This is part 2 in the series: The Suspension of Disbelief

In the film version of The Return of the King, Gollum falls into the lava and slowly sinks. But as it turns out, lava is much too heavy for people to sink into. Gollum should have remained on the surface and burst into flame instead. A science columnist at Wired.com made a point of this inaccuracy. He didn’t criticize the magic or giant eagles in the movie, just the way Gollum sunk into the lava.

I’m using this example because John Scalzi mentioned it a couple years ago on his blog. He calls the point at which belief breaks in a spec fic story a “flying snowman.” The term comes from a children’s story his wife once read to his daughter. In it, a snowman comes to life and a befriends a boy. They do all sorts of boyish activities, including eating hot soup. Then the snowman flies. His wife didn’t care about the hot soup, but she thought a flying snowman was ridiculous.

This is what Scalzi had to say on flying snowmen:

In a film with impossibly large spiders, talking trees, rings freighted with corrupting evil, Uruks birthed from mud (not to mention legions of ghost warriors and battle elephants larger than tanks), are we really going to complain about insufficiently dense lava? Because if you’re going to demand that be accurate in a physical sense, I want to know why you’re giving the rest of that stuff a pass. If you’re going to complain that the snowman flies, you should also be able to explain why it’s okay to have it eat hot soup.

That’s right, dear audience, your personal reaction to a story isn’t valid until you can explain exactly why you reacted the way you did. It’s lucky you’re reading this post, because I’ll tell you why.

Stories Are Believable When They’re Consistent

Scalzi mentions consistency in worldbuilding, but he misses consistency with sources outside the story. There are three primary types of consistency that influence audiences. The levels closer to the story override the ones farther away.

  • External Consistency – consistency with the real world. Except where the genre and story deviate, everything in the story world is expected to work like the real world does. This includes the lava of Mount Doom. That’s why watery lava was unbelievable; it broke external consistency.
  • Genre Consistency – consistency with other works in the same genre. This is why no one has a problem with the magic or the giant spiders in LotR. They are standard in fantasy, so they feel consistent.
  • Internal Consistency – consistency within a work. If the movie had established early on that the lava of Mount Doom was different from normal lava, it would have overruled external consistency.

As a note of caution, genre consistency requires familiarity with the genre in question. This isn’t a big issue for fantasy overall, but it can be for subgenres like urban fantasy. Many urban fantasies employ a trope known as the masquerade: non-magical people don’t know magic and magical creatures exist. Regular fans of urban fantasy will probably accept this premise without explanation, even when magical creatures are running rampant in the streets. However, fans of high fantasy trying their first urban fantasy might find it unbelievable until justified.

Once you explain something fantastical in your story, it gains the shield of internal consistency. You don’t have to explain again so long as it continues to operate in the same manner.

Consistency plays a large role in sightings of flying snowmen. But why?

Consistency Satisfies Audience Expectations

For almost two hundred years, storytellers have explained why audiences accept things like magic with a theory called the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. The idea is that an audience member says “this is a work of fiction; I should just believe.” They consciously put aside doubts in order to enjoy the story.

Not everyone agrees. Some say audiences believe by default, and only disbelieve when the storyteller messes up. Tolkien himself put forth the idea of secondary belief, based on internal consistency.

I think those are both closer, but this is the real rule: Audiences will believe your story as long as it meets their expectations.

Consistency is important because it satisfies the expectations that audiences have for your story. But the three consistencies I listed above are only the beginning; anything that influences expectations will also change belief. By thinking about expectations in a broader sense, we can uncover the mystery of the flying snowman.

First, stories of snowmen coming to life and playing with children aren’t unusual. Frosty is probably the best known example; however, he doesn’t eat hot soup. Looking at the story a little closer, I would say the snowman in question has Pinocchio Syndrome – he wants to be a real boy. After all, his magical abilities in the beginning of the story involve him doing what real boys do, with a real boy. The audience would naturally expect his powers to grow in the “more boy-like” direction, including the hot soup. But then, defying all the buildup toward becoming a boy, he flies. To Scalzi’s wife, that probably felt like it came out of nowhere.

Set Expectations, Then Capitalize on Them

Knowing that audience expectations determine the believeability of a story, and much of those expectations come from external sources, you might think storytellers are at the mercy of audience demands. But storytellers don’t just fulfill expectations; they set them.

That’s the primary purpose of foreshadowing. It’s a vital tool in making stories believeable. In the beginning of the Matrix, we are told Neo feels like he’s in a dream, and that the Matrix is all around him. Because of these hints, the big reveal feels like the next step in the story, rather than a bizarre turn.

Expectations about unusual elements must be set before they become critical to the story. Otherwise you can end up with Deus Ex Machina, a resolution that feels cheap and contrived. It wouldn’t have been good enough for Frodo to go on about the strangeness of Mount Doom lava as Gollum was sinking into it. To be believable, it would need to be mentioned beforehand — the earlier the better, as long as the audience doesn’t forget about the hint entirely.

We can now see the intersection between belief and Sanderson’s First Law:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Audiences want to be surprised about what happens in a story, but they shouldn’t be surprised about what could happen. This rule isn’t as strict when you are creating conflict and tension, but for resolving conflict and tension it’s essential.

But what if you write yourself into a corner, leaving no choice but to violate expectations? I’ll give you some tips next week.

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