28

Sometimes, it so happens that I do some research for a story and find that a major plot point could never work in real life. At this stage, I can either continue with my impossible (for a non-fantasy, non-scifi setting) idea, or scrap it completely.

This happened to me earlier while I was writing fan fiction - given the informal nature of it, I simply let my character survive a wound that he shouldn't have survived, and then left a note at the bottom about what would have really happened.

How can I do this in a more formal setting, like a short story or a novel? Assume that I can't incorporate the research without reworking a lot of my story.

  • "and then left a note at the bottom" I don't know if that's what you're doing, obviously, but this feels too close for comfort to having Footnotes for Translation purposes. You might want to check out the discussion in that question. (Full disclosure: One of the answers is my own.) – a CVn Jul 19 at 12:01
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    Do what exactly? You've given an example of a previous experience but you haven't told us what the current "impossible" idea actually is, not having that background makes answering this question a bit awkward. – Ash Jul 19 at 12:32
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    You probably don't have to move the wound particularly far, considering that people have survived iron spikes through their skull – Chronocidal Jul 19 at 15:05
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    or try hanging a lantern on it tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging – sesquipedalias Jul 20 at 1:42
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    “In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts” — Michael Ondaatje, Running In the Family. This is how he relays that many parts of his memoir are exaggerated from being recalled, retold, trickling down through the family from generation to generation. Not sure if it answers this question at all, but it feels related. – gen-z ready to perish Jul 21 at 7:15

13 Answers 13

73

I simply let my character survive a wound that he shouldn't have survived, and then left a note at the bottom about what would have really happened.

As a reader, this would break my immersion and ruin the story, everything after that is BS, I know it, the author knows it, and did it anyway.

Change the plot point.

Change the injury to something crippling (for the moment) but survivable.

Make it so the injury isn't what the character thought it was.

Make the character recognize the gravity of the injury and do something about it, to make it non-fatal.

Invent another character to prevent the hero from dying, even if you have to write 10,000 words.

Or, as a last resort, just don't tell us. This is fiction, an entertainment, so take the liberty without apologizing for it. If 10% of readers call BS on it, you still entertained 90% of them. Stop worrying about "justification" or your "integrity" or "honesty".

Yes, I'd like my fiction to be plausible; and I would probably choose to rewrite, but I don't expect deep plausibility in fiction that will withstand any level of research. IRL I am a scientist, but I do not expect readers to take my fiction as literal truth, I don't expect my fiction to withstand close scientific scrutiny. You just need some surface plausibility, or as we call it in science, "hand-waving" justifications a reader can accept without much thought, and read on.

Don't let your ego get in the way of writing an entertaining story.

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    @KWeiss You have mistaken the issue. Shrugging off injuries and surviving impossible things (including falls) is fine, my issue is with the author telling the reader that what they said happened was impossible. Also, if you are writing a story in which everything in the first Act (~25%) is completely realistic, you have set the reader's expectations that there will be no magical deus ex machinas. The story is no longer in the territory of unrealism; John McClane (Die Hard) can't shrug off a shotgun blast to the face, the audience will call BS. – Amadeus Jul 20 at 13:54
  • I'd love a little background information on some stuff that happens in a semi-realistic story that puts it in perspective, but I agree that a foot note breaks immersion. A little documentation attached at the end however would be lovely with such semi-realistic stories in particular if they dig into some real-life issues, like Dan Brown books. So as a compromise I'd suggest to add any such information at the end, when the reader already disconnects from the story. Feel free to incorporate if you want or not^^ – Frank Hopkins Jul 20 at 20:51
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    @FrankHopkins I don't recall Dan Brown's notes, but I doubt they actually spoil his story, or mention he presented as a fact something downright impossible. To me, the simplest alternative is to not say anything (as in The Martian), so learning the "truth" doesn't make the reader feel like the whole thing was a waste of time. What is the motivation to recite a fact that ruins the story? The only one I can imagine is author ego not wanting to be called out, but that is a misguided motivation. The simple answer to such an accusation is, again, none at all! Don't feed the trolls. – Amadeus Jul 20 at 21:14
  • Ah I merely meant that for that type of books I'd love to have an appendix that tells me what of the main historical references is somewhat true and what fiction, with a few pointers (e.g. names) to look up actual events/objects etc. You might be right about the author ego for the mentioned example. But say in a space story where everything is mostly scientific (or up to some level), but one thing (say how to get quickly to another solar system) is hand-waved with a "anti-matter" drive, I'd love an appendix that tells me what was hand-waved and what not (as much). – Frank Hopkins Jul 20 at 21:40
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    +1 "Make it so the injury isn't what the character thought it was." - This is a fantastic device when used correctly because if it tricks the uninformed reader and can be uncovered later. "I panicked at the time since it pinched off one of my arteries when it bit me, but a quick cloth bandage staunched it!" said the barbarian as the apothecary held his laughter as he cleaned up the brute's barely scratched off skin. – lucasgcb Jul 22 at 9:38
32

