7

A few examples of what I refer to as ridiculous scenes:

A psychic gives the protagonist a business letter with only her name - no phone, no address - saying that there's no need to call her. She's the one who make the calls.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami

The protagonist finds a passage in a building that takes you right into John Malkovich's head.

Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman

An old man goes to the protagonist's audition, saying that he has being following the protagonist his whole life. Then he says to him, "Hire me, if you want to know who you truly are."

Synecdoche New York - Charlie Kaufman

So as you can see these are ridiculous situations (I think the term is Kafkaesque?).

I tried that myself. In my story, my protagonist is researching about the subject of animal suicide. She goes to her university's Animal Behavior Class but is told by her teacher that animal suicide in an inappropriate subject, not suitable for a classroom. A subject like war, terrorism, and genocide. A teacher won't say this in real life of course (this is an exaggeration of the follow-the-rules atmosphere of educational institutions).

Yet, my readers complained that the teacher sounded unrealistic, that no teacher would say stuff like that.

So I'm confused. Maybe it's because the scene is too short? Or because I didn't prepare the reader in the previous chapters? Get used to this absurdity? Or maybe it just depends on the audience?

Here's the scene is case you want to read it:

“Well.” I gulped air again. “I’m doing a research about animal suicide—and, uh, I thought animal behavior had a lot to do with it.”

The professor nodded, though his expression said, Now what do I do with this misfit? “Yes, animal suicide has indeed a lot to do with animal behavior. You’re very smart, Mrs. Lin. And I believe me, I’m very moved by your curiosity and enthusiasm. In fact, these are the qualities we value most in our students.” He rubbed the balding spot on the top his head. “However, suicide—even if it only involves animals—is a very delicate subject, like war, racism, terrorism, genocide. And therefore, not very suitable for a classroom. I hope you can understand that.”

I nodded, no longer sure what the conversation was about. Genocide?

5

A few tricks to make the implausible seem plausible:

  • Let readers know early in the story that implausible things will happen, and they will enjoy every one. A friend of mine once began a story with a scene in which people have been stuck in a traffic jam for five years. After a scene like that, readers are prepared for nearly anything.

  • Have a character comment on the implausibility. This weird little authorial sleight of hand tells readers (perhaps subconsciously) that you are well aware of the implausibility, that it's not an oversight. You put it in the story deliberately, so they can relax and trust you. Like this famous bit from The Princess Bride:

    Westley: A few more steps and we'll be safe in the fire swamp.

    Buttercup the Princess Bride: We'll never survive.

    Westley: Nonsense, you're only saying that because nobody ever has.

  • Provide an explanation (which may itself be plausible or not). For example, when Mrs. Lin tells some other character about her disappointment with the professor's response, the other character might relate a little known incident from the professor's past, an incident that left the professor unable to cope with serious explorations of suicide.

  • Do you think slowing things down and adding more descriptions help? I heard that made scenes "feel" more realistic, even though what's happening doesn't make sense at all. – Alexandro Chen Jun 11 '15 at 13:07
4

If you're worried about being realistic, then maybe you're writing in the wrong genre. Both Murakami and Kaufman are far from realists, and Kafka (although I don't believe you've used "Kafkaesque" appropriately) is best known for a story wherein a man wakes up as something like a dung beetle. Most people think, "Well, that's unrealistic."

You may have to accept that some readers don't get it; however, you may have to accept that you don't get it. It's not a matter of making the reader accept things because you should not have to make the reader do anything.

Without knowing anything of the context, I think your excerpt is just fine. Otherwise, this question is too subjective and the answer is that you should do one of three things: 1) find a new audience, 2) find a new style, or 3) find a new hobby.

  • Thanks I guess you're right. I love the stuff that Murakami and Kaufman produce. Maybe I'm getting too obsessed with reader's feedback. – Alexandro Chen Jun 11 '15 at 5:09
3

The reason your scene comes across as unrealistic is because it's set in an absolutely realistic setting. You have a teacher, a classroom, a student, a research paper, and then you break all of this with an explanation that tries to sound plausible but in fact isn't. By doing so, you yank your reader out of your world.

In the examples you cited, the authors don't try to sound plausible. They embrace the absurdity of their universe and build upon it. The reader has already accepted that the book is a little wonky, so that other absurd elements fit right in. There is no anchor in the real world for someone walking through a tunnel into someone's mind, so it's easy to accept as part of a fictional universe.

