Your test audience is up in arms about something unbelievable in your story, but you don’t want to make big changes. Maybe your entire story depends on a lie they can’t swallow, you’re in production and it’s too late for an overhaul, or your story would be fine if they just interpreted events the way you intended. Luckily, you have a few tricks up your sleeve. Which one you should use depends on your situation.
1. Improve Your Explanation
The most obvious method of getting better results is to offer your audience a more compelling explanation for why the story goes the way it does. If you’re sure your story makes sense given the characters and the world it’s in, and your audience should have understood all of these factors but didn’t, focus on your explanation.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for information to get lost on its way to your audience. These elements might be missing from your justification.
First, ask yourself if you’re actually taking the time to illustrate the situation rather than expecting people to make intuitive leaps. For instance, in season 3 of The 100, the character Bellamy Blake loses his girlfriend to a Grounder-supported attack and then later goes on an excessive Grounder-murdering spree. The show’s writers expected viewers to understand that he was motivated by his desire for revenge, but they rushed through his scenes without actually showing his emotional need to avenge her. As a result, fans did not follow the chain of reasoning they were meant to; instead, they were confused and upset.
Your audience might be missing some supporting information that they need to understand why things are happening. While Bellamy Blake was getting ready to murder Grounders, fans were also watching the Grounder leader pledge love and loyalty to the main character elsewhere. In that situation, it’s easy to forget that almost all of Bellamy’s personal experiences with Grounders led to the deaths of people he cared about. He has not seen those love scenes unfolding and has no reason to believe the Grounder leader is genuine. If the writers had worked harder to convey that context, his actions would have been better received.
While illustrating the situation via “showing” is usually better for important parts of your story, it is also more open to interpretation. If half a dozen people test your draft and you still can’t clear things up, you may need to blatantly tell your explanation. Instead of showing Bellamy mourn his loss and then join up with a villain, the writers could have made Bellamy outright state that he would make the Grounders pay for killing his girlfriend.
Try editing the wording of your explanation to make it more straightforward. Creative language can be interpreted in many ways. This is especially true in speculative fiction, where the audience has to judge whether you’re being literal or metaphorical. Metaphors can be taken as literal, and poetic-sounding description can be interpreted as a metaphor when it isn’t. Bellamy describing how Grounders are the heralds of death wouldn’t be a good replacement for stating that whenever he’s tried to make peace with them, some of his friends died.
An explanation the audience can’t remember is one they are likely to dismiss. Don’t rely on a complex strategy or technical mumbo jumbo. If you have multiple explanations, focus on the one that’s the easiest to understand and remember. In The 100, Bellamy’s girlfriend was too forgettable. From the moment she first appeared, she had “redshirt” written all over her. Fans didn’t get a chance to become attached to her before she was murdered, so avenging her death was not at the forefront of their minds when he went on his murder spree.
While mastering explanations is a crucial skill for any storyteller, they aren’t always appropriate. What should you do if you don’t want your audience to know why something is happening?
2. Sanction Uncertainty
Sometimes you have a great explanation for something unrealistic – you just haven’t given it yet. Mysteries would be no fun if you spoiled them the moment they were introduced. But instead of being drawn in by your mystery, your audience keeps complaining that your mysterious event makes no sense. Sure, they’ll get it once they reach your reveal at the end, but what good will that do if they get mad and stop reading?
Luckily, this is a problem that’s simple to fix. You just need to let your audience know that this part of the story isn’t supposed to make sense. In other words, you need to sanction the uncertainty they feel about your story, so it doesn’t cause them confusion or frustration. Once they know that’s how it’s supposed to be, they’ll feel better about it.
Plant a big sign saying “Mystery here!” with one of the following.
In any scene with several characters, one of the characters can ask the others. For example, take the short story Beyond Lies the Wub by Philip K Dick. In the story, a Martian creature known as the wub uses mind powers to defend itself while on board a human spaceship. It can temporarily paralyze people, yet it does nothing when the Captain points a gun right at it. This sets up for the twist, but it looks like a plot hole. Dick could have been fixed that by making the crew pipe up:
“Be careful, it will freeze you again!”
“Why isn’t it freezing him?”
“Maybe it can’t anymore.”
“Quick, shoot it before you’re frozen!”
