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I am in the process of editing a short story. It is science fiction of the "if this goes on" kind: I take a social trend I see, and paint its event horizon - a troubling future. 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are classical examples.

I have received two seemingly contradictory critiques from beta readers: one says

This is too much, this is a strawman, you are weakening your argument by presenting the extreme edge of the phenomenon you wish to engage with rather than its mainstream.

The other says:

This is not enough. If you give that phenomenon free reign, it would go much further, get much worse than what you present. You weaken your story by keeping it too tame, by not going far enough.

How do I listen to both my beta readers here? What is hiding behind the contradictory critique? I can see how there is truth in what each of them says, but how do I combine the two?

Perhaps exacerbating the problem is the fact that this is a short story. I have very limited space to set up what I have set out to explore.

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    Note that what shows in the different responses of the beta readers might be their different bias about the topic you've extrapolated. Let's say the topic is social media. Then someone who is invested in social media would be more likely to see your extrapolation as unrealistically negative, while someone who is already sceptical about social media might think that you've not gone far enough in showing their dangers. – celtschk Jul 28 at 18:58
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    On the other hand, it could be that both are right: You might e.g. have exaggerated too much on the technological means, but at the same time have been too tame with their social effects (or the other way round). – celtschk Jul 28 at 19:06
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Answer #1 is a comment/question:

Can you ask them the sorts of books/stories they'd each recommend to help you calibrate your extremity? that might be the sort of info that can point you in the direction you should go, because it may tell you which reader is naturally in tune with your intent.

Answer #2:

I think your experience is common. Science Fiction can be light, or heavy-handed (as no doubt you know), and I've for sure had readers that want more than I put in my writing. Some readers want bizarre, plain and simple. It's less a matter of right and wrong, and more a matter of preference IMO. Example: I cannot read Dawn by Octavia Butler. It is too much. Too weird. Very creepy-crawly SF and messes with my head. But something by Michael Crichton, which is fairly plausible in theory anyway, and I'm in!

Perhaps something up front can telegraph to the reader how extreme you plan to be in yours. Off the top of my head, maybe starting with something that telegraphs bizarro vs mundane:

'The green diamond of sun rose again, as it had every six hours since the apocalypse ended.'

vs

'She could hardly stand the tedium of life. What Jen would give for the faintest bit of variation from normalcy--just one thing off, one small oddity to break the monotonous normalcy of 'everyday,' 21st century Earth.'

Answer 3 is obvious--:)--More beta readers and go with the consensus.

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What you can make out from these two contradictory statements is that the description of the progression of events from the present to the point where the story takes place might not be described well enough.

You might leave too many events open to interpretation or expect the reader to take certain developments as self-evident when they are not. So each reader fills in the blanks based on their own personal biases and comes to the conclusion that your end-result contradicts what they believe to be true.

How would you fix that issue?

  • Spend more time on describing the timeline of events that transpired
  • Spend more time on making sure that the events you describe are plausible
  • Spend more time on convincing the reader that you are correct by giving them the impression that you did your research

Also, be aware of the difficulty to overcome cognitive dissonance in your readers. If your work contradicts certain world-views your reader already believes to be true (even if they are not), then you will have a very hard time to convince them that you are right and they are wrong. You will have a hard time finding a socialist who wouldn't nitpick Atlas Shrugged to death or a neoliberal who wouldn't considers Jennifer Government to be a ridiculous overstatement.

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you are weakening your argument by presenting the extreme edge of the phenomenon you wish to engage with rather than its mainstream.

That can be true, at one extreme (IRL) people get out and picket a studio for canceling a favorite series, calling for boycotts. The mainstream says, "Damn, I liked that show. Too bad," and moves on. But once in a while the 1% on the picket line win, by scaring the studio, or reversing an arbitrary decision, or whatever, and in that case, the extreme has an impact on the mainstream: The series comes back from the dead, perhaps for a final season, perhaps longer.

You need to show in your story why the extreme matters to the mainstream, how the extreme pulls it, or causes hardships for it, or creates guilt for it.

For example, climate refugees, fleeing starvation or drought or widespread crop failure and starvation, have impacts by flooding other countries with refugees, past the breaking point of their capacity to care for any more. What happens then becomes a matter for the "mainstream", a lot of complacent people that are not refugees but suddenly feel overwhelmed by them. That leads to a rise of nationalism, bigotry, racial or religious prejudice, and that in turn can have a counter-push of tolerance and altruism and seeking answers to the problem, and all of that can play out in politics that affects everyone.

It doesn't take a lot of poison to infect the whole body.

This is not enough. If you give that phenomenon free reign, it would go much further, get much worse than what you present.

Well, that could be a simple misunderstanding. Nearly all natural phenomenon have some braking mechanism. Imagine a company starting out, say a restaurant chain. A few good places have grown at exponential rates, doubling the number of outlets every year. But even if their profit structure supports that, it won't continue indefinitely, because the market is not infinitely large. It is going to level off someday, so will their revenue, and their profit.

