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Monday, February 25, 2019

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Only One Impossibility"

You may have heard of the "one impossibility rule," the idea that the audience's suspension of disbelief can only handle one impossible thing. In this article, I'm going to talk about what the rule is, why it's a rule, and when and how to break it.

What's the Rule?

When we write, we invite the audience into our fictive universe. In order to take part, the audience must have what's called a "willing suspension of disbelief," meaning that they are willing to enjoy the story even though it's not real.

For example, maybe your story has fairies in it. But fairies aren't real. However, the audience is willing to accept that for the story.

The Rule:

In a story, only one impossibility can exist.

Why It's a Rule

Most audiences can only take in so much impossibility before their suspension of disbelief is no longer . . . suspended.

They might accept with the premise of the story that there are fairies. But if your story has not only fairies but also aliens invading the planet, there is going to be a problem.

That's two different impossibilities.

And they don't go together.

Take that a step further and add the fact that in your fictive universe, dogs have overcome humans in the species hierarchy, so they are the ones running society--and now we have three impossibilities.

It's too much. Every time you add an impossibility, you narrow your audience. With these three, I've really narrowed audience. 

My examples are a bit exaggerated, but these are the sorts of things that the one impossibility rule is referring to.

However, it can sometimes be used in other situations.

One thing the audience has very little tolerance for is when human behavior doesn't make sense. Maybe your protagonist's mom dies, and he doesn't even grieve. That seems impossible. And the more you stack on unlikely human behavior, the more the audience's suspension of disbelief wanes.

For more on problems with unbelievability, see "Inconceivable! Dealing with Problems of Unbelievability."

How to Break It

By now you may have thought of one or more stories that clearly have more than "one impossibility." In a high fantasy, you may have fairies and dragons and dwarves and elves and centaurs . . . the list goes on.

Or maybe you thought of a rarer rule break, like a story that deals with both an alien invasion and restoring faith in God. Putting a belief of God in can be considered a big no-no in the industry when writing science fiction. From one perspective, you are dealing with two impossibilities. (I'm not saying I feel this way, I'm just talking about the industry.)

Or maybe you thought of something stranger still, a story where part of your soul lives outside your body in the form of an animal, where one of the intelligent species are (randomly) bears, where there is a clan witches, and some of the main characters are quite literally at war with God.

Clearly this rule can and has been broken. So let's talk about how to do that.

1. Use an Umbrella

The reason high fantasy gets away with so many impossibilities is because everything actually fits under one big impossibility: an imaginary world.

Sure, in our reality dragons and elves and dwarves don't exist.

But in a completely fictional world, like Middle-earth, all of them do, and more.

Tolkien, like basically all high fantasy writers, gets away with so much impossibility by lumping them together under one big one. Other examples include Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Star Wars (in a galaxy far, far away).

Even though Harry Potter includes the real world, it does this same thing--everything impossible comes from a magic society within our world, that's the umbrella.

The umbrella does not even necessarily need to be a world or society. Those are just the obvious examples. It could be an origin, history, or something else. The idea is that the one impossibility encompasses and explains all others.

2. Make Connections

Similarly, the audience is more likely to take in more than one impossibility if they connect in some way. Maybe you are reading a novel that has vampires in the real world. Then the second book in the series deals with werewolves. What?

But it's okay, because Stephenie Meyer made them connect by explaining that werewolves exist because of the vampires--they are the natural predators of vampires (yes, I just used Twilight as an example) (yes, I know other stories put vampires and werewolves together as enemies).

When you use this method, you usually want to build off what the audience already knows. They already know about the vampires, great. So when you explain the werewolves, make sure to relate it to the vampires. This will make it easier for the audience to swallow.

Of course, there are some stories that don't do that. Usually in those cases, the writer may introduce them as two separate things and explain the connection later. If you chose to do this, you should know that it's more difficult to pull off, and it will likely narrow your audience, because people might be rolling their eyes and stop reading before they get to the connection. However it has and can be done.

