Making the improbable seem familiar — a system of points

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One of the things we often have to do when we’re writing (especially fantasy) is make the improbable seem familiar.  To do this we’re often asking the reader to suspend their disbelief but there’s really only so far we can push the reader.  Often I think this is a gut-level decision on the part of the author but there’s another way I’ve started to think about it that I think can be helpful.

I think that every author, for every story, is given points — I call them credibility points.  The reader is going to suspend their disbelief — it’s part of the contract we make with them because they know this is fiction and they know some things they’re just going to have to take at face value.  But there’s a limit to that and this is where the points come in.  The more that you ask the reader to suspend their disbelief, the more points you’re spending and you only have so many.

Here’s how it works:  Let’s say you start off with 100 credibility points.  My first series is about a world set several generations after the zombie apocalypse.  I’m asking my readers to believe that yes, zombies exist — that’s a pretty big suspension of disbelief so I’m probably spending like 50 points on it — half of my credibility points.  This means I have to be careful how I spend the rest of my points — everything else has to basically be familiar or realistic enough that the reader won’t question me much further.

Then, in my first book, I spend a few more points on the fact that it’s been about 150 years and the chain link fences surrounding the village are still standing and still able to hold back zombies.  That’s probably another decent sized purchase — lets say 40 points.   But then I buy back a few of those points by explaining how the fences are still around — I show the reader that the people in the village are always monitoring and mending the fences, I make my zombies “hibernate” so that there’s not always a big horde pressing against it, etc.  So then maybe I’m only spending 25 points on the fence because I’ve made it a little more believable.

This leaves me 25 credibility points for the rest of my book — I can’t really keep asking the reader to suspend huge amounts of disbelief.   This is where your research can come in really handy — what David was talking about recently.  The more accuracy you imbue your stories with, the less you’re spending these points (and often, the more willing a reader is to trust what you’re telling them because you’ve earned that trust).

The key, to me, is spending your points wisely and often this isn’t easy.  I wrote a scene in the beginning of my second book where a group of teens cross into a potentially zombie infested area and, guess what, zombies attack.  Initially I had all the teens drop their weapons in a pile when they got there because they were being complacent.  But this strains the credibility — and costs points — they live in too dangerous a world to be that stupid.  Instead I had them keep their weapons and just stink at defending themselves (and I explained they stunk because they’d never had to do it in real life before) — that took less suspension of disbelief and cost fewer points.

This isn’t a scientific theory by any means, it’s just one of the ways I’ll look at my stories to see if I’m asking the reader too much — stretching credibility too thin.  The goal is to spend as few points as possible — to weave these incredible things into the story and explain/motivate them so thoroughly that the reader doesn’t even realize they’re suspending their disbelief.   That’s the goal in the end — having the reader fall fully into your world and not leave it because they don’t believe it.

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12 comments to Making the improbable seem familiar — a system of points

  • A very interesting approach. I suppose the starting number of points varies depending on genre. My current WIP is far into the fantasy realm mixing elements of Elric with New Weird and more. The reader would, presumably, know some of what he’s in for and therefore would have a great suspension of disbelief then say a traditional mystery reader. Therefore, I either start off with 200 points or my calls on disbelief don’t require as many points to work. UF often straddles both worlds and therefore would seem to have less and more-costly points.

    As I’m thinking about this, I’m liking it more and more. Thanks, Carrie, for giving me some good brain activity this morning! 🙂

  • That’s an excellent point Stuart and one I meant to drop a footnote about. I do think that different books and different genres probably start off with a different number of “points” — really it’s just a matter of what the reader is thinking going into it, what their expectations are. And I think these expectations can be based off a number of things: the genre, the cover, the back cover copy, etc.

    For example, I went into Holly Black’s recent (and awesome) book White Cat knowing there was magic in the story because it says so on the back cover and so I went into the book already willing to believe this — Holly didn’t have to work as hard to get me to suspend my disbelief but she DID have to create an internally consistent world that made me willing to continue to suspend my disbelief (in her world, magic has been outlawed similar to prohibition and she followed the logical consequences of that — she makes is really easy to believe her world).

