Repairing Unbelievable Story Elements

This post is 3 in the series: The Suspension of Disbelief

In my last two posts I discussed the importance of belief, and how setting audience expectations are crucial to maintaining it. But setting expectations requires planning ahead. For episodic stories in particular, it’s impossible to plan for everything:

  • An actor on a show could suddenly quit, leaving no time to foreshadow the conflict that kills their character.
  • Strange patterns could emerge in the story over time, leaving the storyteller to notice what’s wrong only after it’s too late, e.g., redshirts.
  • Something previously established could become problematic later, making a retcon worth the break in consistency.

You may not be able to repair your broken story so it’s as good as new, but a little duct tape can do wonders. Here’s some tips to help your patch job:

Hang a Lampshade on It

The first rule is to acknowledge the break in believability. Instead of hoping no one will notice, deliberately call attention to it. One of the best ways to do this is to make a character comment on it.

Lampshading does two important things:

  • It gets your audience to cut you a little slack. If you’ve ever approached a teacher before class and apologized straight up for not doing your homework, you know how effective this is.
  • It makes the incident more believable. What’s more realistic to you: a blizzard in Arizona that’s treated like a normal occurrence, or a blizzard in Arizona where everyone is talking nonstop about the crazy weather?

For light and comedic stories, hanging a lampshade could be all you need. Make fun of yourself a little, then pat yourself on the back and go home.

For more serious stories, it’s important to include an audience surrogate in the scene. This is a character who reacts to the unbelievable element in the same way the audience does. The surrogate gives your audience a moment to deal with the unbelief in a way that is sanctioned by the story. Then, when your character moves past the break from reality and onto the good stuff, your audience can move on as well. This won’t spare you from further repairs, but it will minimize the damage.

Lampshade Hanging in Action

buffy+draculaIn an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dracula takes residence in a castle in Sunnydale. But Sunnydale’s just a small town in California, and it’s never been established that there was a castle anywhere nearby.

The character Riley remarks on this: “I’ve lived in Sunnydale a couple of years now, and you know what I’ve never noticed? … A big, honking castle.”

MinimooseWhen Invader Zim was cancelled, the crew was only able to finish one of two episodes they were working on. They chose their Christmas special, but there was a problem – the episode they left out introduced a new sidekick, Minimoose, who was then in the special. To handle the unexpected appearance of a new character, Zim jokingly remarks that Minimoose has been with him throughout the entire show.

Make It a Mystery

While you’re lampshading, avoid making up an elaborate explanation. It’s easy to find something to criticize in last-minute justifications. Instead, make the answer as vague and mysterious as possible. A wise character can tell your audience surrogate that the secret of the unbelievable item was lost with the city of Atlantis, or requires an understanding that only the gods have.

You can also use mystery as a cover when you are GMing. When a player points out an inconsistency you’ve created, just say, “Yes, you’re right…that’s interesting.” This will lead your player to conclude there’s some deep, hidden meaning behind your mistake.

At the very least, making your problem into a mystery will buy you time to come up with a solid explanation. If the unbelievable element isn’t important to the main storyline, the mystery alone could have you covered.

On the other hand, if you make your mystery too interesting, or it’s important to the plot or primary characters, your audience may not feel your story is resolved until they know the answer.

Mystery in Action

trials+tribbleationsIf you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ve probably noticed that the Klingon race changes dramatically between The Original Series and The Next Generation. Star Trek writers were able to ignore this until an episode of Deep Space 9, when crew members go back in time and witness the famous episode, The Trouble With Tribbles, from The Original Series. One of the crew that travels back is a Klingon, Worf, which allows the other characters to ask him about it:

Worf: They are Klingons… and it is a long story.
O’Brien: What happened? Some kind of genetic engineering?
Bashir: A viral mutation?
Worf: We do not discuss it with outsiders.

Then Enterprise ruined everything by providing a convoluted explanation that involved both genetic engineering and viral mutation.