Sometimes writers make mistakes. Sometimes they didn't know something. Sometimes they chose to ignore a fact because it got in the way of their story. This is so common, TV tropes has a whole family of tropes related to the phenomenon. Of particular interest to you would be Artistic License - Medicine with all its subtropes, and Critical Research Failure.

If you choose to write something, you don't add a footnote saying "actually, this is total bull". Imagine if Dan Brown added an addendum to all his books, explaining that all his "facts" are entirely made up, wrong, and incompatible with reality. He wouldn't be nearly as famous, would he?

If you're uncomfortable with writing something that is painfully wrong, rewrite it. Correct it. Make your work something that gives you pride rather than mild shame. If you don't really care, then you don't really care.

As a reader, a mistake I notice throws me out of the story, always. It breaks my suspension of disbelief, because I know "that couldn't have happened". Depending on the mistake, sometimes I can forgive it, gloss over it, move on. The author is, after all, just human, sometimes they make mistakes, no big deal. Or it could be that they made the choice deliberately, because it works so great for the plot. Sometimes that too can be forgiven.
Other times, the author should really have known better, should have done their research. Sometimes a mistake is so bad, I feel the author is showing blatant disrespect towards their audience. Then I will put the book down and never pick up anything by that author again.

But if you straight up add a footnote and tell me that the things you wrote can't actually work, what you're saying is "I couldn't be bothered with making it right, I do not respect you, the reader, enough to write something that works. Rewriting the work after I found a mistake was more work than I was willing to put into this, so here, take this half-baked product." I'm sure you can see how I wouldn't forgive that.

22

Many authors do include that kind of information outside of the story itself. Typically it goes in a foreword or afterword, which are essays the author finds useful to include with the story that can contain almost anything, including the acknowledgements section (usually separate). These are directed to the reader, often in a conversational tone. I imagine that if an author were to give a live reading of their story, they'd have the opportunity to speak about it to the audience. These sections have the same purpose and effect.

I've encountered explanatory and historical notes more often in the Afterword simply because to discuss plot points and details is to risk spoiling something for the reader, or because the reader wouldn't understand the context without having first read the story. The exception I've seen is when this is a later edition, and the author is reintroducing or reframing the work in some retrospective way.

As F1Krazy suggested, many readers cut to the chase and only read the story, so you would have to accept that not everyone would get that explanation.

I think if your story doesn't make sense or isn't self-contained and you must convey that information to them somehow, it would be better to include it as part of the work itself. You could do substantial reworking to incorporate it into the story, but barring that you have another alternative: I've seen authors slip this in as a prologue that isn't in the narrative voice of the rest of the work, such as offering a faux dictionary definition or quote, or a quick backstory. It feels contrived but ensures that the reader has that information going in.

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    Somehow the word "afterword" completely slipped my mind when I was writing my own answer, I've edited it in now. – F1Krazy Jul 19 at 12:05
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    I appreciate the idea of “coming clean” in an afterword (after they’ve enjoyed the story). The reason is the number of people who believe as real the nonsense on TV crime shows and medical shows. Or think Dan Brown’s books are “historical” fiction. – WGroleau Jul 19 at 16:53
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    I always appreciated Bernard Cornwell's afterword coming clean with the historical facts he changed for the story, down to who really did each of the battle-turning deeds attributed to the protagonist. – Emilio M Bumachar Jul 20 at 10:35
16

"I simply let my character survive a wound that he shouldn't have survived"

Real people do this all the time, one of my favourites was a guy in Alaska who accidentally severed his own jugular vein with a chainsaw and then proceeded to walk 20 odd miles to the nearest town for help. He should have been unconscious almost instantly and died a few moments later. Sometimes people just get ridiculously lucky; to maintain realism and immersion for your audience people should comment on how lucky the survivor is, possibly until they're sick of hearing it. This means only saying it once in the direct narrative and having the character immediately tell that person they've had it with everyone reminding them of how dead they should be.

