I recently asked a question about if I really need to include scientific proof for my mostly-non-scientific post-apocalyptic novel, and the best answer I received told me that I didn't need to back up my premise with science as long as I set the contract with my reader that science is not my promised topic. The answer I accepted told me to establish early on that science is not what I'm promising. Here is my issue:

In my book, I show in around the 8th chapter that my MC has supernatural powers, and I think it's clear to my reader that I'm not searching for a scientific explanation for this. The closest I get to this is later on in the story, where the characters surmise that radiation gave them their strange powers. But I don't know if this is early enough. My novel's first five approximate chapters are the closest thing I have to a final draft, and I don't know if or how I could incorporate the idea of non-science any earlier.

How do I set with my reader the promise that my story isn't scientific, if the first mention of anything fantastical occurs maybe 25% into the story?

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    I'll repeat what I wrote for another question: This question shows no personal research into the matter, which at least in other SE communities is a serious issue. You got some good advice, and now your question is simply "so how do I do that?". Let me ask you back, did you ever think about how you could do it? Did you try things out? Were you unsatisfied with them? What is the specific problem you have with the very good advice you got? The answer by CPT even gave a concrete example. So what are you confused about and why, and how can we help? – PoorYorick Mar 13 '19 at 9:07
  • Is there any chance at all that readers will encounter actual science within the first few pages or chapters? – wetcircuit Mar 13 '19 at 11:44
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    This may be a good question to take to the Literature.SE, perhaps asking what books people felt met the "contract," and which broke it? (Like I honestly thought, from the title, that Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle was about the string game and how to do forms. I was 11ish. But the first few pages of the book made it clear that this was NOT an instructional book in that way, but that the style would be quick and yet deep, simple words with complexity underneath. That was the "contract." – April Salutes Monica C. Mar 13 '19 at 13:21
  • @Spectrosaurus I have heavily edited my question to provide a more specific problem. – weakdna Mar 13 '19 at 15:35

In general, if you are going to be using magic or any non-scientific element, you need to introduce that very early in the first half of the first act, probably in the first pages of your story.

The first Book of Harry Potter, for example, shows magical fantasy elements starting on page 3 -- A man sees a cat reading a map under a lamp post, if I recall. Then several other such elements.

The first half of the first act establishes your protagonist's "normal world". About an eighth of the full story is devoted to this, and at the end of this eighth, we first see the "inciting incident" of the story, which in the next eighth will grow to force the protagonist out of their normal world; doing something or going somewhere they never would have gone without the inciting incident becoming disruptive of their normal life.

Your "contract" is established in that first eighth; if magic is a real thing you need at least ONE strong hint of it early, while the reader is still accepting anything. Time travel, FTL spaceships, robots, super AI, Magic, sorcery, shape-shifters, Aliens, vampires, werewolves, fairies, elves, whatever. All of those have made good stories, because when we begin to read, we are ready to accept anything you want to give us.

But your credit runs out fast! If you introduce magic too late, it looks like a deus ex machina to solve some writing problem. You have to write the final 7/8ths of the book with what you introduced in the first 1/8th.

Now, "magic" is what is introduced in the first pages of Harry Potter, but obviously nowhere NEAR all the magical things that will be done. More spells, and more powerful magic is introduced throughout. That's fine. Once you introduce "X", more and bigger variants of "X" are fine. You only need to introduce one extraterrestrial, once you have done that you can introduce thirty more species and the audience is not surprised or disbelieving. Extraterrestrials exist.

So the task isn't impossible, you just introduce a category of not-real-world something, and that opens the door to everything in that category. But they are categories: "Magic" doesn't permit "Extraterrestrials" and vice-versa, many would say neither allows "ghosts", or "time travel".

It is also possible the "inciting incident" is itself in the category of your fantasy or SciFi element. For example, the protagonist discovers something magical. That can be the signal to the reader, too.

EDIT in response to OP's revision and request.

I think 8 chapters and 25% of the story is far too late to introduce magic. I base that on the Three Act Structure, which was derived from a fair generalization of thousands of successful stories and how they are structured.