    When writing the post I spent a lot of time thinking about a book like John Grisham’s The Firm which is set in the “real world” and yet we’re still asked to believe a lot — there’s a law firm willing and able to kill its associates (okay, maybe not a stretch for some people to believe), they’re like big brother watching everything, and this one associate is able to, on his own, unravel it all. So there are still credibility points at work here, they’re just very different than the ones that ask us to believe there’s magic or zombies in the world.

    One thing that fascinates me are the points at which a reader will say “nope, I don’t believe you anymore.” My zombies don’t really rot and while I have a lot of people willing to say “yep, on board with the dead rising, walking, craving human flesh,” they draw the line at “not rotting” because that just couldn’t happen. As if dead rising *could* happen. *shrug*

  • Carrie,

    I love the concept, and somewhat echoing what Stuart wrote, I’d have to adjust my point total for space opera or fantasy. Or maybe just have a list of givens that a reader of those genres would be ok with.

    I just read a review on Amazon the other day about a space opera novel which illustrates how much people are different. The person had no problems suspending his disbelief for faster than light travel and transporter beams, but had a major problem with the way the author described the process of two space ships docking. He then went on to say the book has problems with basic physics.

    So, you never know what some people can swallow and what they can’t. In that person’s case the ultra fantastic was easier than the simplistic.

    Thank you Carrie, I think I’ll try the point system!

  • Carrie> what a great way to explain believability! I’m just reading “On Killing” by Grossman (a good, but hard read) to try to get some psychological believability into my character’s, well, character and what it took to make/let her kill another character (including the massive guilt she still feels about it.)

    The post is also great for the “fantasy” parts of the UF I’m writing. What will my audience believe? I figure that believing in demons isn’t too many points (esp. for an audience that might already believe in them), believe in my system of demons? That might take more effort. And I was thinking about believability for killing the big bad at the end. That’s at least as much about balance of danger vs. ability. They must be in real danger, but also still be able to get out of such danger. Lots of points there. Thanks!

  • This was really great Carrie. It’s interesting to think about the audience participation in this process – every individual will approach your book differently, so you’ll actually be spending a different number of points with each person.

    Alistair said, “The person had no problems suspending his disbelief for faster than light travel and transporter beams, but had a major problem with the way the author described the process of two space ships docking. He then went on to say the book has problems with basic physics.”

    I, having never taken a physics course myself, probably would not have picked up the docking problems that reader found so unbelievable. So my reading experience probably wouldn’t have lost any points at that point.

    You can use an “average” while you’re writing, but in the end, you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone. I think there’s a life lesson tied up in there somewhere… 🙂

  • Let me add my voice to the “love this idea” chorus. I also love the comments and agree that every book might start with a different number of points, that genres have different “starting values” and that individual readers bring their own tolerance for suspension of disbelief. I come from a family of “realists”: I’m really the only fantasy reader (must less writer) among my siblings, and my parents never liked this stuff either. So that my father would have tolerated about 10 points, while I would tolerate a couple hundred.

    As a reader, I find that I’m very tolerant when it comes to worldbuilding, magic systems, and that sort of thing. But I have no patience for stupid characters who blunder into trouble that was obviously looming. I guess what I’m saying is that to my mind, not all points are created equal. Zombies? No problem at all. But I think that if you had decided to have the characters leave their weapons behind, that would have been off-putting for me

  • Carrie, I love this idea! It makes solid and coherent what I do subconsciously. It gives me a formula for believability and improbabilty. Too cool!

    I am working on a UF short story right now, set in a world I’ve alredy written books about … in … whatever … as a freebie giveaway on my site to fans. And so because the world is already established and the characters presumably known to the reader, I can start the story at much lower points. I’m giving myself 10. I hope to have some left over by the SS end.

    Great idea and great post!

  • Great idea. I like the fact that you have to think through the improbability and assign a number. Because you are doing the assigning, there is more likelihood that it will be consistent. I’m going to try this on the current revision I’m doing.

    thanks

  • Great idea, Carrie. A really helpful way to think about the problem. I also like the comments about how different devices deduct different numbers of points for different people. I remember forcing my father to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and pointing out how clever it was on real world stuff: school, relationships, all kinds of scholarly ideas about gender and power. He conceded all this, but pointed it out that he didn’t believe in vampires.

    Sigh.

