Tag Archives: worldbuilding

Suspension of Disbelief

Over on Whatever, John Scalzi pokes a little fun at the folks who (are? profess to be?) thrown out of the Lord of the Rings by the viscosity of the lava in Mount Doom. He makes an excellent point that the suspension of disbelief is a highly personal thing, subject to much head-scratching by observers (and especially by writers, who may veer into hair-pulling and sobbing). My comment there started to get overlong, so I’m posting it here.

First, I take his point that the fires of Mount Doom are set up as being magical and important, and are presented in a context where trees walk and orcs are born from mud. He is perfectly correct that it would have been reasonable to have magical or otherwise nonstandard lava in Mt. Doom. And if Jackson had made the lava blue or sparkly or put little morphing orc faces in it or otherwise made it obviously magical, I would have bought that without blinking. But a difference of viscosity is a useless, thoughtless difference, especially in comparison to the more overt differences he mentions, like the shrubbery being alive or the landscape giving birth to orcs, that border on the metaphorical. Subtle differences aren’t always a bad thing — not at all! But subtle differences are more likely to be mistaken for errors.

Those changes he mentions don’t come out of nowhere, either: there are plenty of hints given that we’re about to see something weird: spooky forests where orcs disappear, enough cobwebbing to put a Halloween house to shame, the presence of Christopher Lee, etc. When something comes as a surprise, the work is more vulnerable to booting the viewer/reader out of their suspension of disbelief than at other times, and it takes skill and preparation to avoid that, plus the knowledge of the degree to which disbelief needs to be suspended. If Peter Jackson knew how viscous lava really was but still wanted this particular visual effect, surely he is savvy enough to know how to clue in his geologist viewers that this is what he was doing? Because he can do it well, when he fails we suspect a deeper failure.

Anything that can be done well can be done badly, of course: surely you can envision a version of the Lord of the Rings in which the Ents are presented in such a way as to guarantee that the audience bursts out laughing at the sudden appearance of talking trees?

Perhaps a better comparison would be, not to Ents, but to horses. Writers are always getting horses wrong, treating them like hairy motorcycles. Add hay, drive all day, add more hay, drive all night! Most readers will never know the difference, but people who know horses get thrown out of stories by that sort of thing. If a fantasy writer *needs* to treat a horse like a motorcycle, then that writer needs to prep the reader — by, for example, praising this particular breed of horse, or having a set of magic horseshoes, or… well, that’s getting a little silly, isn’t it? In order to know when it’s actually necessary to treat a horse like a motorcycle, the writer needs to know an awful lot about horses, I should think.

Besides, we as readers and viewers can generally tell the difference between “someone thought this through and decided it should be this way” and “someone was lazy or thoughtless.” Let’s say that I set a fantasy story in rural Ohio and, in among the unicorns and magic wands, describe all the people there as having Southern accents. If all the wonderful folks who know the region then complained that this threw them out of the story, it would be ridiculous of me to counter with, “What, but the unicorns and orange Congressmen were OK?” I could argue until my face turned blue that this was actually a deep philosophical statement about the realignment of culture in a magical world, but would you ever really shake the feeling that I’d just never been to Ohio?

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Posted by on 11 December, 2011 in Writing


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I’m Here For an Argument, Part 5: Ethos

This will be a short one, I think. In the broader subject of rhetoric, there are five canons, one of which is the systematic search for argument, the Inventio. The subject of stasis, which I discussed last time, comes out of the Inventio. So does the subject of ethos, which I’ll talk about today.

These two subjects represent, to my mind, the main points of taking the audience into account when deciding what arguments to make. In terms of stasis, this was a matter of trying to figure out to what extent the audience would agree with you, so you know what points to argue. Ethos, on the other hand, is trying to figure out to what extent the audience trusts you, so you know how strenuously you need to argue those points.


This is the question of the trust the audience has in the arguer: is this writer fair? Honest? Honorable? Ethos is in many ways a shortcut: we believe the arguments of an ethical person with less persuasion than we need from a less ethical person. Writers who are perceived as honest, or intelligent, or as having good hair get the benefit of the doubt to a greater extent than does Richard Nixon. Ad hominem attacks (which I’ll get to later) try to tear down the opponent’s reputation, and are often — but not always! — logical fallacies.

I think that ethos figures into fiction according to the dimensions of argument I discussed earlier: in terms of portraying the world and characters. Terry Pratchett always sticks out to me as being fundamentally respectful of his characters. Very few of them are treated without respect, even if they happen to be unintelligent, mendacious, or otherwise objectionable. Even Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler is treated with a certain respect and dignity. So when Pratchett puts forward an argument about, say, ethnic tension and the nature of closed societies, I tend to believe him without as much persuasion. That’s not to say that he’s nice to his characters, only that he treats them with respect whilst throwing rocks at them.