A story doesn't have to make sense for the audience to accept it. What it does need is self-coherence. If you're telling the story of a girl who has secret magical powers, then it's okay for her to occasionally control objects at a distance. It's not okay to tell a story set in our modern world, and when your protagonist needs to enter a locked house 300 pages in, he conveniently wills the door to open, never to do it again.

Your audience is going to have certain expectations, some of which are set in stone. These may include specific human behaviors. You'll have to work within those constraints. Your job as a writer is to find the things that your audience is willing to be more flexible about; in other words, find the boundaries of your audience's imagination and convince them that those things work differently in your universe.

In your specific situation, either the professor should react differently, because currently his behavior is unbelievable to a reasonable person; or you should make your protagonist into a reasonable person who also questions that behavior; or, establish in advance that your protagonist is a little slow or gullible (but that will be difficult, given that she's supposed to be "very smart"). Then your reader isn't confronted with the choice, "Am I crazy/stupid?" vs. "Is the author crazy/stupid?" but rather starts wondering, "There's something else at play here."

Think of any old joke: is it funny if you just deliver the punchline? No, the setup is even more important. Same here. Your setup will make or break your absurd event.

2

I think the problem you're facing is that you're comparing the wrong things. Your quoted passage does not deal with the fantastic or the absurd, whereas some of the examples you've given clearly are.

What I mean is, your subject of "animal suicide" is something people have probably heard about. Certainly, studying animal behaviour is something people have heard about. People can relate to the concept of teachers, classrooms, and so on. At this point, the reader's brain is establishing conventions with regards to what they're reading, and unless you've established reasons for this aversion to discussing suicide, the automatic reaction is to discount it as unrealistic because they think the rules of this world apply to your world. For such subtle differences between your fictitious world and the real world, the reader needs conventions established very early on that justify what they read!

Contrast this with Being John Malcovich: who ever heard of such a scenario? It's nothing anyone watching the film can relate to as a concept, so the viewer tends to "go with it". The fantastic is made normal, and there is no attempt by the reader to discount what they're seeing. It just is, for whatever reason.

(Incidentally, what you outline for Synecdoche New York is, in my view, unlikely, but not impossible, which is very different to absurd, or fantastic.)

  • but then isn't the Synecdoche New York example similar to the one I wrote? (They are both unlikely but not fantastic.) – Alexandro Chen Jun 11 '15 at 14:13
  • 1
    To an extent, except the difference is that your example is attempting to contradict what I know, but the Synecdoche New York example doesn't. I know people stalk other people, I know some people are exceptionally determined at doing so. It doesn't contradict anything I'm aware of. It's always much more difficult for someone to accept something that's contrary to their perception of the world, than it is to gain some new information that "fits". – Craig Sefton Jun 11 '15 at 15:02
2

A very incomplete answer, but some random thoughts:

One: Readers tend to accept wild things about physics, but not about human behavior. Like, I've often noticed when reading science fiction that I'll easily accept faster than light travel, teleportation machines, time travel, pocket fusion generators, etc etc. But if the captain of the star ship gives a lame excuse for why he violated orders, I'm saying, "Oh, come on, the Star Admiral just accepted that? Wouldn't they have demanded some explanation?" etc.

Two: Readers accept something wildly improbable that is the starting point, the premise, of the story, but not something that looks like it was introduced just to give the hero a way out at the last minute, or that appears to be included for no apparent reason. Like if you write a story that starts out with the hero inventing a time machine and going back to meet Shakespeare, readers will likely just accept this, no matter how improbable they think time machines are. But if you've never mentioned a time machine before in the story, and then at the last minute, when the hero is totally trapped and the reader is wondering how in the world he is going to get out of this mess, you say, "... and then he pulled a time machine out of his pocket and went back in time to ten years before the prison cell was built, and walked away. The end", readers will strangle you.

Three: Readers accept things that fit the general tone of the story, but not things that are jarringly out of place. If you write a story set in a magical fantasy land with elves and hobbits, and then the hero finds a magic sword, readers will accept it. If you write a detective story set in New York City that is grittingly realistic, and then the hero finds a magic sword, this will likely be a problem. I'm sure that a skilled enough writer could pull it off, but it would be very hard.

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