Monday, August 10, 2009

Are you for real?

When the false Dhamma arises, he makes the true Dhamma to disappear.

Samyutta-nikaya (11,224) (via Lord of Light)

The biggest trick in writing is not to break that reader trance - the voluntary suspension of disbelief that the happy reader puts himself into while devouring your prose like a Labrador puppy in the jar of cookies you're trying to keep him out of.

Now as a general rule when the reader has his head deep in the book-cookie jar you're going to have to really do something horrendously wrong to get him to back out. The trick is not to break that trance while its fragile (at the beginning) or when it is something that means a great deal to him. And percieved wisdom is that guns and horses are the two areas you don't screw up in fantasy because there enough readers who know a lot about both. I'm never a great acceptor of perceived wisdom (gee, now there is a surprise!) but hell, I can buy into this. And add sail-boats, martial arts, food and kids. Here is an excellent blog-piece on the reality of horse-travel...

Except... is this real wisdom? It's true, but is it wise? Lets get real here. We live in a world where for 90% of readers... Hollywood's version of history is reality. Where maybe 25% know something of firearms and maybe 5% ride regularly. Even my add-ons are things a lot of readers (and a lot of writers) have never experienced in real life. How many people who read fantasy know enough about sail-boats or diving to spot an error? And to many of these people the errors of popular writers and especially movies are RIGHT. The truth may be that you can run through a grass-fire in African veldt, with no worse than losing a bit of hair, if you choose your time and place. That's reality. But if I wrote it, I'd have to explain it at length and very convincingly, because Joe-reader from Chicago knows you'd die. The same applies to horse as an automobile. 60 miles is CLOSE in the minds of 90% of readers. Not potentially a whole country that could take you three days to cross. 60 miles through rough country was more or less what Dick King did in a day on his epic ride from Durban to Grahamstown. 600 miles in 10 days...., which was considered incredibly fast, or 10 hours drive, now. So you poor writer-sap, you're screwed. You're as likely to jar them out of the reader trance by being right as by being wrong .

And then of course there is "that might be reality but that's not why I'm reading this..." Life for 99.9% of the populace in the medieval times was nasty, short and brutish. But, you can trust me on this one, few fantasy readers want that reality. And a man hears just what he wants to hear... Hollywood would never lie to you would they... and we find ourselves having to fit in to a mould of unreal illusions.

Ah well. Anyone got any juicy reader-trance shattered egs for me?

Ouch. yuck. Not eggs!



Amanda Green said...


I had to think about this one for a bit. The first things that come to mind are books and shows that revolve around a courtroom setting and I know that comes from my own legal training. The worst, for me, is John Grisham, not necessarily because he's the worst at it but because so many people think what he writes is exactly how the US judicial system works. A Time To Kill was probably the closest to the actual workings of a law firm/courtroom. The Client had me throwing the book across the room and I've never been able to sit through the movie. Now first year associate in a law firm would be doing what Grisham's MC does. There comes a point where the suspension of disbelief explodes, and that book did it for me. The same thing happens when TV shows have prosecutors commenting in closing arguments about the defendant's failure to testify and no objection follows from the defense attorney. It just isn't going to happen here.

Other examples are some you pointed out. Attempting to write fight scenes using martial arts, sword fighting, etc., and it simply becomes a rehash of manga/anime fights and not what would really happen. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of this in current fantasy books these days. Another is where the knight in full armor manages to ride at full gallop all day without killing his horse or himself. Armor's hot and heavy. Again, it's just not going to happen unless the horses aren't horses but are magical creatures or the armor is made of some magical material that isn't something we know about now.

Still, I don't tend to get jerked back to reality by mistakes about things I'm not well-versed in. At least not if the story is well-written. Even in areas I know a lot about, I can forgive a lot with a really good tale.

Francis Turner said...

I'm trying to think of an actual example but one tired fantasy trope trope (and occasionally other genre trope too) that irritates is the cave as tunnel and fortuitously glowing moss.

Item the first. Caves are very rarely (I won't say never because some are for some of the way) as easy to walk in as a tunnel. Typically the floor is highly uneven, it twists and turns, widens, narrows etc. the roof will also drop down, there's be rockfalls in the way etc.