On the flip side, I tend to consider Ayn Rand as having much less ethos: the characters in her stories who embody, say, socialism, are shown as pure evil. They are portrayed as having no redeeming virtues, and are shown little respect. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether this attitude was confined to her fiction) When I read her books, she has to do a lot more persuading to get her point across to me.

In terms of portraying the world, this comes out a little differently. I’ve mentioned earlier in the comments that as an expert in one or two subject matters, nothing throws me out of a story like finding an error of fact. After that, I just lose faith that I’m being told the truth in the factual details of the story: it’s not personal or even necessarily moral, just a matter that the author has proven unreliable. The author then has a much harder time making an argument with me; I require more persuasion.

My favorite case of this is from a non-fiction book, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue about the history of the English language. It’s a wonderful book in many ways, but I linked to the Amazon page so you could look at the reviews. He makes a LOT of factual errors… about languages other than English. You could make the case that they are irrelevant, that those details are only there to entertain, but when a reader stumbles upon a mistake, that opens up the question “What else did Bryson get wrong?” and Bryson has to work ten times as hard to persuade. Those reviews tend to say that same thing: “I saw he got this wrong, and it ruined my enjoyment of the book.”

Gun and horse enthusiasts are probably nodding right now: those are the two subjects that writers just get horribly wrong. Guns are physical devices with model-specific designs that work in particular ways. Horses are not meat motorcycles. When those facts are forgotten, it throws those readers right out of the story, and it also ruins the writer’s credibility when making an argument. It’s not directly related to the point you’re making, but looking like an intellectual slob means that you need to work harder to make that point.

Arguments can be made without building one’s ethos. Some evidence is so persuasive that the benefit of the doubt is not needed. If you pull it off, making the point despite yourself, the persuasion can be more powerful. Chuck Wendig uses this technique on his blog Terrible Minds a lot: he says, in effect (and sometimes verbatim), “I’m an asshole and no expert, but here’s what I think and here’s why you should believe me.” In fiction, the unreliable narrator can be a similar tactic of deliberately discarding ethos.

You could also see this kind of explicit or implicit disclaimer as building ethos by alternate means: if you lack authority, as I do in writing these posts about rhetoric and argument, carefully scrubbing oneself of the trappings of authority (e.g. authoritative or confident language) can be a way of not just keeping oneself honest but publicly so. Of course, by saying so, I pretty much wrecked it for myself. ;)

I think that it’s plain that the perception of ethos can vary dramatically from reader to reader. Jack London probably gets a lot of the benefit of the doubt just because he’s not talking about something that’s super-important to most people. Speculative fiction authors, I think, get a lot of that as well, but maybe only from habitual spec-fic readers: there’s the assumption that some or all of this needs to be invented from whole cloth. Genre conventions too help give you a pass, as with the utterly ridiculous “stand up and narrate the solution” trope at the end of a number of Golden Age mysteries. As with stasis, you play the numbers a bit, but ethos is something that you have control over to a much greater extent: Check your facts. Use the correct jargon. Do your research. Don’t present two-dimensional characters. The nice thing about ethos is that by and large, good storytelling practices help build reader trust — I don’t think you really need to do anything extra.

Finally, I think this factors in at a meta-level. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers. We judge them by their typesetting, spelling, and grammar. A professional-looking book gets professional-level respect from the first page; it has an edge to lose. An amateur-looking book gets… rather less respect; it has an up-hill battle from the first word (assuming anyone even starts it) with ground lost at every verbal infelicity. Be nice to the people you work with in the publishing industry: they make you look smarter, cooler, and more professional than you are. If you’re self-publishing, Chuck Wendig (who I mentioned above) has a few words of advice for you.

OK, I lied about this one being short. I have no ethos. In the next part I think I’m going to briefly (actually briefly) discuss the timeliness of an argument (kairos) then I’ll move on to the parts of an argument.


Posted by on 22 February, 2011 in Bloggery, Philosophy, Writing


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I’m Here For an Argument, Part 4: Stasis

(If you missed the previous parts, you can start here. Go on, I’ll wait for you. ETA: This post actually stands on its own quite well. Feel free to read this one first then go back, I think you won’t be confused.)

This is a long one, but I think important. There are two large parts of making an argument: that of the logic and mechanics of the argument itself, and that of the rhetoric of making the argument. The logic of an argument is vast: as anyone who has known a small child will understand, one can ask “why?” indefinitely and continue to produce answers right down to the bedrock of “Because I said so.” Even an argument about what to have for lunch can, in principle, be elaborated upon in an exhaustive manner.

