Category Archives: Suspension of Disbelief

Research Until Your Fingers Bleed

This month the Fictorians are focusing on posts about what we, as authors, believe sets our work apart, or at least, what we believe makes our writing more authentic and compelling. In other words, what is our “special sauce?”

I’d like to think there is more than one thing that I do which gives my writing authenticity and makes it worth reading, but there is one thing I have done that seems to surprise most people.

My first epic fantasy series is set in a stone age culture, and the protagonist is in training to become a “flint-knapper” which is a person who creates stone tools. In fact, one of those stone tools, a knife, is one of the most important artifacts in the story. His skill with a bow is also critical to the story line.

When I started writing the story, I rapidly came to realize that I was having trouble writing scenes that revolved around stone age technology. I wanted to bring the reader into those scenes. I wanted those scenes to reveal the protagonist’s persistence, his struggle to master his craft, and eventually his talent and pride in creating the tools that his village needed to survive.

So I did “research.” I searched for every article or paper I could find on the ancient art of flint-knapping. I watched videos. I purchased stone arrowheads and spearheads at flea markets. Like these:

But even after that, I never really felt like my scenes reached that level of authenticity I wanted.

So I set out to learn flint-knapping myself. Luckily there was a little shop on my way home from work that sold rocks. So one day I stopped in and looked around. I got to talking with the owner, and eventually told him that I was an aspiring author who wanted to learn flint-knapping. His eyes lit up, and an hour later I left the store with a cloth sack filled with about twenty pounds of rocks. It turns out that making stone tools requires different kinds of rocks, plus some other tools, like antler tines or something similar. It looked sorta like this:

Then I set to work. I spent an hour or so after work and on weekends for weeks, bashing rocks together on my patio. It was a slow, painful and painstaking process, just to learn how to strike a blank with a hammerstone in the proper way to break off a suitable chunk of obsidian to START to make an arrowhead or spearpoint. And learning that took a toll on my fingers and thighs. Eventally I got some thick pieces of leather to protect my thighs and clothes, but there was really nothing you could do to protect your hands and fingers. If you wanted to make stone tools, especially arrowheads, spearpoints or knives, you were going to cut your fingers and hands.

And the cuts were not simple scrapes or splinters. Obsidian has been used to create scalpels for eye surgery because the result of a well-aimed blow will create an edge that is, literally, sharper than a razor. So those cuts bled copiously. My leather thigh protectors were soon stained with blood. This is a pretty good example of what that looked like:

I won’t pretend that I ever mastered the art of flint-knapping, but I did get decent enough to be able to make functional tools. But more importantly, I learned enough that when I returned to those scenes, the writing came from a natural understanding of the mechanics of the craft, as well as the risks.

“Write what you know” they say. Well, in this case, that’s what I decided to do. And I think it paid off in spades.

So, my fellow authors, when you need to learn something to make your story believable, research it, baby! Research until your fingers bleed!

Mine did.

(No, I didn’t make this. But this is what the knife in the book is modeled on. This was made by a professional flint-knapper, and is an example of what a skilled artisan can do with stone. My wife and daughter had the sheath custom-made for the knife. It’s a pretty cool combo.)

Lies, Damn Lies, and Story Telling

Writing fiction is, at root, an exercise in attempting to expose some deeper truth about life through a filter of things that never happened, people who never lived, and, sometimes, non-existent places. It is a common joke for fiction authors to say they “lie for a living.” (Well, in my case it would be a lie to say I make a living at it, at least so far, but that’s another story…)

But it is important, especially for new authors, to understand that even within the web of “lies” that an author is spinning into a story, it is generally critically important for the author to never lie to their reader.

Wait, how can I “not lie” if my entire story is a “lie” in the first place?

There is an unspoken contract between the person who is telling the story, and the person who is reading the story. That contract goes something like this: “I know this story is all made up out of whole cloth, but I am still willing to read it, with the expectation that the story will be internally consistent, and that within the context of the story itself, the author will not rely on duplicity to deceive me into believing one thing, only to learn that something else is the case.”

While the story itself is a “lie,” if the author breaks that trust in order to create what they consider to be a “twist,” then the reader will view that not as a mere “lie,” instead that will be seen as a “damn lie” and once a reader encounters a “damn lie” in a story, they may never trust that author again.