And caves are very dark. The only cave I've been to that has light in it are the glowworm caves in NZ. And they are a spectacular tourist attraction in part because they are unique! All other caves are pitch black once you are away from the entrance. Lose your light in a cave and the next thing you lose is probably your life because you'll almost certainly lose your way and injure yourself falling down unseen slopes etc.

Caves, particularly ones with rivers in them, are generally cold. So unless the hero is warmly wrapped up (or the cave is somewhere tropical where the water may be assumed to be swimming pool temps) prolonged time in a cave means death by hyperthermia.

And then there's death by guano from the bats, there's the fact that even without guano anyone who exits a cave will be very muddy. And so on. Tolkien got his caves wrong (OK _some_ were mines which are indeed different but many weren't) and it seems like every other high fantasy writer who wants a cave copies Tolkien...

Dave Freer said...

"Another is where the knight in full armor manages to ride at full gallop all day without killing his horse or himself. Armor's hot and heavy."
Yeah a horse can't gallop all day ... However we can err in the other direction, even those of us who do physical stuff and research a lot. We forget that people who do/did something day in-day out 1)use less energy by far doing it and 2)are - in the muscles that they use far far stronger than even a normally fit athlete. My favorite eg is this. Hold you hands above your head (while doing a simple excercise - squeeze a ball for eg) Now keep this up for as long as you can. If you're quite tough you might make 20 minutes. That is normal rock-climbing posture and excercise, It's not normal for most other things unless you are a construction electrician or work on ceilings... That was my climbing partner. He was- in that way - stronger than the best rock athletes.

Dave Freer said...

Francis, what do you have against sending fantasy heroes into nice radioactive caves? :-)
I don't think I have ever done that one have I? But the other one that often gets me is the assumption that night is dark :-).

Francis Turner said...

However we can err in the other direction, even those of us who do physical stuff and research a lot. We forget that people who do/did something day in-day out 1)use less energy by far doing it and 2)are - in the muscles that they use far far stronger than even a normally fit athlete. My favorite eg is this. Hold you hands above your head (while doing a simple excercise - squeeze a ball for eg) Now keep this up for as long as you can. If you're quite tough you might make 20 minutes. That is normal rock-climbing posture and excercise, It's not normal for most other things unless you are a construction electrician or work on ceilings...

Right. Which was kind of what I was getting at when I said in the original post you linked to about going fast down hills.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Most people probably won't notice if you get your horses or firearms wrong. But the ones who do might be more likely to read fantasy, and therefore more important to please.

Anonymous said...

There's already a lively discussion about coming across inaccuracies when you're reading--but what about being uncertain of the facts when you're writing? Say, hypothetically, that I were writing a scene about travelling extensively on horseback. I would have a tremendous amount of trouble seeing the scene clearly (and hence, writing it with strong, convincing detail) without actually knowing about horseback riding. If I "borrow" my idea of what something should be from Hollywood, it generally ends up making the scene very flat and unsatisfactory, and I become unhappy with it (this usually happens with fight scenes, since I've never been in a fight!). Does anyone else find this to be the case?

Anonymous said...

Addendum: I don't mean that things shouldn't be imagined, or anything like that. I just find that many of the believable details in fantasy--at least my favourite fantasy novels--come from the identifiable details, the little things that ground it in my own physical understanding of the world. In fact, I have a feeling that someone here posted about that a while back.

Anonymous said...

I'm willing to go easy with equine endurance - after all the MC's horse ought to be extra-ordinary. ;)

But when they have reigns, I tend to cringe. Kings have reigns, horses are steered with reins.

My advice when writing, is to not give out too many milage figures. The next town can be three days away on a good horse, or five with a wagon and team. That avoids the "But I drive that far to work and back every weekday" problem.

What about the other things, law, martial arts and rock climbing? Is it the abuse (or lack) of technical terms that is the worst offense? Can one describe a fight or a court scene without them at all?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, you're right.

I've done 5 years Takwondo, Aikido and Iaido (Samurai sword) and it is impossible to describe a fight scene without using technical terms.

Your reader doesn't want to have to learn a whole pile of terms before they can understand what's happened. And if you're writing about an invented world, who can say if they would invent the same term for the same action?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Ori, you are so right.

Fantasy readers are likely to be in reenactment groups.