In general, that does not happen: in addition to the logic of an argument, there is the rhetoric of it. That is, there is a practice of deciding what to talk about and how. This is in many ways a study of one’s audience, which is something that a writer of fiction ought to be thinking about anyway.

Today I’m going to talk about a subject out of the heart of rhetoric: the level at which the reader agrees with the author about what’s settled or proven.

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Posted by on 16 February, 2011 in Writing


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I’m Here For an Argument, Part 3

If you missed the first two parts, they can be found here: (Part I, Part II) At some point I’ll put together an index page.

Two Dimensions of Argument

In the previous two parts, I first argued that you can divide arguments in stories up according to whether they try to argue a specific point or whether they try to explore the facets of an argument without coming to a conclusion. I then argued that you could look at the arguments in terms of who is making them: whether the points of the argument are borne entirely by the characters, or whether by the elements of the world (setting, things that are true in that story about human nature, physics, magic, etc).

Having sliced up the field crudely along two dimensions, and if I assume that these dimensions are actually orthogonal (that is, describing independent aspects) then we have four kinds of stories:

I. Exploratory stories where the characters make the arguments.

II. Exploratory stories where the world makes the arguments.

III. Persuasive stories where the characters make the arguments.

IV. Persuasive stories where the world makes the arguments.

The question naturally arises of whether these two axes really are independent. That is, is there something about the nature of making your arguments through characters vs. through the world that makes the story inherently exploratory or persuasive? Are arguments made by characters inherently exploratory, and arguments made by the world inherently persuasive? I want to say “No” and move on, but there’s this matter of authorial intent and distance that I’m having a hard time getting past.

When the argument is made purely with characters, there’s a certain distance between the author and the arguments. Hannibal Lecter can sound very intelligent, but due to the content of his character, I doubt readers think that Thomas Harris himself believes anything Lecter says. The context instead causes villains’ arguments to become a sort of challenge: “These claims can’t be true… but can you disprove them?” It adds tension at a meta-level, tension between the reader and the book.

Because of that distance, though, I think that there’s a sense that arguments made purely through what the characters say and do (even in 1st person perspective stories) are more inherently exploratory, that it’s harder to divine what the author really thinks from this sort of presentation. Call it plausible deniability, or the fictional equivalent of constantly saying “One could argue that…” Conversely, I think there’s a sense of Freudian slip to world-building, that the author is somehow making more subconscious decisions there, and so arguments made in that way are more visceral.

I think, though, that this is only tendency, and doesn’t actually reflect a deeper connection between the axes. Back in To Build A Fire, London is making the opposite argument that the character is. The character thinks he’s just fine out there, that all he needs to do is be prudent, and he acts accordingly. In fact, if you were to go through that story and strip out the lines with the character talking to himself, you’d still be left with London’s argument — but it would be less clear for lack of the contrast. It would basically just be some dude in the woods. That might be an interesting writing exercise, actually. (In some ways, that story contains not so much an argument as a counter-argument: The character explains one point of view, and the story demonstrates that it is wrong.)

Still, I’m not entirely sure that I can back up that statement that this is tendency only, so I’m going to punt the question for now. Do you have any thoughts on the subject, dear reader?

Having established what I hope will be a useful vocabulary for discussing the kinds of arguments found in stories, I now want to get into the arguments themselves. In the next part, I’m going to talk about the concept of stasis, the point of disagreement where an argument lies. (I’m not sure yet whether that post will be in one part or two)


Posted by on 14 February, 2011 in Writing


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I’m Here For an Argument, Part 2

In my previous post on argument, I talked about what I saw as one basic division in story arguments. I suggested that there were two basic kinds of arguments being made in fiction: where there is a point being put forward, and where the story is being used to explore multiple sides of an argument without really coming to a conclusion.

Who Makes The Argument?

Now I’m going to confuse things further and make another coarse division along the dimension of the form of the fictional argument in terms not of what kind of argument is being made, but how the story puts ideas forward:

  1. The characters make the argument.
  2. The world makes the argument.

In the first group, the characters, their actions, and their identities represent the argument being made. The world is mere fact. Think Goofus and Gallant, for example, or certain characters from Dickens, whose very names indicate the sort of people they are and instruct the reader (subtly or otherwise) what to think of the things those characters do. In Oedipus Rex, circumstances may conspire against the characters like crazy, but all the characters are free to act.

In To Build a Fire, Jack London states pretty much straight-up, “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner” and goes into excruciating detail about exactly why that is, using a believable character. That part about the believable character is important to the argument: If anyone is going to prove that dictum false, the unimaginative, self-sufficient character in that story would. The argument would not have been as strong if the character were a child or an obvious idiot; it would have left the reader skeptical. The world in that story may have been at its harshest, but it acted fairly and predictably in response to what he did.

