Archive for June 25th, 2009

Jun 25 2009

Don’t Bury Your Story in Science and Realism

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

I’d only delve as deeply into science as much as the story and audience warrant. For example, if a villain shrinks the hero, 99% of readers don’t care that a shrunken human body couldn’t function because human cells are designed to function at a particular size. Unless you’re deliberately targeting a technically savvy audience (such as in hard sci-fi), your readers probably don’t care much about surface-to-volume ratios and the like.  Similarly, most readers don’t need elaborate explanations for superpowers. You don’t need to explain where Spiderman keeps all that webbing.

However, if you’d like go off on a tangent to satisfy the few readers that do care about these elements, I’d recommend trying to make it interest readers that don’t care so much. For example, one recurring implausibility with the Hulk is that the character’s pants stay on even though his size fluctuates so much. Real pants would burst off if you got twice as big, right? The latest Hulk movie addressed that rather hilariously by showing the character buying elastic maternity pants in Guatemala. (“¿Tienes más stretchy?”) That’s intuitive, simple and clever. In contrast, if the movie had made up scientific mumbo-jumbo like Pym particles or whatever, it probably would have confused or annoyed many viewers.

Finally, I would recommend taking with a grain of salt any reviewer concern that you expect would be limited to a tiny, tiny fraction of the potential readership.  In particular, my rule of thumb is that if you need college-level coursework to know that something is implausible, it won’t probably won’t create a major problem for most readers (unless you’re writing something like hard sci-fi). You can still address the concern if you’d like to–maybe you feel that addressing a scientific implausibility will make the story feel more believable–but don’t feel like you have to. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic.

Professional communication tip: When you have a philosophical difference with a review (for example, if the reviewer cares a lot more about scientific plausibility than you do), I think it really helps to be polite. Coldly dismissing someone’s writing style is not a great way to make friends or win new reviewers. One possible approach would be something like “Thanks for your advice. I know this story may not be 100% scientifically plausible, but I think that most of my readers will be okay with that.” For one example of dealing with different artistic styles, I think I responded pretty courteously to a Marvel artist that was concerned the coloring on a mutant alligator protagonist wasn’t realistic enough.

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