I saw a guy in full armour do a forward roll, to prove that armour is not as cumbersome as people claim.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, great post!

I have a thing about boats.

You can't stand up in a dingy/tinnie/small boat. If you do and try to do anything other than balance, you'll fall out of the boat.

I've never sailed on a yacht or one of those old sail boats, but I have walked through the Endeavor when it was berthed in Brisbane and it was small!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

The other thing that tripped me up, even after doing research was this.

I was writing about paddle steamers on the Murray River (very different from the Mississippi). They sometimes use steel cables tied to trees on the bank to help them drag submerged trunks from the river. And sometimes those cables would snap and fling back in a whiplash effect, killing someone.

According to the old timers' tales, a cable could cut someone in half.

Then Mythbusters came along and proved a cable would cause extensive internal injuries, but it would not cut someone in half.

So I guess, we should send all our queries to Mythbusters!

KylieQ said...

I've just finished reading a book where the hero drops out of a time portal and straight over the edge of a cliff. She manages to (while falling) position herself over a conveniently-placed tree below and lands with no more force than to snap a few twigs and get some grazes and then is able to climb down and retrieve the contents of her handback. Hello? Is anyone else picturing her impaled on the branches after a fall like that? Or at least with a few broken limbs? Possibly her neck?

I've just finished another one set in ancient Egypt where there is a description of the scent of certain fruits wafting across a garden at night. Now I could be wrong (quite possible - this is set some time after the period I'm most familiar with) but I don't think they had those particular fruits in ancient Egypt. As I said, it's out of my area of interest so the writer could be quite right but it was enough to jar me out of the story and go rummaging for my notes on what sort of fruit was available.

And then there is the one (actually it could be one of the same two or something else) where the hero and her companion have to cross a river in a cave. They have to do it in a boat with the hero standing on her companion's shoulders while she retrieves something from the top of the cave. 'Nuff said.

Kate said...

This post should have had me ova the moon despite its poultry treatment of a topic dear to my heart. And then, after egging us on, you complain because we join in the yolk!

Seriously, the most dangerous knowledge is "the things you know that ain't so". I have to wonder how many people think those sweeping, epic battle sequences in the Lord of the Rings movies are representative? (hint: no. If they were, they'd be so horrifically gruesome no-one could watch them)

The same goes for just about any historical battle scene in any movie, and even more so in any documentary. They don't rename streams "Bloody Run" when there's clean, untouched grass a few feet away.

Similarly, a lot of the fast horse journeys involved established roads and regular changes of animal. There's a sequence in Dumas' Three Musketeers where they have to get from Paris to Calais in a screaming hurry. They get there by riding the horses to exhaustion, then switching for fresh animals at wayside inns. By the time they're coming back - at a rather more leisurely pace - the horses have recovered from the abuse and are fit to carry riders back. (Yes, it was a bit more complicated than that - but Dumas was also writing at a time when he could reasonably assume that most people who would read his adventures knew enough about horses).

A few more eggs ;) Titanic... Here we have the water which is so cold it will freeze you to death in half an hour, give or take, and yet the main characters are running around in it, fumbling with KEYS underwater... While panicked and oxygen starved. Yeah riiiiight. And that was before the rubber bollards (when the ship is almost vertical and people are sliding down the deck. Some of them hit bollards. Which bend. Um.)

Any book positing a hidden, organized, secret society of anything which has lasted for centuries. Ditto conspiracy. Especially if no-one has ever found out about it and the secret/conspiracy is inherently difficult to keep secret. There's a rather popular - and admittedly quite a lot of fun - recent release that has this premise. I did my best to ignore the premise and just enjoy the romp.

Any book assuming that politicians are capable of vast, generations-long conspiracies. Er. No. Politics inevitably selects for short-term motivations and instant megalomania. For something like that to actually work, it would need to be really well set up.

Aaaand, from the world's worst book, a species that is sexually compatible with humans, and the male... excitation gives human females intense, continuous... Yeah. Pull the other one mate, it plays jingle bells.

Chris McMahon said...

Well how can you go past the old 'we'll blast the asteroid out of the sky with nukes' chestnut?

