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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!


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