  • David and AJ (and others) bring up such a great point about the believability of the “real world” elements. I think the more “real” these seem the more willing readers are to suspend disbelief on the other elements. In fact, I was reading a discussion about a book recently in which some cops were interrogating a teen without any other adults present (including her parents who didn’t know she was being interrogated). This wasn’t a particularly vital part of the story. A number of people said they had a hard time believing that would happen and the author came into the discussion and said “that happened to a friend of mine so it’s real.”

    I thought this illustrated two excellent points: (1) truth is stranger than fiction — just because it’s true doesn’t mean people will believe it and (2) why waste credibility points on something like that isn’t important to the story? Those readers then went on to question all the other cop actions because they felt that one particular action was wrong.

    So yes, I tend to think that more “real” you make the real world — relationships, interactions, etc, then the more willing readers are to suspend credibility on other things.

    And Megan – exactly! There will always be some readers who will just not be willing to suspend disbelief as others and vice versa. Always my mantra: there will always be people with different tastes than me 🙂

    Really this all came from me realizing that if you ask your reader to take one huge leap of faith, it’s sometimes hard to ask them to make another one, especially without really grounding it in something they already believe in. Sometimes I think this is why it’s easier to ask readers to accept a canon creature like a Vampire or a Zombie rather than creating a whole new creature.

    Thanks for all the responses y’all!

  • Alan Kellogg

    Don’t care for the idea. Too mechanical, too much bean counting.

    What matters is presentation. How do you present the world? Is it consistent? Does the world make sense according to the rules you’ve established. You don’t need points for that.

    What you need is consistency, a world that follows it’s own rules. The only thing the reader needs to accept is that things work differently in the realm of the story. So long as you are consistent with how your world works it’s the rare soul who has a legitimate beef with how your sub-creation works.

    For example; my basilisks paralyze people with their gaze. Some species will kill, but only because of how their paralysis works. The wrong species gets associated with somebody’s death, that fact is going to be pointed out.

    So be consistent in how you present your world and leave the unreasonable to be unreasonable

  • I think this would work best for fantasy works. In space opera or space adventure (the same basically except for scale), the entire world is unrealistic and you have to work the other way to insert things which make the world seem familiar. You have the characters use technology which may be more advanced but does the same thing as something familiar. Some common items for this would be communicators, doors, public transit, cars, and video viewing systems.

    Usually there will be something which is very high tech which allows the technology to function in a way which is somewhat fantastical but could extrapolated from current tech. In our universe, we have a space elevator developed using carbon nanotubes and subsequently a hull material based on that tech which allows ships to survive FTL and use a reaction-less drive which produces a great deal of waste heat. Our FTL is based on a Einsteinian physics loophole.

    All this means that our ships act basically the same as current technology when docking because they are under thrusters which are propellant fueled. This means if we describe them docking we have to do so with appropriate physics or do so in such a vague way that you can’t tell. If the character is inside the ship and is not the crew then the vague way is usually best. There are enough folks from aerospace reading SF that any fudging in this area can get you caught.

    I grew up around rocket testing and space shuttles because I was a geeky girl who went to work with my parents friends at NASA in Huntsville, AL. I know enough maths to calculate the stuff myself if I need it (I have a B.S. and M.S. in biomedical engineering), but I generally find that much detail just slows down the story. I also think having techie characters calculate that stuff as they watch something to be ridulous, I am definitely a techie person, but when I watch a shuttle launch, I’m just admiring the pretty view. If it is ST or SW at the movies, then yes, I might notice if visually things did not look right (Total Recall comes to mind) because I have seen a great deal of NASA TV. Most descriptions in books would have to be way too detailed to even give me enough information to notice that in text, before I noticed it I would have long since skipped the stupid paragraphs and gone on to where the action started.

    So for space adventure stuff, I would suggest trying the opposite way, adding things to make your would believeable, while knowing what parts of your universe require actual physics and science to work properly, what parts are extrapolated from current tech and what parts require additional physics. The additional physics bits have to be offset by enough real physics bits that your geeky readers like me, don’t just put it down in disgust.

    By the way, my day job means I deal with lots of biotech, so if anyone needs a reality check on that type of stuff send me a message and I’ll let you know when I can look at it. Hopefully I can see some of you at ConCarolinas.