Lines like these would have told readers that Dick hadn’t just forgotten about the wub’s powers. If your story is in a visual medium, dialogue such as this is probably your best option.
If you’re using a close viewpoint, let your viewpoint character contemplate the unrealistic part of your story. In Beyond Lies the Wub, the Captain could have wondered why he wasn’t frozen:
It had gotten the better of him before, but now it was just cowering in the corner. He didn’t know why it didn’t freeze him again. and he didn’t care – all that mattered was shooting it first. He only needed his trigger finger.
If you are using an omniscient narrator, that narrator can easily summarize the conundrum and make your audience look forward to understanding the mystery. If Beyond Lies the Wub had a more active omniscient narrator, Dick might have sanctioned uncertainty with something like this:
The men were afraid of the wub’s powers, but the Captain was so filled with bloodlust he forgot the wub could paralyze him. The wub let him forget. It held this power back, even as the Captain pulled the trigger.
What’s important is that you call attention to the conundrum in a deliberate manner. Posing a dramatic question to the audience will do the trick, but if you’d like a less blatant method, simply phrase your narration to call attention to the mystery.
But your plot hole may not be a mystery you will reveal later. What should you do if it’s an important conceit that you need your audience to just accept?
As much as we want to, we can’t always fix every flaw in our work. Budget and time constraints can get in the way, or the premise for the story might require a little hand-waving. When your story has a noticeable flaw that you can’t explain away, the next best thing is lampshading. Lampshading is similar to sanctioning uncertainty in that it entails calling attention to the problem, but it’s done to evoke a different reaction. A good lampshade will cause your audience to laugh the problem off and move on.
However, lampshading depends on the good graces of your audience. It will not work if they think you are taking the easy way out instead of solving your problem. To qualify for a lampshade, your story element should be:
- Difficult to make believable. Perhaps you’ve created a pile of redshirts in past episodes and only noticed now, when it’s too late to go back. Compare this to the book City of Bones, which lampshades a poor line of dialogue. It’s just one line; revise it!
- Valuable to your story or the audience. While in many stories it’s unrealistic for the heroes to use swords to fight monsters when guns are available, the audience usually thinks sword fighting is cool, making them more inclined to cut you some slack. If your story is about a magic sword that chooses a wielder to fight monsters, you’ll get even more slack.
- Without ethical implications. Never lampshade racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic messages in your work. If you discover these problems, you should fix them. In the last season of Angel, the only female cast member is repeatedly damseled and then killed off. The writers added self-awareness about this issue by writing dialogue where she complained about it. Now everyone knows they weren’t just ignorant. Someone running the show knew it was sexist and still did it.
Let’s say your plot hole is a good candidate for a lampshade. How do you do it? Like sanctioning uncertainty, you’ll reference the problem in your work. However, instead of posing a dramatic question, you’ll crack a joke at your own expense. While it can come in many forms, dialogue is a particularly good vehicle for lampshading.
Let’s look at some examples of effective lampshades.
- Stargate SG-1 had a bad habit of using the Planet of Hats trope, in which entire planets are characterized by a single trait as though they have no diversity. The writers lampshaded this tendency in the episode Solitudes. In it, the heroes are stranded on a mysterious ice planet. This “ice planet” is later revealed as Earth. They just happened to land in Antarctica.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy and her team meet to discuss the supernatural in the school library, which is somehow always empty. Then when a student actually comes into the library in the episode Never Kill a Boy on the First Date, the librarian, Giles, is shocked. Buffy tells him, “See, this is a school, and we have students, and they check out books, and then they learn things.” Giles responds, “I was beginning to suspect that was a myth.”
- In the show The Flash, the hero gains his powers after being hit by lightning. Strangely, those powers include a more attractive physique. After hearing what happened and looking in the mirror, he says, “Lightning gave me abs??”
Lampshades can be enjoyed by the audience while the unbelievable element is occurring or long after it has been noticed by the story’s fanbase.
Not every story problem can be fixed without major revisions. For large problems, consider whether your story is worth the time an overhaul would take. Perhaps making a big change will turn a flop into a success. But sooner or later, we all have to stop tweaking our stories and release them into the wild. When your deadline is close or you’re just done with the cycle of endless revisions, a quick patch can do wonders.
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