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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Suspension of disbelief - when it works and when it doesn't.

So I finished up a book last night that really made me want to throw it against the wall, and although I thought of doing a scathing review, I've decided against it. I don't think anyone should waste their time reading the book, but I also don't want to turn into basher. Although, if you're really curious about what book I'm referring to, you could go to my 2010 book list and figure it out. But having read this book, and a few others recently that also had me doing the wagly eyebrow thing, I decided to do a post on suspension of disbelief. More precisely I want to give those writing sci-fi or paranormal books some advice - from a scientist's point of view.

A little about my background: If you don't already know, I have a PHD in cellular, molecular biology and genetics. I currently work with plants, but I did my thesis on a multicellular organism, a nematode. I know the basics of physiology, developmental biology and gene therapy. On the writer's side, I write paranormal young adult. I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, but I do like some dystopian stuff. I loved Jurassic Park, both the book and the movie. Now, given my background, you would probably think I'd be the perfect person to write sci-fi. You'd be wrong.  I have the scientist's hang up of having to make sure that every claim I make is backed up by scientific reason and experimental data. I cringe at the thought of publishing something (scientific) and then being wrong, and I can't get over that hang up when I'm writing fiction. I'd rather write something that is totally unexplainable (like angels) and admit that it is unexplainable as opposed to creating some human-feline hybrid straight from Dr. Moreaus' garden and have every scientist I know shake their heads at the implausibility. It would be embarrassing, and I would feel like I was letting the scientific community down. So this post is not really written from a sci-fi writer's perspective, but more from the perspective of a writer who knows a bit about science.

My thoughts on the combination of science and suspension of disbelief boils down to three guidelines:

1. Do not feel obligated to include a scientific explanation for your paranormal creature just because you think it's cool, the thing to do, or will attract readers. In most cases it won't. Unless you really know what you're talking about and unless you really have a plausible explanation for what your creature is or does, you're just going to sound like a ninny.

Examples: In The Time Traveler's Wife, there's a part where the MC goes to see a geneticist about his time-traveling abilities and the scientist creates a time-traveling transgenic mouse based on what he's discovered. Now on the surface, this sounds neat. A time-traveling mouse? How cool is that? Every researcher I know would love to get their hands on that rodent. Niffenegger even goes into details about the various genes that are altered to produce this mouse, genes that are involved in circadian rhythms and are known in the scientific world as the "clock" genes. Seems like a perfect fit, right? WRONG!!! So, so wrong. Biology (and genetics in particular) cannot explain time travel. Physics can attempt to explain time travel. Anyone who understands basic science could tell you that this is the route to go if you're going to get into the details of it, and it's this that boggles my mind. Why did Niffenegger incorporate biology and genetics into her explanation? It makes no sense. A simple Google search with the words "theories of time travel" would have set Niffenegger on the right path, but obviously she didn't do this. Which makes me think that she just threw this biology/genetics angle in to look cool. Here's a question: Did the addition of this affect the book at all? The TTW is a NYT bestseller and literary in nature. There was no reason to include any scientific explanation at all, and it detracted from the bigger plot which was really good. So, it would have done well without it, and if anything it knocked it down a few degrees, at least for this reader and I think for many others. Even though it was a NYT bestseller, Niffengger had no idea it would be so successful; it was her first novel. So this brings up a bigger question: If you were Niffeneggar and you had no idea how successful your novel was going to be, would you take the risk of making yourself look silly when it's unnecessary? I would hope the answer is no.

One of the reasons I'm making this point is that I see this all the time in novels, on the SYW boards, and in query letters. People throw up words like genes and mutants thinking it will make their novel look sexier, but it's not scientific terms that sell your story. The thing that sells your story is a good plot with high stakes and memorable characters. You don't need big scientific explanations, unless you're writing sci-fi and if you are, then you'd better do your best to align your creative genius with scientific fact. Which brings me to guideline number 2....

2. Less is more. If you don't completely understand how something works, then don't try to incorporate every aspect of that science into your novel and explain it. Keep it simple. Accurate, but simple. Think small stretches of the imagination.

