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.


Anonymous said...

This part actually takes up a lot of my writer time. I confess to often asking Steve for solutions for my implausibility challenges. He's a great out-of-the-box thinker and can often "justify" the weirdness going on in sf/f stories. Usually, I'll take his solution, keep the core, and then finangle it to my liking. Right now, my question is how someone whose only paranormal ability (so far) is to see auras defend herself with her own aura. I think another aura-connected-ability must come into play to do it, but how? Can her aura of goodness "eat" the bad person's dark aura? Or is seeing the bad person's aura enough of a "heads-up" so that she can use that as her advantage? Hmmm... Let me ask Steve.

I agree, Kate. I have a much easier time attacking the story if I have all of the questions like this answered ahead of time. It's a large part of any sf/f story. I wonder if some authors go in all willy nilly and figure it out as they go. I'm a planner and just haven't been able to do that yet.

Linda Davis

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I tend to overthing my magic, so that it has a "science fictiony" feel. I have had people complain about that in reviews, but I have to believe it before I can write it.

As for Willy Coyotte, my life is so much like his. I empathize. I spend half of my life running mid air.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good post, Kate.

Lisa, I'm in the middle of germinating a new system of magic that might be science so I know where you are coming from.

Sarah, I tend to look for a scientific explanation even for magic. I think if it did exist, we'd have a whole set of laws for it. We have laws for everything.

matapam said...

Actually I have more problems with implausible actions of characters. Especially really stupid ones. Despite being able to pick up a newspaper and read three even dumber things.

Good Auras eating Bad Auras? No problem. It's like acids and bases. The pH of the mix depends on the amounts and strengths of the two . . .

Wiley Coyote? Merely a stretching of time perception.

Fireballs from fingers? Geeze, you just have to throw them quickly, not hang on . . . Umm, let me check this manuscript . . .

Kate said...


The hows and whys are important to the story, even if the reader never sees them there. I've been hit by a new piece that reads like epic fantasy with vamps, but has a SFnal background. The thing is, no-one in that world knows anything about that background. The vamps don't know they were bioengineered to be spies and assassins. So while I had to know how it all worked and fitted together, and how the societies I'm working with got to be there, chances are it will never actually surface.

Sometimes I can dive in without knowing all of it - but when I do, once I reach a point where I need to know more, I can't write more until I work out what it is I've missed, and how it all fits in with my story and world.

Kate said...


I personally prefer magic to make sense. I don't care if it feels SFnal or not, so long as it's not completely random "wave a wand and neat stuff happens" - unless of course you've got a world where magic is random, unreliable, and only a complete lunatic would attempt to actually use it.

Kate said...


Absolutely - we've got a built in need to classify and apply rules to everything, whether they belong there or not. Real magic would have rules. They might be very strange rules, but they'd be there (Thou shalt not perform this spell unless clad only in a chain maille bikini - which if the person performing it is an elderly male wizard, well...)

Kate said...


Hoo yeah. Especially when the author tells you how clever and brilliant X is, then X does something so phenomenally dumb you want to bash his/her head into the nearest wall.

If good auras always eat bad auras unless the bad aura is bigger than the good one, no problems. I have... issues with internal inconsistency.

Anonymous said...

On the good aura eating bad aura's, I'll say that as a somewhat science minded reader, it would probably bother me, unless the converse was also true.

One person had said, no problem, it's like acids and bases, well yes, but, with acids and bases, unless one is significantly stronger or in significantly greater concentration, you usually end up with neutral as they cancel each other out. The classic example is mixing equal volumes of hydrochloric acid (HCl) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and you get water (H2O) and table salt (NaCl) which is a neutral salt and a pH 7 solution.

So excusing my ramble, it could work for me with sufficient set up, but the protagonist would need to either have a VERY strong aura (basically the brute force approach), such that she could basically over power the person with the bad aura's aura (and run the risk that anyone with a strong enough bad aura could eat her instead) OR if her aura is NOT much stronger than those that she's needing to defend herself against it's used as more of a warning system as you previously suggested. Oops, one more idea, is if she's willing to tangle equally and both people's aura's are weakened and or both are flat on their backs for a while, again balance, but in someways fair.

"Lady" Dawn

matapam said...

Oh yeah, the Bad Magic has to be able to win, otherwise where's the risk in a magical battle?

And I think it's fair to add in amounts and qualities of training and different disciplines of magic. Black Belt Karate Magic vs Untrained Hulking Brute Force Magic. Technique and sneakiness has to count for something.

And then there's the numbers thing too. Your magician may be hot stuff, but what does he do against a couple hundred well trained infantry? I like Really Powerful Magic Users of various sorts. But to make a story problem a challenge, I make most of their spells short range, and keep the numbers of magicians low. I really hate the books that are nothing but the Good Incredibly Powerful Magician countering the evil actions of the Bad IPM.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Quite true, matapam; for magic to ring with plausibility, every measure has to have a countermeasure, and the effectiveness of either depends on the skill, experience, and cleverness of the individual wielding them. Plus, just because someone is strong in magic doesn't mean they're strong in everything else (outside of a heavily munchkinized RPG, that is).

Like David Weber's Bahzell Bahnakson aptly pointed out:

"...there's precious little a wizard can be doing with a foot of steel in his guts..."


Kate said...

Lady Dawn,

Apologies for the delay in responding - I spent the weekend at the North American Discworld Convention and am gradually regaining something resembling a mind.

It's really all in how you set up your rules. With the aura example, if the stronger aura eats the weaker one of opposite nature, you'd get something similar to the acid/base analogy. What happens after the eating would be a different set of rules.

The main thing is that once you decide how good auras and bad auras interact, you stick with it and don't change the rules halfway through.

Kate said...


Absolutely the bad guys need to be able to win. Preferably (for story tension) they should have most if not all the advantages. It's boring watching superpowered hero smash another enemy. Watching someone use the other side's strengths and weaknesses to his (her or its) advantage is much more satisfying.

That does inherently bring in Black Belt Karate Magic vs Brute Force in Quantity. It also opens up Black Belt Karate Magic vs Esoteric Other School of Magic and a whole range of fun.

Plus, most magicians do indeed find being targeted by a whole lot of arrows, large rocks and the like a tad disconcerting.

Kate said...


Absolutely. And if said magician is fending off said foot plus of steel, he's not watching out for the arrow coming from the other direction. And so on.

There's a lot of tactics involved, and not in the roll the dice pick a number sense of role playing games, either.