Now without knowing exactly what you're proposing to do this time around it's hard to say how you might go about justifying the outcome you want but luck and odd happenstance can get you a long way to the apparently impossible.

You can write a foreword that says, among other things "anything that's wrong with this story is deliberate and/or my fault" but within the narrative don't say anything about inconsistencies, it destroys the readers' experience.

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    A similar example would be the gentleman who had a metal bar pass completely through his lower jaw and out the top of his skull. He did suffer a change in personality, but otherwise survived. – Michael Richardson Jul 19 at 16:28
  • @MichaelRichardson Yeah there's been a few people with things like that, full trans-cranial penetrations who've lived through it with almost no consequences. – Ash Jul 19 at 16:48
14

A really good example of this is The Martian, where the key event for Watney being stranded on Mars is a violent storm which damages equipment, injures Watney and threatens the lander. Andy Weir was perfectly aware that Mars does not in fact have winds which would match the novel's events - whilst winds on Mars can be extremely fast, the thin atmosphere means they simply could not have sufficient force. However the plot required an event like this, so the event happened. Weir is unapologetic about this, because the important point is to tell the story.

The context in which this is done is relevant. In every other regard, Weir took pains to ensure the science and engineering were correct. Moreover the "windy Mars" environment keeps recurring throughout the book, presenting Watney with new challenges, but also showing that this is business as usual for Weir's "windy Mars" and not a freak event that comes out of nowhere.

So if you're going to rework some piece of the real world to fit your plot, the answer is pretty simple - just make sure that you've figured out all the consequences of that change and how it relates to the rest of the world, your characters, and/or their opponents. So long as the novel is internally consistent, your readers simply don't care.

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    +1, that's a good catch. Of course, about 200 meteors per year strike Mars, and they can cause Marsquakes. One of the larger ones could have been an at least possible alternative to create an emergency, bury Watney in a crevice or under a pile of rocks, and force an emergency evacuation. There is no guarantee of forewarning of the strike; we aren't monitoring for space debris around Mars. Mars has the highest rate of meteor strikes per planet; See: space.com/21198-mars-asteroid-strikes-common.html – Amadeus Jul 19 at 19:55
  • @Amadeus Possibly, but then you have to justify having enough warning to get the rest of the crew away in the lander. Weir has said he couldn't work out anything which was 100% fact and made the plot work, so he "adjusted" the facts. Reading the book, with the pressure on the commander to make that call, I wouldn't disagree with his choice. It just works. – Graham Jul 19 at 20:22
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    Magic radiation shielding is the other ingredient that makes The Martian work. It is, however, never mentioned and not a plot point, it is just assumed to exist. – Jörg W Mittag Jul 19 at 23:07
  • @JörgWMittag Right, but you don't see the director giving himself a lead-in cameo to tell people "you know, this crew would be dead from radiation long before they reached Mars, but then we wouldn't have a story, so I want you all to put that aside..." – Amadeus Jul 19 at 23:22
  • @Graham Simple. Make Watney far from the ship, they see a mountain collapse on him, his transponder is wrecked=life signs zero, they expect rebound aftershocks from the meteor, they have to leave before the ship topples. A meteor strike can be precisely as powerful as we need it to be; Watney can be as lucky/unlucky as we need him to be, and as distant (doing his job) as we need him to be. Without breaking immersion for the few people that know "wind" is BS. You can claim it just works, but so does a meteor strike without being physically impossible (in an otherwise realistic setting). – Amadeus Jul 19 at 23:30
13

I've read a few books that had an "afterword" section at the end, where the author would address the reader directly to talk about the work. I know Anthony Horowitz did this with the Alex Rider series; one book had him list his top 10 favourite deaths across the whole series, and I think another had him discuss his decision to have Scorpia end with

Alex getting shot by a sniper.

So you could always add an afterword at the end of your own novel, and in there, you could explain how you knew that X was unrealistic or incorrect, but you put it in anyway for artistic license. This relies on your readers actually reading the afterword and not just closing the book the minute they finish the actual narrative, but it's the best way I can think of.

