers, too. A couple of people who heard that story couldn't quite understand why Charles lost his patience with the story and he gave what I consider to be the perfect example as an answer.

The Argument: Well, the thieves live in a world where demons exist. They weren't really surprised.

The Counter Argument: I live in a world with tigers. And I can tell you right here and now that if a Bengal tiger comes into this room and lets out a roar, the last thing I'm gonna be doing is cracking wise about it.

And I agree with him one hundred percent. 600 pounds of pissed off feline comes into a room and I'm going to be finding the best exit I can manage.

That's a very simple and direct example of failing in the task of keeping the story realistic. And for the record if what you're after is an action comedy, that's just fine. But what he had read to that point was NOT an action comedy. It was straightforward swords and guys trying to steal a fortune without being caught.

I like witty banter in a book. But there is a time and a place for everything and when you are facing off against something that is there for the sole purpose of tearing you limb from limb is not the time, unless you are Spider-Man and know for a fact that the claws coming your way are going to miss by a good three feet.

As we discussed on another panel (Conan, actually, with me, Charles and James R Tuck.) a perfect example of the other end of the spectrum was given. Conan is the original badass. If it comes at him he's gonna take it down. And yet there are occasions where his response to a threat is to bravely run away. It wasn't worth dying over and what he wanted could be found in a different way, so he left the chamber with the gigantic snake alone rather than die a horrible death.

It's like watching a spaghetti western on TV. There's Clint Eastwood, there's a few bad guys who you KNOW are gonna die bad deaths, and then, in the corner of the screen, there's a contrail from a jet that the film editors didn't notice until it was too late. I'm willing to forgive that sin. It happens. I'm less likely to forgive a writer who pulls a bonehead stunt. If you are writing a story with werewolves and decided thatchy can only change under the light of the full moon, I'll be there with you. If you forget that fact and have one change at noon without any explanation for that aberration, I'm probably walking away from the book and you can bet it won't much of a recommendation. The thing is, if you establish the reasons, I'll forgive the sin. Hell, handled properly the fact that only that on member of the old pack can change during daylight hours could make for an interesting subplot. If none of the other werwolves or villagers react to that lycanthrope wandering across the moors in the midday sun, however, you have just knocked out the foundation for your bridge.

Readers are willing to work with you. I can look back at some of the things I've written as absolute proof of that fact.

Just don't violate that trust or you can expect disasters.

James A. Moore

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post and examples, loved the bridge analogy. Also the tiger analogy....relished pretty much the entire post, can you tell? I LOVED Conan and Kull and their pragmatic attitudes :-)