The USA grew rapidly, but it leveled off, before we even took Canada and Mexico.

Look for the braking mechanism. It may even be the death of everybody, but there is likely some limit, somewhere. We have physical braking mechanisms, and emotional braking mechanisms (revolution, war, crimes of desperation), and political braking mechanisms, and "scientific" braking mechanisms -- even though some things are theoretically physically possible, we haven't been able to scientifically figure out how to do it. You might call that a cognitive braking mechanism, our ability to innovate and come up with new stuff can only go so far. We have that problem with fundamental physics right now, the theories of physics have been stalled over forty years, since the 70s.

By explaining the braking mechanism, you make it plausible that no, your phenomenon isn't occurring in a vacuum and will not accelerate forever, it is interacting with other things (dependent on or affecting) that will sooner or later slow it down. Nothing, ever, goes to infinity. (But many things can decline to zero.)

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This is a common enough experience. Anyone familiar with writers' groups will be aware this happens all the time. Every beta reader has their own criteria for how they evaluate any story. You should be more worried, or perhaps more elated, if they all gave the same responses and comments.

So getting contradictory comments is normal. It's not your role as the writer to slavishly adhere to want what your beta readers want. It's your story, you decide. If they have found minor discrepancies in the text of your story they may be worth considering. These can be spelling, grammar, point of view or the unfolding of the action of characters and the plot.

But when it comes to broad brush matters about whether you gone too far or not far enough, in the final analysis can you choose which you feel more comfortable with, and go with that.

Generally with short stories it's not a sin to go for broke and push trends to their utmost. But the contrary case of only taking one step into abyss can be unsettling more than enough. Going either way can be OK.

When your beta readers disagree, it's your prerogative to decide what you want to do with your story.

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Every reader comes at a work with a different perspective. One reader may not even notice the elements that are central for another.

The only way to find out if your two beta readers were focusing on different things is to ask them. When a society changes fundamentally, especially when leading to dystopia, it will change multiple elements and all to different degrees.

Gender roles, employment protections, who rears children, the weight of the military in the society, prison systems, divides between rich and poor, racial disparity, education, safety of the air and water, the appearance of the night sky, how much nature is left (or has it taken over), and so much more.

Perhaps your first reader felt the ecological changes you were suggesting were too extreme and your second reader felt that the role of children in the society would change a lot more than you showed. But if they were both talking about, say, your portrayals of requirements for military service, then it's trickier to figure out.

More beta readers and more details from the ones you have are your solution.

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Beta readers are excellent at identifying problems. They're not as good at identifying solutions.

Think of yourself like a doctor with a patient. The patient can describe their symptoms. They can even tell you what they think the cause is. But you are the expert here - the ultimate diagnosis and treatment are in your hands. Consider how your readers think you need to change the story - but do not take it as truth.

It's possible that both of them are right

If you're standing at a crossroads you can take either the left or right path and get to a good destination. If you walk straight forwards you'll hit a tree. It's entirely possible that both proposed solutions would actually work for your story. Then again, maybe neither will.

And it's possible that one solution will improve the story, while at the same time changing it into something new. Maybe something better, maybe worse, maybe just different. It's your story, it's perfectly fine to reject a change that makes the story into something you don't want it to be, even if that change would create a serviceable story.

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These kinds of seemingly contradictory responses make me really love humans.

To understand how you can get these kinds of responses, ask yourself how often do my eyes started elide of text. Maybe the beta readers skimmed across different lines of text.

For my writing, I try to understand the interpretation of my work that allowed the critic to arrive at an observation that I didn’t intend. When I do that, I often find that some aspect of my story was not clearly presented and permitted multiple interpretations.

If I don’t find something the explains it then I consider if the critic is mistaking their art for my art. I try to understand their point of view, but in the end if they are reflecting on how they would have written the story then its my story — my expression of my art. Then, I ignore their feedback.

Summarizing, try to re-read your work to find how it was misinterpreted knowing that people are people and make mistakes. Failing that, figure out if they are really telling you have they would have written story, then decide if that’s how you want to write your story

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It simply depends whether you want to publish for the market or write real literature.

For good- or best-selling: Keep it simple and stupid. For real literature, don’t be afraid of the extremes!

Remind the great Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. He explained (my wording): The classical Greek tragedy involves well meaning heroes fighting for the good of man – all in vain. The human-like Gods (today we interpret them as the inescapable fate) are playing their own games. Watching these dramas from a higher vantage point, we understand the comical situation these heroes are struggling in. So every drama is a tragicomedy!

And no drama is thought to the end before the worst of all outcomes has been found. Believe me, Dürrenmatt was not a cynic. He was a real philosopher.

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