You read a book or see a movie, set in our own time, in a setting with which you’re quite familiar, one populated by fully realized, complex characters. After finishing it, you think, “Well, that was unbelievable.”
Then you read something far removed from anything in our experiences or our history. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Filled with hobbits, orcs, flying dragons, walking and talking trees, wizards, elves, and magic. You finish it, and think, “Wow, loved it! It was so real!”
Given the subject matter, how are such opposite reactions possible?
The answer lies within the internal logic of the respective stories. The writer can make any material believable or unbelievable, satisfying or unsatisfying, depending on whether or not the internal logic is consistent.
J.R.R. Tolkien could introduce magic or monsters at any point in LOTR, because this was the world he constructed and then detailed. The logic and the ground rules are established from the start, right down to the language structures and histories of Middle Earth’s various peoples. Ditto with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and with the absurdism of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. These books possess specific internal logics which wouldn’t work in other stories. If Catch-22 suddenly veered halfway through into a somber, straightforward telling, serious as all get-out, it would have done a face-plant because it would have defied the wacky logic and structure.
Suppose Author Jane, working on her contemporary literary novel about the troubles of a kitchen staff in Midtown Manhattan, writes herself into a corner and just needs to come up with something, anything, to write her way out. So Jane writes a gimmicky scene employing a wholly unlikely coincidence, just to get out of her jam, rather than working out what would likely happen in the world inhabited by these cooks and their manipulative chef, according to their personalities and tendencies. Now, in the real world, unlikely and unbelievable coincidences sometimes happen. But that doesn’t make them okay in the world of fiction.
Within mundane, everyday settings, the rules of internal logic apply differently, depending upon tone. What’s believable and acceptable in comedy can differ greatly from that in a drama, and license by the reader is granted in differing proportion.
In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, we aren’t immediately transported to the fantastical land of Lilliput. There’s buildup to that point. Swift preps us by establishing the comedic and satirical tone. He gently and savagely skewers the norms and attitudes of society, then shipwrecks Gulliver in a land that requires our buy-in, and he does so seamlessly. If he’d been somber or dramatic in tone to that point, it would have flopped. As it is, he is free to ratchet up his satire by orders of magnitude. The point is, he started pointing us in that direction from the first paragraph. Such is the magic of words.
When your story requires suspension of disbelief, take pains to start laying the groundwork on page one. And if the subject matter doesn’t require suspension of disbelief, establish that the rules governing our society also govern those of the story, and stick to them. The possibilities stretch beyond the horizon, as long as internal logic remains consistent and the rules of that Universe chosen are followed.
It may be a world of magic you’re writing about, but the real magic lives within the words.