Example: Jurassic Park. Classic movie, wonderful book. Plausible? No. But with a simple stretch of the imagination we could maybe, possibly, sometime in the far far future, see something like it. Crighton kept things simple. He based his thriller on concepts that nearly every high schooler had learned in biology class. Mosquitoes drink blood, they were around in the time of the dinosaurs, therefore they could have had dino blood in their tummies and could possibly have been caught in honey or tree sap and gotten stuck there for future generations to find as amber and then extract the dinosaur DNA.  A person who had taken 8th grade biology would buy this and of course, most of the world did. Now for the record, even Crighton's simple explanation had flaws. Red blood cells actually do not contain DNA (they don't have nuclei) and the quantities of white blood cells in blood is fairly low, not enough to extract significant amounts of DNA from. Furthermore, the blood would have begun to degrade as soon as it hit that mosquito's stomach so it's unlikely that a good deal of intact cells would have been extracted in any case. Finally, you can't simply mix DNA from a dinosaur with that of another creature (they used frogs in the book) and expect to get an intact creature out of it. Not going to happen. There are a whole list of other things that Jurassic Park got wrong, and if you're interested I encourage you to check out the book The Science of Jurassic Park by David Lindley. It's a fascinating book that I read about 10 years ago that goes through nearly every step in the process of making a dinosaur, and while I admit I haven't researched to see if advancements have been made in the past 10 years, my guess would be that it's still pretty accurate.

The point here is that Crichton simplified things as best as he could, enough to make sense to the layman, but not so much that everyone noticed what he got wrong. Of course, some people did say that it was impossible, but there was enough there to get people (even scientists) thinking about it, enough to write books about it and begin to look into other possibilities. Mammoth DNA has been extracted, sequenced, and mammoth hemoglobin made in E. coli cells. This is far cry from resurrecting an entire species, but could it set us on the path? Maybe.

To look at an example where adding too much detail kills the concept: Okay, I'm going to talk a little about the book I read last night without giving away the title. Sorry guys, can't help myself. In this book, the MC finds out she's a fairy and that she is in fact a plant. Okay, that's kind of hard to buy, given that she looked human for most of her life, but let's assume that the reader was willing to accept that. If the author had stopped there, heck maybe I would have even let my suspension of disbelief suspend a little longer, but the author didn't stop there. She had to get technical and try to explain it in scientific terms - she had the MC's friend look at her cells under a microscope and whoa - her cells were shaped like plant cells and they had cell walls (note in the book it also says that animal cells have cell walls, only thinner. Okay, whatever.) Then the author delves even further into disgrace when she has the MC bleed a colorless sap (for the first time in her life at age 15) and she has her realize that she doesn't have a heartbeat or a heart (again for the first time in her life????). There's more, but I'll stop there because you get the point. By trying to delve into the science of it, it just came out as silly and unbelievable. Point is, with less information the author could have saved herself the trouble of looking like an idiot and then the reader at least could have stopped paying attention to her ridiculous theories and just enjoyed the story. And this brings me to my final point...

3. Story is and always will be the key. If the story is good and the writing top-notch, then readers will forgive you for being a little too creative with your science. It happens time and again. It happened for me recently with The Hunger Games. I loved, loved, Collin's explanation about the mockingjays and how they were bred and how they mated with the common bluejay(?) to become the mockingjays in the story. That was superb scientific thinking  - and accurate. The trackerjackers were also neat. But then...then she got to the mutts. As soon as I read about the monsters attacking that looked like the other contestants, I was sighing because let's face it, you can't breed a half-human half-dog "thing" within the one (two?) weeks in which the hunger games occurred. There's a little thing called development that an animal has to go through and this is a time-consuming process (along with the molecular biology which generally takes awhile) so at that point my thoughts about the science in THG changed. BUT, and this is the point here, the story was good enough that I was willing to overlook this and keep reading. In fact, the story was good enough for me to ignore other things (see thread here) that were less than plausible and even buy book 2 and 3. It's much the same concept as plot holes. As readers, if the story is good and the characters engaging, then we'll overlook areas where the plot doesn't make sense. But having that good story and good writing is the key. With that fairy example I gave, the writing was not very good. The characters were dull, the dialogue was boring and the book moved painfully slow (nothing happens for the first 4 chapters), so when she started sprouting her theories about people being plants, I just wasn't in the mood to buy it. And I didn't.

