Thursday, September 3, 2009
The Plausible Impossible
Eons ago - or maybe it just feels like that - I watched a rerun of the Disney episode The Plausible Impossible (it was a rerun because the original was made quite a few years before I made my appearance in the world). For reasons I don't think I'm capable of explaining, I found myself thinking about it as part of what writers do.
My memory of the episode was a series of examples of how something that we know is impossible could be made to seem plausible rather than just silly. To switch from Disney to Warner Brothers, think of all those times poor Wile E Coyote ran off the edge of a cliff, hovered there briefly, then started to fall. That actually makes kind of sense to our subconscious, because we all know how hard it is to stop when you're running full tilt, and we've all felt that moment between when the swing stops going up and gravity takes charge again, even if not all of us were dumb enough to swing as high as we could and then let go right then to see how far we could 'fly' (I used to let go with the swing nearly horizontal, but I have this weird relationship with danger).
What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Okay, you don't ask but I'm going to tell you anyway. In science fiction and fantasy, we have to build a framework that makes the impossible seem plausible. Take magic, for instance. We all - I hope - know that real magic of the sparks flying from the fingers variety and the zap of death isn't possible. When we write a world with magic, we have to do it so that someone who can shoot lightning bolts from their fingers without becoming the latest victim of spontaneous combustion is plausible. I'm not going into how, because there's any number of ways from asbestos-lined underwear up. The point is that we can't just have someone wander around zapping people. We have to give a reason and it has to make sense.
It has to make more sense than real life, which is distressingly random and senseless. Pratchett calls this whole concept narrativium - we want things to make sense, and if there isn't a story there, we'll make one. Thanks to that, if a writer serves up a book without a story or where things don't make sense, that book is going to be useful only as emergency replacement paper in the bathroom. In short, we have to make sure whatever we do is plausible no matter how unlikely it might be.
The impossibility can be embedded in the background assumptions, like whatever macguffin is used to explain or side-step faster than light travel in a lot of science fiction, or it can be up front grinning at you and trying to zap you to death. Either way, it's got to fit in your framework, or like the space-faring dinosaurs Sarah mentioned in the comments of her thread yesterday, you're just going to scratch your head, shrug, and walk away (Or you'll be like me and gleefully shred).
Sarah's shifter books are an excellent example of the art: the ability to shift is never explained, but it takes energy and the shifters need to eat, preferably meat, afterwards, and while they're shifted the animal form dominates their thoughts - it takes a lot more effort for her characters to think while they're not in human form. All of this makes sense at a gut level. We all know you don't get anything without paying for it somehow, and we know if something is work you need to eat and/or rest to recover from it.
So who else does a good job of making the impossible plausible? Shakespearean 'rats' and mad-Irish bats included, of course.