In rare occasions, the connections may not be concretely obvious, but instead thematic. What do invading aliens have to do with regaining faith in God? Well, nothing, directly. Except that it works together thematically in a beautiful way in Signs. Keep in mind, though, that this is one of the reasons some people hate that movie. So for some people, it did not work--in other words, it narrowed the audience. That's fine, if you are willing to pay that cost and take that risk.

3. Shift Context

Sometimes you can get away with multiple impossibilities if you don't present them as all impossibilities to begin with. In Interstellar, we are dealing with some pretty heavy science fiction, but then on the other hand, one of the main characters believes there is a ghost in her room.

I would hazard a guess though, that most of the audience didn't believe there was a real ghost in the room. Instead we can accept that the character believes that. As we get more information and the context shifts, we realize the "ghost" really was a person.

Though worth noting is that it is still ultimately explained by science, so the movie also connects it the other impossibilities.

But my point is, you may be able to do something similar. Maybe we think the second impossibility is something other than it actually is, and it's truly explained later.

4. Foreshadow

 Sometimes you can get away with more than one impossibility if you foreshadow it right.

I know a writer who saw Arrival and loved it up until the ending, where the entire story was "ruined" because it "broke the one impossibility rule."

I'm going to have to agree to disagree with that. All of the impossibilities, especially the last, were foreshadowed from the beginning, so when I encountered them, as an audience member, I was prepared.

Also notice how that movie also incorporates context shifts and connections.

The story essential has three impossibilities in it, but in my opinion, they pulled them off stunningly.

However, it didn't work for that one writer, so, like I said above, you are always taking that risk.

But then there are people like me and my family, who loved the story even more and were brought to tears because of how it incorporated three impossibilities.

Basically if you are breaking the one impossibility rule, you are probably polarizing your audience, which is sometimes a good thing, if you want word-of-mouth advertising.

5. Utilize Tone

Tone can go a long way in letting you get away with the impossible. This is especially the case with what are called "unreality" stories.

Unreality stories take place in what's recognized as the real world . . . but it isn't. It's an unreality. It's best explained through examples. Here are some unreality stories:

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Edward Scissorhands 
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Like I talked about in the last section, you may realize that unreality stories can be very polarizing: You either love it, or you hate it.

Notice how all of the examples I gave have more than one impossibility (sometimes completely unconnected), but for audiences okay with the unreality genre, that's not a problem. (Which reminds me, it's also worth noting genre does play a role in what you can get away with).

If you establish the right tone, you can get away with almost anything.

6. Acknowledge the Impossibility

In some cases, you can get away with multiple impossibilities if you validate to the audience how impossible, unlikely, or strange it is, on the page. Since I have two posts that go into this, I'm not going to reiterate everything, but you can read more here and here.

7. Keep the Reader Hooked and Invested

Sometimes you can get away with more than one impossibility if the reader is already deeply invested in the story. They may be so hooked, so pulled in, that adding a second impossibility isn't going to ruin it--as long as you don't do anything too crazy.

Ask yourself (and maybe your beta-readers), is adding this one impossibility really going to stop the reader from reading and enjoying the story? It might give them pause, but you might be able to get away with it. After all, it is a story.

8.  Start with the Most Familiar Impossibility

Everyone knows what a dragon is, even if they aren't real. So it's easier for the audience to accept that.

In Spider-verse we are dealing with two impossibilities that don't . . . really even connect . . . or fit under an umbrella. 1 - that radioactive spiders can bite people and turn them superhuman. 2 - that there are parallel realities. Those are both impossibilities, and they don't actually go together.

But the audience is willing to accept it, because they are so familiar with Spider-man and superhero movies. Adding parallel universes to it isn't a big deal. (Not to mention that parallel universes have been long established as part of the comic book world.)

The more familiar something is, the easier it is for the audience to accept and digest it.