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    I'm reminded of the "Producer Says" segments in Magic School Bus, which basically did this. (I still remember that segment in the solar system episode where the producer character talked about how in real life, the planets wouldn't actually be all nicely lined up like that, and also yeah, from 1979 to 1999, Pluto was actually closer to the Sun than Neptune.) – ahiijny Jul 19 at 15:08
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Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

(Mark Twain, allegedly)

If your licence (or licences) from the truth really troubles your conscience, leave your explanation/justification for a note at the end of the novel. This way you won't break the flow for the reader, and you'll leave your explanation for a time (at the end of the novel) when the reader is keener on suspending their suspension of disbelief. My two cents.

The writers of the TV series "Breaking Bad" (or was it "Better call Saul"?) drive another excellent point when they make a character say:

I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.

In other words: if you don't believe your own story, it's not going to work.

Another way of addressing the issue could be to be playfully unapologetic about it.

The novel The Baron in the Trees by Italian writer Italo Calvino is an excellent example of how unlikely situations can be delivered in a believable way without ever having to give explanations to the reader or making the reader feel cheated. The novel is the story of a kid that climbs up a tree after a fight with his noble family and decides to never climb down. He spends an entire life of adventures in the trees. The novel is set in Italy in the XVI century and it is dense of historically accurate references. Everything that happens, no matter how unlikely, is consistent with the time and place in which the events are set. One can tell that Calvino did not have to sit down and "do the research" to do so. He knew those time and places well enough to play with them comfortably in the first place. More importantly, he was immersed in the reality that he was weaving, he believed it, and in turn so does the reader (or perhaps I am just gullible).

5

Every book is going to play around with reality to some degree, though some do it more than others.

Every case is different. Is this a story that would end up on a "I can't believe they survived!" style TV show?

In my own book, I've included one of my favorite songs. But the song didn't exist in that time period. It's in Aramaic and Aramaic and Hebrew weren't languages yet; people spoke Canaanite, the precursor language to both.

I am handwaving this away because it's a very old song and it's not inconceivable that a form of it existed even earlier. But I know that's a load of BS I'm telling myself so I can include it.

And...so...I'm including it anyway. Because it's my book and that's what I want to happen. I'm also including things that didn't happen historically, at least not in the United States. They're things that could have happened, but they didn't.

I have no idea if I'll have an afterword that talks about any of this, because that's more up to the publisher than anyone else. But I do have a blog. I can talk about all of these pressing issues as much as I want. And if gasp some readers do not care as much as I do about linguistics and liturgical history as I do, they can just skip that post.

In your situation, let your character survive and move on. If you need to, tweak the details just slightly as others have recommended, so survival is possible, even if improbable. As long as it's not too extreme (no one survives their head being cut off), readers can chalk it up to some amazing stroke of luck. You don't need to explain medical probability to the reader, just make it believable.

4

This happened to me earlier while I was writing fan fiction - given the informal nature of it, I simply let my character survive a wound that he shouldn't have survived

If this impossible thing is not critical to the story, you might be writing yourself out of a corner with magic. This can yank the reader out of their immersion, and demonstrates that nothing really has consequences in your stories. Change it to something plausible.


If the impossible thing is critical to the story, do it and quickly move on before the reader notices. Absolutely do not draw attention to it with a note. If it's in the middle of a tense situation the reader will probably be so immersed they won't notice until hours later, if ever.

For example, there's that awesome scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones escapes capture by climbing on board a German submarine and catches a ride across hundreds of miles of open ocean to a secret German U-Boat base. Wow!

Hold on... Did he hang on to the outside of the submarine for hundreds of miles and days on end? Did it never dive? Did he sneak inside? How do you sneak inside a submarine? If he did, how do you stay hidden inside a submarine?

Forget it, rule of cool applies. If you have the reader wrapped up enough and it's awesome enough, it won't even occur to them that it's implausible.

They filmed scenes of Indy hanging onto the periscope trying to sleep and wisely did not include them. This is the equivalent of your note. Trying to explain it just draws attention to how implausible it really is. Just move along quickly.


Or make sure the impossible thing goes along with the theme of the story.

For example, Greg Egan's Permutation City is hard sci-fi about computing and virtual reality... except for one bit where he decides...

"dust theory" works. There is no difference between physics and its mathematics. So long as their virtual reality can be computed it will continue to be computed no physical hardware required.

This is not the central plot of the story, but it's built up as an outside possibility over the course of the story. It's an extreme exploration of the theme the story: virtual reality is truly virtual and not tied down to physical limitations of time nor space.

Greg Egan has a FAQ about this (note: contains big spoilers to a very good book) where he admits he doesn't take it very seriously.