The question comes down to this: how do you know just how successful your story will be? How do you know that your writing is more superb than a dozen others? How do you know that you've written a bestseller and your reader will overlook your mistakes? You don't. It's that simple. Unless you've already beta tested it with 100+ readers, or unless you're already an established author with a huge following, you can't possibly know how forgiving your reader is going to be. So my advice is to be cautious. Focus on writing a good story with compelling characters, not on adding sexy scientific words or theories that will just have your readers shaking their heads. And if you must add a lot of scientific explanation, make sure that you really know what you're talking about or pass it by someone who does first. I love discussing book ideas and I'm open for questions if you want some professional (scientific) input.



Melanie said...

Wow! What a fanstically, brilliant and knowledgeable post! And I fully agree. Why get into the science of it. Just let the weird thing be without the explanation behind it. This is why I don't go into the whole story in my novel about why my characters have the powers they have. They just do and here's the crazy story they're involved in. Period.

I'm always so amazed by your science talk and I will definitely be asking you some future questions when needed. I had always wondered why you don't right books having to do with your line of work because it would seem you could right such a brilliant and plausible story, but your explanation makes TOTAL sense.

Great post, Angie. It was very articulate and well thought out and your examples were incredibly interesting.

Melanie said...

oops..."right" was supposed to say "write." Now I feel all nervous to look stupid hahaha :-) xoxo

Jen Daiker said...

Wow... what you do is a mouthful, and sounds so fancy... I now feel intimidate and it will continue each time I stop by your blog.

I agree with you, though I love romance, chick lit books are some of my favorite I could never... and I mean NEVER... write a romance novel. I suppose you could say I'm too much of a prude. My friend says "never say never" but she also isn't a prude, (so really, what does she know?)

Your post was amazing, the detail, the thought, every asepect was brilliant. It has also been awhile since I have visited, but it was well worth the stop by your place!

Not to mention your word verification rocked my world: Punwoszu (I wonder what it means)

E.J. Wesley said...

Great post, Angie! BTW, I'm a total Jurassic Park fan. I've been dinosaur crazy since I was little.

Nomes said...

this is brilliant!

and hahaha - you specialise in plants and read THAT book! Classic! I would have loved to have seen your expressions in certain scenes. Off topic here buut - what most bugged me about that book wasn't even the whole plant thing, but many many things particularly how bland and boring and dull everyone was. the dialogue had no life at all and certain characters looked perfect and acted perfect and that just doesn;t work for me. although, i do think the movie may be okay for tweens :)

i think the suspension of disbelief has to work in contemporary too. you have to set the scene for things to seem plausable if you;re writing a quirky rom-com as opposed to realistic drama.

somehow I am more forgiving when watching movies than reading books. in movies i can go with the flow but books have to get it right.

great post.

you are my genius buddy :)


Kaitlin Ward said...

Crazy awesome post! I'm writing a book right now that's going to for sure require some suspension of disbelief. I'm hoping I do number 2 properly, and people are able to suspend :)
(also, do you even have to make it to high school to learn the cell wall thing? I feel like that came up in middle school, since it's one of the most basic differences between an animal and plant cell...)

Angie said...

OMG, Nomes, please, please, PLEASE tell me they're not making that into a movie!! I think I may just cry. For the record, I'm not a plant biologist. I haven't even taken a botany class. I chose to do my post-doc in plants because a lot of the genes and signaling pathways are similar to those in more complex organisms (and I do love gardening). But yeah, it was cringe city. Mel has been listening to me rant for the past three days. Thanks for putting up with me, Mel. :)
I'm more forgiving with movies too. I've never really thought about the suspension of disbelief thing so much in contemporary books, but you are so right.

And thanks everyone for the nice comments on the post.

Mel - maybe I'm just chicken about writing sci-fi. haha. And I really like that you don't get into the why of how your characters have their special powers. That would probably turn me off, and you're so right. It's not about how they got that way, it's the story that they're involved in NOW.