In the second group, there are the characters and their actions just as before… but somehow the laws of physics, human nature, probability, and just generally the events beyond the control of the characters all conspire to make things turn out the way the author wants in terms of the argument. I don’t mean so much Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” in Paul Clifford, where conveniently bad weather was enlisted to set the tone. Think instead Atlas Shrugged: whatever you may think of the very obvious argument being put forth, Ayn Rand enlists the world to help make that argument. Her characters go off to the mountains and the rest of society falls apart on cue and can’t get up. More subtly, human emotions in her story also seem to obey the needs of her argument: when Taggart’s affections switch from Rearden to Galt, the reactions of the people involved seem curiously muted. *

Or at the extreme, think of the Wizard of Oz, which is reputed to be an allegory about the switch to the gold standard. All the details of Oz, by that reasoning, are winks and nods to various aspects of an argument about monetary policy: the yellow brick road takes you to a fairy land, the silver slippers bring you home to good old Kansas, yada yada. The characters in the story merely react — or even ignore the argument being made in favor of being entertainingly distracting from the point. (I don’t actually buy that argument that the WoO was such a thing, by the way, but it’s still a good example.)

Think too of what it means to Neo to be The One in the movie The Matrix. In the first part of the movie, the assertion is made about Neo by other characters, and still other characters disagree or are ambivalent, but the world is silent on the subject. He gets beat up, and we cheer. Then in the latter part of the movie, the world weighs in: “Yeah… Dude’s totally The One.” So he lives, and we’re sad. (Then there’s two more movies and we’re really sad)

In that example, if the argument is about the nature of faith, the argument is very different when the world makes an argument by picking a side. If, on the other hand, the argument is about the nature of responsibility, then I think that the world really hasn’t picked a side, it’s just changing the conditions for the argument: first, what is your responsibility if you don’t know whether you’re The One? Then, what is your responsibility if you do know?

As with the question of kind of argument in Part I, the division here is also actually more of a continuum: My Jack London example is stronger, for example, if I admit that the world is conspiring with him just a little to make those arguments, especially that tree full of snow. Luck is a player here: I’ve said elsewhere as a rule of thumb that if the novel’s protagonist benefits from lucky breaks, the reader may feel cheated. But when making an argument, something that is bad for the protagonist and ramps up tension in wonderful ways, may be a convenient cheat in terms of an underlying argument. There is potentially a tension between the needs of the story and the needs of an argument being made. What’s narratively useful may undermine an argument, and vice versa: the desire to make an argument can wreck a story, as Count Tolstoy demonstrated. We’ll address this further, later.

It is also worth noting that people who are real partisans of an argument will be resistent to the suggestion that the world is helping make the argument. It can be seen as a slur on an author to say that in order to make their arguments they must misrepresent human nature. People who really dig objectivism may object to my characterization above about Atlas Shrugged; they may say, “But wait, my good sir! You have erred!” (I said they “may” say that, I didn’t say they would) “If the titans of industry really did take their belongings and go on strike, then society would surely collapse in precisely the manner described!” This leads to an important point: where on this axis a story lies may depend in no small part on whether the reader agrees with the foundations of the argument that the author is making. In this case, Rand and I failed to achieve agreement on what can be taken as a given about human nature, and as a result I find her argument less compelling. When I discuss the concept of stasis, we’ll revisit this issue.

On the subject of partisans, though, the subject came up in the comments of the last post of authorial intent: can a story make an argument by accident? I think so, yes, in a number of ways, just as a politician can stand up and wind up convincing the crowd of utterly unintended things. (Be proud of me, I resisted some serious temptation right there. As should you in the comments, please.) Unconscious assumptions can come through, the reader can interpret subtle or unclear hints in an unintended way (or even interpret things like names or word choice as a kind of code), or the writer can just argue badly. For example, I’ve written a short story only to be told by a beta reader that one of the character names was a slur in Portuguese: rereading with that in mind, the story came off very differently! So this is something that’s important to be aware of, that it’s easy for the reader to see an argument where none is intended. Other than discussing authorial intent a little later once I’ve thought about it some more, I’m going to steer clear of the accidental argument, at least until I have something more intelligent to say on the subject.

This brings an end to Part II. Thank you, everyone who commented in or linked to Part I! In Part III I’m going to bring these two dimensions together, briefly, then get on with the subject of argument parts in future parts.

* I don’t mean plot-induced stupidity here, necessarily, where people do things because if they don’t the author is stuck and the plot can’t move forward. The plot to Atlas Shrugged really would have worked just fine if Taggart had stayed with Rearden — it is Rand’s argument about how attraction ought to work that would have fallen flat. This is a choice, then: is the story subordinate to the argument, or is the argument subordinate to the story?


Posted by on 11 February, 2011 in Writing


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