The magic you introduce doesn't have to be by the MC, it could be something observed by a stranger. It doesn't have to be any kind of "big magic", but it does have to be there. As I said, your credit runs out fast!

If you need to rewrite, you need to rewrite. Don't fall for the "sunk cost" fallacy, a story that doesn't work needs to be fixed. Your characters can blow off the magic as something they just didn't understand, this doesn't have to change the progression of their actions; but you need some event with some walk-on character that is unambiguously (to the reader) magic.

  • "many would say neither allows "ghosts", or "time travel"" - Harry Potter has both ghosts and time travel, neither of which is established in the beginning. I think this line weakens an otherwise pretty good answer. – linksassin Mar 13 '19 at 0:24
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    @linksassin As I said, "many would say." I haven't read those Harry Potter's, I'd imaging JKR did introduce the possibility of ghosts or time travel early in those stories. But even if she did not: Just about every rule of writing has been broken, successfully, by genius writers; and Rowling is one of them. Dan Brown is another. It is a mistake to use what famous authors get away with as the standard for what we consider 'good writing'. Stellar imagination & story creativity let them get away with iffy form. (Even then, Rowling's first got rejections for years due to iffy form.) – Amadeus Mar 13 '19 at 10:31
  • Hi! I like this answer, but could you please review my question? I heavily edited it to make it less broad and more clear, with more details about my own research and process. – weakdna Mar 13 '19 at 15:33

The "contract" is the expectations you set. In an academic paper, it's normally the introduction leading up to the thesis. In a work of fiction, it's the first few pages (novel) or paragraphs (short story).

Just like an academic introduction, you may not be able to do it until you've done EVERYTHING else -- written the body, seen how your thesis statement has changed given the evidence... NOW you know the scope of what needs to be introduced.

So maybe wait until your draft of the fictional work is done, and then re-do the introduction -- if there's a little science or magic, make sure it's evident.

If it's an honor-based world (or your character thinks it is -- like Ned Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire ), then that should be something the characters think about (tight-third or first-person POV), or show evidence of it in something experienced -- someone doesn't get the university appointment because of a sub that their great-uncle made to the university president's uncle 25 years ago.

If there is humor, set it up in your style. If your book is punny, use puns. If it's more like "Aerith & Bob" (contrasting genre with everyday, especially in naming), then have the Warlord with his minion Fred.

If in this apocalypse you care about the science, then probably the characters also would care about it. If you're focused on the day-to-day life, then have the characters just pass on the rumours of what they think caused it, even if contradictory. ("Comets!" "No, an experimental bomb." "Supervillains!")

But to come back to the main Q - the "contract" is the promise made to the reader about what is the scope of the work. Often you can't know what your scope is until the draft is done, so (re)write the introduction/beginning at the end.


The answer by DPT gave an example, which was: write a small prologue, or preambel, about a well-known story (for example a biblical one), and then sum it up with something like "Sometimes truth lies not in the facts, but in the ideas under the facts."

This is admittedly a rather (for lack of a better word) "high-brow" way of solving this, it might be too elegant and intellectually-minded for a story about supernatural teens in a post-apocalyptic world. But you can do it in a simpler fashion. You can just start the novel with a sentence about the supernatural elements.

When the bombs fell, people realized that life as they knew it was over. When the laser-shooting mutants came, people realized that people as they knew them were over.

Making this kind of contract is easy, the problem only appears when you start the novel by giving lots of scientific explanations for the post-apocalyptic world and then change direction to a largely unscientific fantasy novel. Basically, write in one of your first sentences about something supernatural, maybe write about it in a laissez-faire fashion, "that's just the way it is now". If people complain about it, then they're curmudgeons who will always complain that "actually, technically, this is not possible". You can safely ignore those people. You will never make everyone happy, and these people can go back to Star Trek or whatever is more to their liking.

Humour also always helps. People are much less sticklers for scientific rigor when they laugh. That's part of the Marvel formula. Or look at Futurama. That's actually a cartoon that is highly scientific in some places, but doesn't ever take itself so serious that people would start expecting correct scientific explanations. So when suddenly real scientific explanations are given in the show, it's noted as a welcome surprise.

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