Kitchen Sink Stories

There is a term in the industry called "kitchen sink." It's the basic idea that a writer has a lot of ideas, but they are throwing them all into one story. It's like a kitchen sink. It has a bit of this and a bit of that. A scrap of old pizza, an onion peel, a soggy fry. Sometimes when writers are trying to include a lot of impossibilities, it turns into a kitchen sink story. In some cases, you may definitely need to divvy out ideas into different stories. But in other cases, it's amazing which seemingly unrelated ideas you can make work, especially using these methods I outlined.

It's hard for me to tell everyone that their "kitchen sink story" isn't going to work. Because it might.

I feel like the best example of this is His Dark Materials. It has everything, and the kitchen sink. But in England, it became a hugely successful series. Yet so many of the concepts don't seem to belong in one story.

- Parts of people's souls live outside their bodies in animal forms.
- There is an intelligent species of bears (bears?? Why? That's so random!)
- Oh yeah, and there are also witches. (oookay . . .)
- And angels
- By the way, there is also a religion reminiscent of Christianity, but it's antagonistic
- Also, God is in it
- And there is this device that allows the user to know all truth
- It takes place in England . . . but it's sort of . . . somewhat . . . steam-punky
- Oh yeah, also, not only is this fantasy, but it's also science fiction. We will definitely be talking about dark matter and running experiments with computers
- Also, surprise, I know you didn't know this from the first book, but our world, the real world, is actually part of this same universe
- Aaaand there are spectors
- We'll also be following people into the afterlife. . . .

Okay, seriously, that whole series is a kitchen sink story!

. . . which is also why it was so revolutionary. It was unprecedented.

So . . . while it's very difficult to pull off . . . it's not impossible.

You might be thinking, "but everything fits under the umbrella of a parallel world." Dude, it doesn't. We don't even know parallel worlds exist until the second book.

It's a kitchen sink.

You Can Break the One Impossibility Rule . . . with These Risks and Consequences

Depending on what impossibilities you decide to use and how you implement them, you run these risks:

- Ruining the suspension of disbelief 

Your audience may still not be able to accept your impossibilities. In truth, some readers are unwilling to even accept one. So they may stop reading.

- Narrowing your audience

This may lead to a narrower audience. Maybe most people don't like M. Night Shyamalan's movies (he breaks a lot of writing and film rules). That's okay. Enough people like him, and he obviously isn't trying to appeal to the masses.

- Polarizing your audience

Some people will absolutely hate stories that use multiple impossibilities. But other people love them. Polarizing your audience isn't actually necessarily a bad or good thing in and of itself--it depends on your goals.

These are risks and consequences, but they do not necessarily influence success. Some people cannot read any fantasy, yet it's one of the most popular genres. Not everyone likes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it's now a children's classic. Even a kitchen sink story has been highly successful.

Can you break the one impossibility rule? Yes! But like breaking any rule, it can be tricky.

Next week I'll be talking about critique letters and editorial letters, and how I write one. See you then!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Look Forward, Not Backward, to Pull the Reader In

Hi everyone! For this week's writing tip, I'm over at Writers Helping Writers as one of their residency writing coaches. This is a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately, leaning forward in your story.


A lot of writers have the tendency to look “backward” when writing. They might use a lot of flashbacks, they might have a character think “back” on things, or they may simply refer to events that happened in the past. Sometimes they may even backtrack and reiterate what has already played out on the page, or repeat information the audience already knows.

As writers, we love looking backward. Part of this is because from our perspective, when we understand a character’s past, we understand the character better, or alternatively, when we understand what events led to the current point of the story, we better understand the story. From a writer’s perspective, we may even feel more powerful emotions by linking back to the past regularly.

Looking “backward” in a story isn’t necessarily wrong. It has an important role in storytelling. Maybe we do need that flashback, for example. Looking back once in a while also adds authenticity–after all, we all look back from time to time in our personal lives, and a story should be bigger than what’s on the page. Your characters should have an existence, a history, before the first chapter.

However, unlike the writer, most of the time, for the reader, looking backward is not nearly as interesting or as effective as looking forward.

