Writing: How to Govern Your Make-Believe Elements

Even if you are writing speculative fiction that defies the laws of physics, you must give yourself boundaries. Otherwise, you will destroy your story.

When I was growing up, I had a few favorite movies that I watched over and over again: Star Wars (original trilogy), The Dark Crystal, The Last Unicorn, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghost Busters, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King cartoon movies, and Superman II.

Would you like to know the reason I didn’t watch Superman I much?

Because when Lois Lane dies in the earthquake, Superman flies around the earth so fast that he gets the earth to 1) stop spinning, 2) reverse its rotation completely, and 3) this somehow reverses time.

Seriously? Even as a seven-year-old, this made no sense. In my little-kid brain, I could accept light sabers, puppets, and cartoon hobbits, but I just didn’t get how the earth spinning in a different direction affected time. Now, that I’m an adult, I have even more issues with the movie. For instance, why aren’t there more tidal waves and earthquakes as a result of the earth stopping its rotation?

Superman I lost my suspension of disbelief because its makers broke the third and most important rule for speculative fiction writing:

Rule #3: Govern Your Make-Believe Elements.

Forgetting to surround your make-believe elements with believable ones (Rule #1) and failing to make your make-believe elements feel real (Rule #2) can hurt how well your story impacts readers. Ignoring those two rules might also lose a few readers’ suspensions of disbelief, but it won’t necessarily kill your story.

Failing to govern your make-believe elements will destroy your story no matter how great your characters and plot. I’ll be discussing ways you can govern your make believe elements over the next few weeks. Today we are going to focus on the most important technique: keeping within the bounds of physics.

This technique is difficult because the very act of writing speculative fiction involves breaking scientific laws. This is why speculative fiction is so difficult to write! We must somehow break the laws of physics in such a way that our audience doesn’t feel like we are breaking them.

Here are a few things to keep in mind that will help you govern your make-believe elements while breaking physics/science rules:

Always have a reason your characters can break the laws of physics. Even comic book heroes have reasons they can do what they do. Captain America was injected with serum that gave him his strength. Thor is an alien. Iron Man has money and brains to create whatever he wants. Here are a few good reasons you can use to break a few rules that your audience will accept:

  • It’s the future! Setting your science fiction story in the future (or in an alternate history or steampunk setting) gives you a lot of leeway—especially because some conventions are just accepted and require no explanation. You don’t need to explain how flying cars work or light speed works because most people accept that the future will have flying cars and spaceships that fly fast. However, you must make sure to give your audience a reason you are breaking some of the more obvious laws of physics. You might need to give your readers a reason you can beam your characters from a spaceship to a planet. A real quick sentence in the middle of dialogue might be all it takes.
  • It’s magic! Magic gives you much more freedom to break scientific laws than science fiction. However, it still has boundaries, but we’ll discuss those in a separate post.
  • This character is smarter and more skilled than you. Tony Stark can create almost anything he wants to create and the audience will suspend disbelief and accept it as real. Why? Tony Stark is brilliant. All he has to do is throw out a few big scientific words when he speaks and write a complex formula on a white board, and we all nod our heads going, “Yeah, that makes sense.” The same thing occurs with Albus Dumbledore and Gandalf. They are smarter than us, and therefore we accept what magic they can create as being real.

Your characters can only break the laws of physics you have given them the skills or equipment to break. This means that Superman never should have been allowed to reverse time in Superman I. Superman is strong. He can fly fast. He doesn’t have power over the laws of physics, however. Anakin Skywalker can move things without touching them because he is a Jedi and has earned that skill. He cannot, however, prevent the people he loves from dying, which is why he turned to the Dark Side of the Force. I physically cannot break the sound barrier. I lack the skills and the equipment. Others, however, have broken the sound barrier because they were given the skills and the equipment.

Keep physics in mind when your characters are doing make-believe things. The characters in my Elysian Chronicles series have wings and can fly. However, I can’t have them fly at 30,000 feet. They would suffocate. I also need to keep in mind that the higher they fly, the faster they need to fly in order to maintain altitude. I throw these concepts into dialogue on occasion so the reader knows I’ve researched it.

What to take from this: Make sure you have a reason for the laws of physics your characters are breaking. You can let the reader know these reasons through dialogue or narrative.

Mainstream Writers: Remember the laws of physics when it comes to stunts. Please don’t let your story end up on Mythbusters.

Speculative Writers: You are writing a story that specifically breaks the laws of physics. Make sure you only allow your characters to break the laws of physics that you have given them the skills and equipment to break.

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.” Thanks for stopping by!

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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2 Responses to Writing: How to Govern Your Make-Believe Elements

  1. Pingback: Writing: Use Realistic Numbers, Sizes, and Time Limits | M. B. Weston's Official Website

  2. Pingback: Writing: Your Characters Must Earn (or Have Earned) Their Skills | M. B. Weston's Official Website

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