Today, aspiring authors are frequently told that their story must have a “twist,” or something unexpected and potentially shocking to the reader. Of course, the easiest way to do that, is to spend the entire story making you believe one thing, only to contradict that thing at the end just to create a “gotcha” moment for the author.

I won’t lie, I hate books that do that.

“But wait!” you might be saying. “Isn’t deceiving the reader the entire point for certain stories?”

In a sense that’s true. But usually those stories aren’t about lying to the reader, they are about creating an impression by allowing readers to make certain assumptions, and then (sometimes, gently, sometimes abruptly) guiding the reader to realize, at some point, that their assumptions were wrong.

But, at that point the reader must be able to smack themselves in the head and say: “Oh, yeah! I get it now, the clues were there all along, and I just didn’t put them together.” Because if they don’t, their reaction will be more like “What the frack!? What the heck is this?”

The clues being there all along, and the reader finally putting them together, is the heart of story telling. That’s why story telling is not a one-way activity. For a good book to really reach and speak to a reader, that reader must put some effort into reading it, figuring out what the author is doing, and putting it all together at the end. And no reader wants to put that effort into something, only to discover that the author just broke the unspoken covenant, just for a quick “gotcha.”

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

MacGuffins, McGuffins, and Maguffins – Oh, My!

JULES
You win.
Jules raises his hand off the briefcase.

 

JULES
It’s all yours, Ringo.

 

PUMPKIN
Open it.

 

Jules flips the locks and opens the case, revealing it to
Pumpkin but not to us. The same light SHINES from the case.
Pumpkin’s expression goes to amazement. Honey Bunny, across
the room, can’t see inside.

 

HONEY BUNNY
What is it? What is it?

PUMPKIN
(Spoken softly) Is that what I think it is?

 

Jules nods his head: “Yes.”

 

PUMPKIN
It’s beautiful.

 

Jules nods his head: “Yes.”

 

Throughout the movie Pulp Fiction, characters have been influenced by a mysterious briefcase owned by the big crime boss Marcellus Wallace. This plain black object is found in the opening sequence when Vincent and Jules recover it from some bumbling criminals.

The briefcase is an example of a MacGuffin, sometimes spelled McGuffin or Maguffin. We know that it is important because bullets were exchanged and lives were lost in its recovery.

So, what is it?

The answer is, it really doesn’t matter.

No, seriously. The simple briefcase is there for one purpose — to begin the story or plot. The audience doesn’t really care about the briefcase because they’re more interested in what the characters are doing.

Quentin Tarantino even pokes a little fun at the audience in the ending scene, excerpted above. When Jules opens the case and shows the contents to Ringo/Pumpkin, all we (the audience) knows is that the case is valuable and, now that it’s opened, it gives off a mysterious glow that takes everyone’s breath away. Now we want to know what is in the briefcase, but Jules slams it shut and wraps up the scene and the movie. We never find out what was the impetus of over two hours of craziness. Don’t believe me? Just Google “pulp fiction briefcase” and enjoy 174,000 hits and lots of pages with different theories, including Kryptonite and Marcellus’ soul.

The joke was on us, which made the movie even more memorable. It also helped to spur debates as to what was in there, which helped to get the word out concerning the movie.

MacGuffins have been around for a while. The concept can be seen in many old stories, such as the Holy Grail or a certain black bird in a Bogart movie. The purpose of a MacGuffin is to provide a method to get the plot rolling, and the object can be anything external. A big pile of cash or even vague concepts such as glory and honor can be used to begin the tale. The plot revolves around the characters, while the MacGuffin is really ignored for the most part once the story is kickstarted in high gear.

Alfred Hitchcock was well known to use this device to begin his movies starting back in The 39 Steps. Adventures and thrillers used MacGuffins extensively in order to have the story moving along as quickly as possible. Even the original Star Wars: A New Hope uses stolen plans inside R2-D2 as a MacGuffin. Everyone is running around looking for the plans hidden in the little droid. The chase evolves, and in this case so does the MacGuffin’s container — into a beloved iconic character. The data gets extracted at the end of the movie and the final battle against the Death Star commences.

A MacGuffin is a little white lie that the audience or reader plays along with to get to the fun part of the journey. After all, a story about a briefcase would be rather boring, with it being worried about scuffs or how its hinges could use a spot of oil, thank you very much. The hand that holds the briefcase, however, can be a thrilling and satisfying tale.

 


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, MWG, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.