Often as writers, we think, if the audience can just see the significance of the past, they’ll be drawn into the story. In reality, looking forward does this innately and more powerfully.

. . . in the rest of the article, I talk about how to best get the audience to look forward, with two types of draws that will pull them in and keep them turning the pages.

Show Writers Helping Writers some love and visit their site.

Next week I'll be back here talking about how to break the "One Impossibility" rule.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Discovery Writing and Outline Writing—Kinda the Same Thing Actually

I've talked about before on here and you can find it talked about throughout the industry, that there are really two approaches to writing: discovery writing (sometimes (controversially) called pantsing) and outline writing (aka plotting). Discovery writing is where you go directly to the manuscript and start discovering the story as you go. Outlining is what it sounds like, you outline before writing the manuscript. Most people fit somewhere in the middle. Me? I'm more of an outliner.

These approaches can seem like total opposites. And you can read and research all about them online. In fact, on here I have an article on outlining and another on discovery writing.

But for the last several months, I've been thinking about how they are actually kind of the same thing.

That might sound contradictory to some people, but just hear me out.

Months ago, I did this post on what to do when you write yourself into a corner. When I shared this on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends said he never writes himself into a corner because he outlines. I mentioned that I outline a lot and still manage to write myself into corners. For me, this is because it's impossible for me to brainstorm a perfect outline. There are usually side effects, complexities, and complications I run into that I didn't foresee. Not everyone has that, but I do. I also think it depends on the kind of story you are writing and how interconnected it is--if you are dealing with undercurrents, mysteries, hard magic systems, for example, I think you are more likely to run into issues you didn't foresee. If you are writing something like a slice-of-life story or a romance, I think it's less likely. Not one type is "better" than another, they are just different.

But as I was thinking about it, and I realized that while that post was titled "What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner," it could have just as easily been titled "What to Do When You Outline Yourself Into a Corner."

At the end of the day, whether you go straight to the manuscript or you outline, you are still figuring out the story. Yes, it's true that the different approaches can produce different kinds of stories, but whether you outline or write a first draft, they are approaches to the same thing: figuring out the story.

True discovery writers may make statements like this: "It's like the story is telling me what it is, and I just write it down."

But I'm a big outliner, and I still have moments like that. In fact, not too long ago when outlining, I had a whole sequence of scenes and a character arc seem to simply manifest themselves to me, and it all felt so perfect (as "perfect" as the process can be anyway). Other times when I'm working on an outline, I feel utterly stuck on what should happen next, or how to get from point A to point B--things that discovery writers run up against when writing the story. There are times, I think, where discovery writers have to sit back and think how to do X or what's going to happen next. Some would call it writer's block.

I have heard some discovery writers say that their first draft is their outline. You get the story down and then you shape it into the true narrative.

Then recently, when I was perusing Writing Excuses to get some writing insight and inspiration, I happened to run into Brandon Sanderson talking about this same idea. That discovering and plotting are actually kind of the same thing. In outlining you front-load a lot of the work and in discovering you back load it, because you usually need to do more revisions.

My opinion has been that my writing tips and editing services and others' writing tips are helpful to discovery writers and to plotters, my take being that for discovery writers, the more you understand writing, the more you can "discover." (Not to mention, if something is "broken," getting tips can help you revise and fix it.)

Discovery writing can feel a little mystical.

Outlining feels more intentional and planned.

But in each approach you are simply figuring out the story.

And in reality, at times the opposite will feel mystical and the other requires some planning.

As I have been brainstorming and outlining a new book, I have sometimes felt anxious or rushed because I haven't started writing anything for the actual manuscript yet, and therefore feel as if I haven't "really" started it--as if the preliminary work I'm doing isn't really work and doesn't count, because I haven't started the word count. But here is the thing, I'm front-loading a lot of the work (as most people, I am not one extreme or the other, so I will undoubtedly still "discover" some things when I actually start the writing process). So of course it's going to be longer before I actually put words to the story document. But that also means I will have to do less work during and after the story-writing.

