Believability and the Reader’s Representative

(cross-posted from wordsfromtheherd.com)

I’m at 4th Street Fantasy Convention this weekend. In a panel last night, there was a discussion about suspension of disbelief. One technique mentioned (by Scott Lynch) was “lampshading,” in which the author, knowing that they’re taking extreme liberties with the laws of physics, or medicine, or whatever, has a character point out the discrepancy so that someone else can confess that they also have no clue how it works, or say, “oh yeah, we found a way around that.” Or in some other way indicate that the author is aware of the problem, and that it’s part of the fantastic premise, not a mistake.

This, it seems to me, is a subset of a more general technique for addressing issues of plausibility – communicate to the reader that you haven’t dropped the ball, by having someone in the story raise the reader’s objection. Then dismiss it, as in the lampshading technique, or deal with it.

For instance, someone else asked about elements which readers will disbelieve even though they’re factual. TV and movies have trained people into unrealistic expectations of the effectiveness of gun silencers, crime labs, and the ease of opening electronic locks. Ancient Roman statuary was brightly painted. And so on. You have to decide whether you want to take time out from your story to fight this battle. Do we include something we know is inaccurate but that people will believe, or just omit that element so as to not have to deal with it? Or do we plunge in and try to correct the misconception? Or hope we’ve established enough authority that the reader will believe?

I think there’s another way. Use the silencer, but have someone else there (besides the shooter, who already knew, and the shootee, who has other concerns) to comment, “Wow, I thought silencers worked a lot better than that.” To which the shooter might reply, “Yeah, you watch too much TV.” No further explanation needed. If the reader’s really curious they can look it up, and meanwhile, it doesn’t look like the author made a mistake. The reader isn’t broken out of the narrative (unless they choose to go consult wikipedia immediately) and their confidence in the author is increased rather than damaged.

Or, if someone behaves totally out of character, you have to decide whether you’ve established sufficient trust as an author to say nothing about it and explain it later (and you’d better do that), or whether you need to show that you realize there’s a problem. Sam, always polite to everyone, is terribly rude to the jeweler. You know why; the reader doesn’t. So maybe someone else on the scene who knows Sam, remarks on it. “Wow, what was that about?”

Of course, you have to be careful not to make matters worse by having a character whose obvious purpose is to shill for the author. To make this work, the situation has to be such that there can naturally be a character who would be puzzled by whatever puzzled the reader.

We also don’t want an “As you know, Bob,” moment. That’s why I think immediately explaining the inconsistency, as opposed to just noting it, is usually a mistake.

So to summarize, the “Reader’s Representative” technique (my term) has three variants, at least:

  1. Lampshading, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem, which you claim as part of your allowed quota of pretend play.

  2. The Promissory Note, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem and you mean to explain later — then you’d better not forget to do that.

  3. The Gentle Correction, in which you show that you know the reader might take issue with what just happened, but they’re wrong and they should look it up if it’s going to bother them.

But don’t do this unless you need it. If you’ve done your homework and shown that you really know weapons, then describe one that works in a way the reader didn’t expect, they’ll likely go along with it. It’s hard to know when you’ve established that credibility, but that’s where beta readers come in.

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