EJ - love that you're a JP fan. I got my son watching all the movies when he was probably too young to really watch them but he loved all the stuff with the dinosaurs. Had all the names memorized and everything. I can still remember seeing it in the big theater.

Angie said...

Kaitlin - you're probably right!

KO said...

Yay for scientists!
This is a great post, and I agree totally (though I haven't read this book yet).

Remilda Graystone said...

Nice post. I agree with Nomes about why I didn't like the book, not that I made it too far into it. As soon as I got a whiff of the main character's perfection (I mean, seriously??? How is that even a little bit relatable?), I returned it to the library. I too was surprised to find out they'd be making it into a movie.

Anyway, great post. One of my next WIPs is going to really revolve around science so I'm cringing at the thought of how much research I'm going to have to do (which is why I've put it off for so long despite my itch to get working on it).

Nomes said...

haha. it's a Disney movie starring Miley Cyrus.

and it landed her a four book contract. the sequels out, and , ah, haven't read it :)

Hopefully some scriptwriters will breathe some life into it. but it does seem unfair when i can think of some truly deserving books that would be translated to the screen just wonderfully...

Angie said...

Actually this "Off topic here buut - what most bugged me about that book wasn't even the whole plant thing, but many many things particularly how bland and boring and dull everyone was. the dialogue had no life at all and certain characters looked perfect and acted perfect and that just doesn;t work for me" is exactly the point I was making about suspension of disbelief. The rest of the story (and writing elements) have to be there first in order for the reader to accept a concept so bizarre.

Vee said...

AWESOME POST. I'm no scientist, but I couldn't get through that one because of what Nomes said, mostly (and what you said in the comment above). But I agree -- I think the movie could be great for tweens and I can understand why some people like it (seems a lot of readers *are* into the perfection thing, no matter what we writers reckon about Mary Sues, and flawed characters).

Angie said...

I do agree that the movie could be great for tweens. Maybe if I had read it before I got into writing so deeply then I wouldn't have had as big of a problem with it, although I still would have been shaking my head at the science. And come to think of it, I probably wouldn't have liked Twilight if I were to read it now for the first time as opposed to three years ago. I look at things much differently since I took up writing.

Krista Ashe said...

BWHAHAHAHAHAH, where were you last year when I read this book and went, "WTF, this book got a significant deal, huge press, and has a Rocking Rock Star agent & sold movie rights? WTF?!!!"

Besides the suspension of disbelief, the book had no action, no spice. It had all the things wrong with the opening that agents and editors always harp on. It was INFURIATING!!! I gave the book to a younger cuz who loved...she's 12, maybe that's why. It should have been MG.

Angie said...

KA - Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! If you read the acknowledgments page it may give you some clue as to why it got so much attention (hint: SM). And yes, I was just thinking this morning that it should have been MG, even though I hate to say that lousy writing is more acceptable in MG because it isn't and shouldn't be. Still, I could see a younger reader enjoying this.

Joann Swanson said...

FANTASTIC post, Angie. Absolutely agreed on all accounts. I can suspend my disbelief more easily because, well, I don't have the scientific knowledge you do, but when it comes to issues within my own field, I balk and balk hard. Really, this is just such a brilliant post. Well done!

Angie said...

Thanks, Joann. :)

Anonymous said...

This was a really interesting post. Having finished a paranormal novel and now having it edited I am always happy to know more about what the reader expect from this genre. My book is full of ghosts, a story of a medium who discovers secrets and lies, not to mention romance, in her home. I hope it isn't too far fetched though!

CJ xx

Angie said...

Cyrstal - glad to have you as a new follower! I think the thing with paranormal, for me at least, is to not make it too scientific because it's called PARAnormal for a reason. It's not really supposed to be explainable. I love stories about ghosts, btw. One of my all time favorite books is The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, which is about witches but also about a ghost.

Bee said...

I know which book you're talking about :P
I agree there wasn't much to the story and the characters existed in a bubble of their perfect world. It all ridiculously cute and pink.

I've noticed a lotta paranormals with scientific twists. I mean, these are paranormals, elements beyond the realm of normality, so why even try getting into the scientific aspect of it unless your research is done?

I officially declare you to be the Science Queen of blogosphere, Angie!

Angie said...

Haha. I like that title. :)



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