Rarely Pure and Never Simple.

While a significant proportion of books fail Immerse Or Die on usage, punctuation, or other technical issues, reader disbelief has tripped more than one. Often it is the actually implausible, but sometimes the issue is reality seeming impossible. So, assuming Aristotle is right that fiction should put the plausible impossible before the implausible possible, how might one do it?

The only truths a reader has are those the author includes; and in the absence of the author stating something, readers will fill in the details themselves. Which means, to avoid contradicting a reader’s inner vision of events, an author has to mention anything critical before the reader fills that detail in: if a serial killer is hunting brunettes, not mentioning the protagonist is a brunette until after the killer attacks will leave readers feeling cheated; the truth of the protagonist’s hair colour takes second place to making the reader believe they can be a victim.

This becomes even more important with things that aren’t as commonplace as hair colour. For example, there are videos of people testing various ways of using a bow and arrows which show both that quivers are not efficient and a trained archer can maintain a high rate of fire while performing feats of athleticism; yet everyone “knows” archers use quivers and only elves can shoot a second arrow before the first one hits while leaping from a wall.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

– Oscar Wilde

It is easy for an author to fall back on critics being wrong, but – even if they are – being technically correct won’t get a reader to carry on reading a book that isn’t plausible. So, an author might be forgiven for keeping the little known snippets in the research folder and writing about what everyone “knows”; and that can work if it isn’t also the really cool idea that sparked the plot.

But, and this is where it gets tricky, if common knowledge is – rather than just being fuzzy – actively wrong, people who are very interested in that area will notice, and some of them will stop reading the book because it isn’t plausible.

So how do you deal with common knowledge being wrong?

First, check things are correct. Act out your fight scenes to make sure timings and movements are possible. Check the actual dates events were first recorded, so you don’t have Muslims praying to Mecca before Mohammed gathered the tribes. This is where speculative fiction authors have it easier; there is no real world history to get in the way of the truth.

Second, make that truth plausible. Put the prop in an early scene so it is there to be used. Have two characters complain about traffic at the start of the book so the villain getting stuck at the end seems more reasonable than a quick escape. Put hints your protagonist has a particular skill chapters before it is needed; for example, if they need to cut bindings with an axe in the middle of a fight without hitting the maiden’s wrist, earlier in the book show them splitting wood without pausing using single strokes of an axe. This is where speculative fiction authors have it harder, because there is no real world history to provide all the assumptions readers make about people and events.

Of course, it isn’t just fiction that follows this rule: even the thing that should arguably be most about truth, political debate, is (especially in the lead up to elections) more about being seen to be in tune with people’s beliefs than proving you have the best grasp of what needs to be done.

Do you avoid implausible but true things in your writing, or stick to the truth no matter what? If you do contradict common knowledge, how do you support the truth?

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2 thoughts on “Rarely Pure and Never Simple.

  1. I have on thing I’ve stuck with in a lot of my books: people not getting stabbed with a sword through the chest. In reality, there’s a lot of thick bone in the way and a sword would be likely to jam into it. Plus, in medieval times, a stab through the gut would kill someone from sepsis eventually, even if it didn’t hit anything vital. So people in Bytarend don’t go for a chest shot.

    Other than one character and it’s pointed out he’s foolish to try to. That’s my attempt to explain why others don’t try for the heart.

    Like

    1. As far as I know, Western sword styles weren’t that big on stabbing at all prior to fencing. For all the sharpening that happens in books, most broadswords were closer to a chisel than a razor, so would work best with swings not lunges.

      Liked by 1 person

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