For a start, anything with enough mass to pose a threat to the Earth will not be deflected by the nukes we have and second, to have any chance of changing an asteroids course you would have to apply thrust when the thing was WAY out - much further than we could even send a nuke right now (most are designed just to fly up and then down again).

Then there is the issue of the nature of the asteroid. You need to determine its internal structure and composition before you would know the effect of any applied force/explosion on its surface.

Yep. That one really gets me.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, the problem REALLY starts when you get them right - and joe average reader says 'that's wrong, I saw in Robin Hood (men in tights)/ James Bond etc. how they do it.' And yes, this happens. Often.

Dave Freer said...

Irreverently: Two things come to mind for things you've never personally experienced -1)Framing:- the fight in the mind of the fighter is more real than one anyone could write. All you need to do is give the right cues, and provide the outline (frame of reference) and Bob's your Auntie (if you kick them right there). 2)U-tube is your friend. So is a boxing match. Go and watch. It's research not vicarious pleasure in vi'lence ;-).

Dave Freer said...

Matapam... that's a tricky one. "Bridge up the open book to the roof, grab a pussy and lean out to the offwidth. It narrows out and you can switch to jams till you're up against the next roof. You can get a heel hook in the crack, reach right, and then you kingswing across on a sloper to layback up the arete."
"Climb up that corner and hold on under the overhang and lean out until you can reach a vertical crack that's too big to hold onto but too small to get into...

Technical terms may be correct and make it easier to describe- to another afficionado... and Greek to anyone else.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena - on boats - We know standing in a small, moving boat is tricky - but then you have the problem that people who do this all their lives DO stand and walk around. (think of a gondolier or a small sampan straw hatted operator, or even a punt at Cambridge. You or I try it and we'll fall overboard... it's a tough line to walk. (or deck)

Dave Freer said...

KylieQ - What fruit? I am curious. (I love food history). As for the falling part... my word! Not that people haven't had miraculous landings - and been badly injured from short falls.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, I think it was a hope that if she pulled the other one it would play 'Good Vibrations'not Jingle-bells :-) Wish fulfilment in a book.

The historical battles bit is great eg though. Real combat is as heroic and wonderful as a real car-crash.

Anyway with those eggs I'll be cowardly custard and leave in huff.

Dave Freer said...

Chris of course we'll blow it apart! (and, even if we could, the rain of medium large meteorites will be SOOO much better yes?)

KylieQ said...

Dave - lemons and peaches. I would have expected dates, persea fruit, figs, dom-palm fruit, grapes, even berries, but I've not come across either citrus or stonefruit before.

Dave Freer said...

KylieQ, you're defintely right about the lemon. Bergamot would have occured, and possibly been grown. Limes were being grown in SE asia. Lemons per se did not exist. When I wrote Pyramid scheme I had to have greek cooking without lemon...

Peaches IIRC are persian in origin but do require cold winters to flourish. But there is that 'crocodile on the sandbank' quote... is that egypt or india?

Dave Freer said...

Oh, Rowena - cables - I've actually met a trawelman with no lower leg from a cable-snag accident. A limb or a body in a bight in a cable (which can happen in these sort of incidents - especially with two cables) does that. Mythbusters... you know as scientist I find their testing quite narrow and limited to what people think happens (not what could possibly happen). I've seen a couple given certain circumstances the the myth is not disproven - It's just not tested properly.
For your own experiment take a long thin piece of meat (or cheese ;-)) loop a piece of trace wire around it and jerk either end of the wire.

KylieQ said...

Dave, I didn't know peaches need a cold winter. I guess that rules them out. I can forgive getting the more complex things wrong - philosophies, ways of thinking - but food is just so easy to research that I can't understand why anyone wouldn't take the time to look it up.

I'm not familiar with the crocodile on the sandbank quote??

Dave Freer said...

Kylie Q. - from the first Amelia Peabody novel, Elizabeth Peters - homo-erotic opening quote which seemed to have little to do with the rest of the book set in Egypt.
"Across the river there is a boy with a bottom like a peach, alas I cannot swim and there is a crocodile on the sandbank"

I don't sadly remember where it is from. I'm losing it.

Kate said...


If it played "Good Vibrations" I'd be seriously worried. The thing isn't a flute.

And if you're being a cowardly custard, does that mean you're going to quiche your ass goodbye?