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Monday, February 22, 2016

Validating the Reader's Concerns



Sometimes in your writing, you might have a point in your plot or even just a tiny beat in your scene, where something odd happens. Maybe it has the potential to ruin your reader's suspension of disbelief. Or it feels too coincidental. Or maybe a little contrived. Or it's redundant.

Whenever this happens, you'll want to take a second look at it. See if you can make it less odd, more natural, more believable, more organic, or fresh. But sometimes in some cases, that point or beat needs to be there, and it needs to be right there. And you can almost hear your reader's disbelief, "Yeah right!" or "Of course, another monster--give me something new," or "How convenient," as you are writing it. Or maybe you're dealing with something vague, and it's obviously, noticeably, very big and vague. How do you pull that off?

Here is one way: Validating the reader's concerns.



I touched on this in my post Breaking Your World's Rules. You can get away with so much more and with some pretty wacky stuff if you just validate the reader's concerns. Sometimes the reader just needs to know you are aware of how unlikely, unbelievable, or repetitious something is, so they don't roll their eyes. On the contrary, they'll be more willing to believe it, and they might even like you more for it.

Sometimes validating the reader's concerns can be as simple as having your character say, "Wow, what are the chances of that?" or "That's weird." And the reader relaxes, because they know they can still trust you as a storyteller. If something very odd happens in your magic system, you need your characters to be shocked and confused about it like the reader is.

Some people reading this might still be skeptical about this approach, but it's done in bestselling stories regularly. If you watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you can see it happen in several places. In that movie there is (basically) another Death Star, Starkiller Base. That plot element had the potential to be really annoying and poorly handled. I mean, like seriously, another Death Star? Can't you give us something new and fresh?


But The Force Awakens pulls it off by validating the audience. Instead of ignoring the audience's concern about a third Death Star, they acknowledge it and even poke fun at it. Han says something like, "There's got to be a way to blow it up. There always is." And instead of being annoyed about this plotting and possibly laughing at it, we are laughing with it and the characters, and everything is fine. We accept the fact that this movie has another "Death Star" in it.


Likewise, some people might not be able to believe that Han can understand Chewie and Chewie can understand Han but yet neither can speak the other's language. But The Force Awakens validates that concern. They have Finn bring it up.

In fact, sometimes when you validate the audience's concerns, you can run with it, poke fun at it, and use it to your advantage. The weird thing is, when you boil this down, you are taking something that could be taken as a weakness in your story and turning it into a strength. The audience can actually love it.

Major warning, however: don't whip out this technique for everything. If you have that many instances that you need to patch up with validation, you need to take a second look at your story and fix some things. Unless you are writing a comedy that not only uses but depends on extreme exaggeration, this technique should be used sparingly. Don't use it because you are lazy. Use it because you need it.

Look back at the Star Wars examples. They were justified to use this technique. They can't go back in time and change the way Han and Chewie talk. It's done. It's established. All they can do is validate the unbelievability (pretty sure I made that word up) of it. Having a third "Death Star" works because like any "revival" film should do, The Force Awakens is carefully paying tribute to the original movies while putting fresh twists on it (notice how they took the Death Star concept to the next level by making  Starkiller Base bigger and more powerful--they escalated it). But they still needed to validate the audience's reactions. It's not an exaggeration to say that if they hadn't validated them, that plot point would have been a roll-your-eyes moment. A flop. So those few lines of dialogue are vital in keeping the audience in good spirits.

You might find they are vital somewhere in your story too.

6 comments:

  1. While I think this technique works in some cases, I think the Star Wars examples are better suited for what doesn't work, rather than what does. Having the characters point out the fact that Starkiller Base is just another Death Star, doesn't change the fact that it's just another Death Star. It was still a roll-your-eyes moment for anyone that would have rolled their eyes had it not been mentioned. I think it only passed with people who wouldn't have cared anyway.

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    1. I'll have to agree to disagree, as me and some of my friends who saw it discussed this very thing, where we would have been annoyed if Star Wars ignored the fact they created another Death Star, but instead, we thought it was fun and funny because they laughed about it themselves. It made it easier, or at least more entertaining, to swallow. We liked it. I realize however, that that doesn't mean it has the same result on every audience member.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  2. I've found the technique you mentioned is used in lots of stories, and it was an eye opening moment when I finally noticed it myself. For example, in Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of Law, the main character has the ability to mentally Push against anything containing iron, and one of his many tricks is to Push outward from his whole body, creating a sort of defensive bubble that helps deflect bullets headed his way. The problem with this trick, of course, is that it should also knock the gun out of his own hand too. But instead of trying to explain why this doesn’t happen, Sanderson simply lets the MC ponder on it for a second.

    “He wasn’t even certain how he did it; Allomancy was often an instinctive thing for him. Somehow he even managed to exempt the metal he carried, and didn’t Push his own gun from his hands.”

    By letting the main character (and therefore the author) acknowledge the inconsistency, the reader now accepts that this is the way the story world works without any further explanation.

    It's a powerful technique.

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    1. Wow, perfect example! Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. Thanks for sharing. See, and if Brandon Sanderson hadn't put in that line, the audience would have been annoyed and think it was a continuity error, but just acknowledging it allows the reader to accept it.

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  3. My favorite example of this from recent memory comes from Mr. Robot (I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it).

    This article explains (far better than I ever could) how the show deals with a contrived trope in a beautiful and classy way that ends up paying homage to a source rather than feeling like a rip-off (contains major spoilers): http://www.pajiba.com/mr_robot/mr-robot-was-that-where-is-my-mind-the-song-from-fight-club-.php

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    1. I haven't seen or heard of Mr. Robot, but it does sound like what I brought up in this article. Thanks for sharing.

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