For discovery writers it may be the opposite. You can start on the word count right away, but you may be doing a lot of work during and after the draft.

Neither way is wrong and both ways are right.

Personally, I do way better work when I largely front-load it. I think I would cry if someone told me I had to "discover" a novel. Uugh, it would be the worst (as you can see, I'm not a pantser). Discovery writers may feel the opposite--they may feel that outlining takes away their desire to write because in a sense, the story is already "written"--it's already figured out.

In either case, we all have the same goals: to write a solid story. And frankly, nearly all the writing resources should benefit both types. In fact, the other day I listened to a podcast about discovery writing, because I thought the techniques would help me "discover" my concepts and outline. For me, in that instance, I was right. It helped quite a bit actually.

So do you agree or disagree? Are pantsing and plotting sorta the same thing in some ways? Which works for you?

Monday, February 4, 2019

How Often Should I "Refresh" a Pronoun?

A follower recently asked if I had any tips on how often to "refresh" a pronoun, meaning, after you use a name once, how many times can you use "he," "she," or "they" before needing to use their name again.

Since I haven't done any tips on it, I decided to do a short post.

Admittedly, there is something about using pronouns that makes the writing process feel more personal and intimate, as opposed to using the names. I'm not exactly sure why this is this way, but I know and see writers who sense it. My best explanation is that using the proper name feels slightly more distancing than using the pronoun. As a result, when we write certain scenes, using more pronouns just feels right. And we might be sad to have to get rid of them, even if it is for clarity.

In reality, for the reader, it rarely makes much difference. The reader's and writer's experiences may overlap in places, but they aren't the same. Usually for the reader, the character's name is what people might call an "invisible" word. Like the word "said" is considered invisible. It gets the job done and doesn't draw attention to itself. Most names function the same way, which is why you can repeat names multiple times without them (usually) sticking out. Most of the time, for the reader, the proper name doesn't feel much different than the pronoun, so for them, what matters is more of the actual function: who is doing what.

And that's the most important element, because as a writer, you are communicating to the reader. They need to know who is doing what to follow the story, and if you use too many pronouns, it won't be clear. They might not be able to keep track of the characters, or they might forget who the pronoun is referring to.

There isn't a magical number for how often you need to refresh the pronoun, but there are some guidelines.

- In a scene with multiple characters (especially of the same gender), you are going to need to use proper names more often, just so the audience can keep it straight.

- In a scene with two characters of different genders, you don't usually need to refresh as much. There is only one "he" and one "she" (or "they" if you prefer).

- And of course, a scene with a character alone will need to be refreshed even less often, but if you only use pronouns, that could potentially be annoying, in some cases. 

Just don't forget the most important rule: You are communicating to the reader.

Problems come up when it's not clear who the pronoun is referring to. For example:

George called Bart to help sell his car.

"His" can refer to either George or Bart (not to mention the sentence is a bit vague in other ways as well).

If you want to get technical and dust off your grammar book from English class, it's usually best if the pronoun is placed as close to its antecedent (the noun it's referring to) as possible.

I will say that if you have a scene with dialogue, this may often not be the case.

"How's it going?" Cheryl asked.

"Fine, I guess," April said. "Pamela is mad at me." She tucked her hair behind her ear.

Pamela is not actually in the conversation, so we can all assumed the "she" is referring to April.

At the beginning of a story, I think it is helpful to use the character's name a few times so the reader can get familiar with it. If you have new characters coming on page that are important to remember, you might want to weave in their names a few times also, so it sticks with the reader. After all, the name is what we literally see on the page when reading, and it's what we have to best identify the character.

And of course, you also don't want to go to the other extreme, where you are using the proper name all the time or overusing it (this is especially true in dialogue).

With all these things in mind, you'll have to use your best judgment.

Sometimes it's helpful to read the passage aloud. Reading aloud actually uses a different part of your brain than reading silently, and it can help you catch things that sound off. You might notice you've gone on too long without refreshing the pronoun.