Use Irrational Actors

If you’re dealing with a major fracture in a serious story, you’ll need to justify the break eventually. When you are forced to explain something that doesn’t make any sense, keep in mind that people don’t always make sense. In any good story, the world or circumstances have been influenced by imperfect characters.

In speculative fiction, those people could be very very powerful. Perhaps there’s a weather god who won’t summon the rain until everyone wears their hat upside down on the same day. Perhaps someone makes an error when programming the ship’s computer, leaving it unable to translate alien speech until life support is flipped off and on again.

Whatever the unbelievable item is, ask yourself if you can explain it via stupidity, insanity, or incompetence.

Irrationality in Action

Galaxy Quest ChompersThe movie Galaxy Quest is based on the concept that aliens, watching a Star Trek like show, think it’s real and actually create the spaceship based on what they see in the episodes. Then the aliens bring in the actors to operate the ship under the assumption that they are real crewmen. In one scene, actors Gwen and Jason are racing through the ship when they encounter a corridor full of stomping columns and other mechanical menaces (watch it here).

Gwen: What is this thing? There’s no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway!
Jason: Gwen—
Gwen: No! I mean, we shouldn’t have to do this! It makes no logical sense! Why is it here?
Jason: Because it’s on the television show.
Gwen: Well, forget it! I’m not doing it! This episode was badly written!

Build on What Exists

This is Sanderson’s Third Law, and it applies anytime you are developing your world or your story. Instead of adding a novelty to explain something unbelievable, use the places, events, and rules you’ve already established. Fill in details that were left mysterious. Make everything more nuanced and complex. If you’re lucky, just by adding more depth to your world and story, you’ll figure out how they could have created your unbelievable element.

If that doesn’t work, put aside all your half-baked ideas and focus on the simple facts you’ve established in the story so far. Pretend you’ve already foreshadowed your explanation in these facts, but then you forgot your plans for the big reveal and all the clues you left about it. Read into the events at the beginning of your story to rediscover those clues, and extrapolate the ending.

You’ll know you’ve hit the jackpot when you find a explanation that naturally ties together disparate elements in the story. If it explains mystery item one and mystery item two, that will lend it a lot of credibility. Don’t force the connection by creating elaborate scenarios. Just by providing the bare essentials of mystery item one, mystery item two should make more sense.

Building in Action

Lost-2The writers of the show Lost stuffed it with as many hooks as they could, without knowing the answer to the mysteries themselves. If you’ve watched through the show, you’d probably agree that they never came up with a great explanation – but the fans did. They looked at what there was already evidence for, and came up with a theory that the characters had been in limbo since the beginning of the show. It fit what was already established: the story started with a plane crash that the cast somehow survived. Strange miracles occurred immediately after, and the characters definitely had unfinished business to keep them from moving on. If the writers had made it part of the story, they might have been able to carry on with none the wiser.

Putting It Together

Sands of Destruction

I’ll show you how these tips can work together by doing a sample repair job on one of my favorites animes: Sands of Destruction (also called World Destruction). The anime centers around a mysterious object known as the Destruct Code. Everyone knows it has the power to destroy the world, but no one knows where it came from or how to operate it.

The Destruct Code isn’t the problem – it’s hard to quibble with something that’s so mysterious. The problem is that the world it’s in makes no sense. The oceans are filled with sand instead of water, but somehow regular ocean creatures live in this sand, including whales and jellyfish. The main inhabitants of the world are divided between men and beast-men. Beast-men can look like any animal, or part human and part animal. But they are one race, and humans are another. If that isn’t enough, there are four continents that each exhibit one of the four seasons – permanently. The fall continent has trees that are forever losing their leaves.

Now I’m going to use my four tips to show how this could have been repaired.

First, I would lampshade by picking an intellectual character to question the way the world works. In this case, Naja, the half-human, half-beast-man. There’d be little snippets of dialogue in which he asks where sand jellyfish get their water, or how it is that trees on the fall continent still have their leaves. I wouldn’t want to give the audience an answer right away, so his knuckle-headed companion, Rhi’a, would respond with circular logic along the lines of “it’s got electrolytes.” Doing this repeatedly would buy time and build up the mystery, preparing for a big explanation at an important moment.