Which is all to say: if you're going to do something impossible, make sure it's either really cool, or has a thematic purpose. Best if it's both. If it's neither, it's lazy writing.

  • I wish I could +10 you just for mentioning Permutation City! – Lauren Ipsum Jul 20 at 22:40
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    @LaurenIpsum Thanks. I feel Greg Egan's stories always have a moment where he asks the reader to "just give me this one bit of magic to push the story over the top, I promise this is going somewhere good". – Schwern Jul 21 at 19:47
4

One of the best examples I can think of--where the plot requires a counter-factual setting--is the beginning of Never Let Me Go. It simply states the assumptions the reader needs to accept:

"The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years."

By stating the "facts" that the reader needs to accept, up front, it lets the reader know that an "alternate reality" as is the setting for your story.

If the idea of an "alternate reality" is too strong, I agree with the other answers that you don't necessarily need to draw attention to "the impossible." You just write as if it were possible and move on. There is precedent to this. For example, there is the writing style of "magic realism." According to its Wikipedia page, it has been defined as "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe."

Another example I can think of is Dream Boy, by Jim Grimsley. In the book, a youth is beaten to death. From the description of the aftermath, the book gives the strong impression that the boy is dead. Yet he wakes up and walks away from the scene. Grimsley leaves the story ambiguous whether the boy didn't really die, is a ghost, someone else's fantasy, or something else. According to this NPR reviewer, "Grimsley realizes literature is not bound to the laws of the physical world, and he makes the most of this."

In the theatre community, we often talk of the "suspension of disbelief button." Audience members—or readers—will often be willing to push this button, in the service of engaging with the story, if the story is well-told and otherwise believable. From a technique point of view, I think it helps if the situation around the "factually incorrect" event is left a little ambiguous, and that part of the story is relatively fast paced, so the reader isn't forced to dwell on the inconsistency.

In short, I think the answer to your question is in the question itself:

"I can either continue with my impossible (for a non-fantasy, non-scifi setting) idea, or scrap it completely."

Right. I'm submitting this answer to say that "continuing with the impossible" is a legitimate thing. It has an established precedent. The flip side of the coin is that some readers will be less willing than others to plays fast-and-loose with reality, even if it in the service of the story.

2

One classic approach is to “hang a lampshade on it.” If he really shouldn’t have survived that, you can have a character in the story point out how lucky he is. It calls attention to the fact that the plot is implausible (although this is could be a clue that there’s really more going on). But at minimum, it tells the reader you’re aware of it.

John Bois’ online story “17776, or What Football Will Look Like In The Future” goes a step further. Someone who’s survived in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the real world suddenly breaks character in the middle of a conversation. The author makes a joke out if it, but still has his mouthpiece say that he’s breaking the Fourth Wall for the sake of your personal safety and well-being. “I can only do that because I am unkillable. [... Y]ou are extraordinarily killable. [... Y]ou'll be remembered as the person who died in some crappy cave because you read it in a story you read online about sentient 178th-century space probes who watch football all day, even though the most handsome character in the story completely interrupted everything to explicitly tell you not to.”

There are a few novels that use footnotes as a conceit. Mary Gentle’s The Book of Ash comes to mind. In Nabokov’s Pale Fires, the editor adding footnotes is a character of his own with an unreliable point of view, but the best example I can think of is actually a non-fiction book. Some editions of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, including the one on Project Gutenberg, have multiple dueling sets of footnotes, where Gibbon himself is often more witty and acerbic than in the main text, and the commentators are arguing with each other, particularly about Gibbon’s views on organized religion.

0

You can always take a middle way, by discussing the issue in the story.

So, your hero gets trashed but miraculously survives. Have a doctor discuss it.

"Seriously, Mr. Smith, I've never heard of anybody with your injuries living. I have no idea why you are not down in the morgue right now."

0

This might not be quite what you are looking for, but it may give you an idea. In one of Higashino's novels, Malice, it becomes clear that the first person narrator is lying to the Reader, who naturally wonders why? (He is also lying to the Police). Maybe you could find a way to use your impossibilities as a plot device. (Actually The Matrix does this).

  • Welcome to Writing.SE, Crase! When you have tome, please take a look at our tour and help center pages, they're useful. I don't think your answer is quite what the OP is looking for, but you bring up an interesting point. Looking forward to seeing more of you here! – Galastel Jul 21 at 8:53

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