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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Posted by Angie