At the end, that important moment comes – there is a character who can actually explain the world. He would tell the cast that the world was created by a god who didn’t know what she was doing. She was just a kid, and this was her first world. As a result, the world can’t sustain itself – it’s maintaining its form by drawing in energy from outside. The god got older and moved on to other things, but she didn’t want to just get rid of the world because it had sentimental value. So she maintained the energy supply, but also created the Destruct Code. When the inhabitants of the world are done, it will turn out the lights.

Using an irrational but powerful actor like this bypasses the need to scientifically justify every little thing that’s broken. But what really makes this work is that it also explains the Destruct Code, a mystery that’s central to the story.

When you put your repairs together, use the tone of the work as your guide. Good repairs stay consistent with the rest of the story, minimizing the interruption to the audience. If it’s a campy story like Buffy, campy jokes will be the best fit. If it’s a wacky story, it can have wacky explanations. If it leans heavily on science, you’ll want something scientific. No matter how you explain it, don’t rush. Using a mysterious lampshade will let you craft your repair job carefully.

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  1. Sara

    Well, maybe it’s time to edited the story and see if i put enough “it’s got electrolytes” and then a great explanation.

    Btw, in these sentences [i]”The main inhabitants of the world are divided between men and beast-men. […] But they are one race, and humans are another.”[/i] why do you think that is some unbelievable element? I saw this in some show/books that I really don’t mind

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Sara.

      What bothers each person will be unique, but the big issue with the beast men vs humans in this story is that the beast men as a group have an enormous variety. They can be anything from someone who looks human but has cat ears and a tail to someone who looks like an alligator standing upright. Humans have more in common with some beastmen than beastmen have with each other. This is an issue for a couple reasons:

      1) It’s incredibly human-centric. One race is human, the other race is everyone else lumped together. Being human is a matter of purity, if you have even a little beast you aren’t human anymore. This would actually make sense as a cultural distinction if humans were considered superior and they were racist against beastmen, but in this setting beastmen are the privileged race, and humans are considered lowly.

      2) It feels arbitrary. I discuss this more in my post on rational magic systems, but when you make up categories for your spec fic world, you don’t want them to feel “made up,” you want them to feel like they naturally occurred.

      I hope that clears it up.

  2. Pat

    Exactly right Chris!

    Sara, think of an extremely similar world where we don’t have Beast-Men and Humans, instead we have had Beast-Men and Catfolks.

    In that world, Catfolks would be 100% cat people. BeastMen would be everything else, including 100% dog people, half-elephants half-cats, 99% cat mixed with 1% of anything else, or even … 100% human looking people would also be “east M’en”,. After all, humans are only a variant of money/primates lines, right ? Just a hairless ape!

    So we can easily how dumb that kind of artificial separation is. The ONLY way the split can work is if the split is maintained artificially for some reason (racism, magic, whatever), which MUST be addressed in the show.

  3. Carolina

    My favorite Lampshade: E1s2 of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
    “I feel like we’re been sitting on this bench for mounths.”
    “We’ve been waiting for so long, that Sunny starts to look less like a baby and more like a toodle.”

    • Dvärghundspossen

      I agree that’s a great lampshade!

      Another fun one is in H G Wells’ War of the Worlds. He reused his creature design from an earlier sci-fi short story for the martians. The narrator, upon first seeing the martians, thinks to himself “weirdly, they looked just like the creatures in a sci-fi short story about the far future of mankind that I read earlier”, before going on to describe what they actually looked like.

  4. E. H.

    I wish there had just been a whole bunch of Klingon subgroups with no explanation. TOS ones, TNG ones, the weird Discovery kind.

    In fact when a bunch of Klingon lords meet in Discovery by hologram conference call there should have been every type of Klingon ever seen before. Even the really narrow ridge guys only seen in the first movie.

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