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I'm writing a thriller (scifi/supernatural) and have a race of characters who can bend reality. They've come to earth with the intent of purging humanity. They can do it, but they have limitations. The limitation that's relevant to my question is:

  • They can't make massive changes straight off the bat. For them, changing reality is like inflating a balloon or modeling with a massive chunk of cold clay. They need to stretch it and work it first to make it pliable.

That limitation is the reason for the inconsistencies. It means the race, that wants to eradicate humanity, sends a few ahead to to warm up reality to get it ready for the big changes planned, by making small subtle changes. For example, a character could have sworn they put their cup on the table, but it's on the windowsill, or they did the laundry last night, but now they have no clean clothes.

However, the readers don't know any if this. The story follows a human character who starts off just as clueless to the other race's nefarious plans as the readers do.

I want the story to feel like a freaky dream where you never quite know what's happening, but you know it's scary, and I want the characters(/readers) to be feel a sense of 'I don't know what's real. Is this really happening? Am I dreaming? Am I going crazy?'

The changes work up to bigger, obviously intentional things later in the book, but how can I make sure the readers know the small things at the start aren't just mistakes or bad writing?

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    As an example of this, the season of Buffy that Dawn was added had several "inconsistencies" that bugged the heck out of me for most of the season until the later episodes where "how" and "why" explained them. Then I enjoyed them. May 4 at 14:59
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    "For example, a character could have sworn they put their cup on the table but it's on the windowsill, or they did the laundry last night but now they have no clean clothes." No need for fiction; I had this happen to me in real-life. Turned out my landlord was using their copy of my keys on a weekly basis and was moving stuff in my apartment. I was freaked out for weeks before I figured it out.
    – Stef
    May 4 at 16:08
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    Another question I've often asked myself is this: "If the landscape of the moon (the craters that are visible when the moon is full) magically changed overnight, how many people would notice it?"
    – Stef
    May 4 at 16:17
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    @Stef and were you less freaked out after your discovery? personally i'd rather have aliens move my stuff around than my landlord...
    – obe
    May 4 at 22:28
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    @obe I transitioned from "freaked out and wondering whether I'm losing my marbles" to "rationally scared and looking for a new place to live"
    – Stef
    May 5 at 8:07

5 Answers 5

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I think that if you focus on your character's reactions to things not being where they thought they left them, then it will clue your readers in that you're not being sloppy but are being cagey.

Especially, if sometimes your narrative has the character take a specific action -- puts the dog outside -- then finds it in the clothes dryer. A silly and extreme example only offered for the sake of this discussion.

But, with the narrative showing the dog let out into the backyard, then the reader and the character will experience the same "what is going on here? And why is my dog so snuggly soft. Dryer sheets for dogs! Call the patent office."

By intermixing narrative showing some of the mysterious reality-warping events happening within the character's POV -- the coffee cup on the desk -- then later showing the character's reaction to the coffee cup somewhere else, I think you'll provide enough of a clue to your readers that this is a thing and not evidence of poor continuity on behalf of the reader.

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    It could be interesting in the begining to have an inconsistency that will be easily seen by the reader just before the main character sees it too. The reader won't be frustrated for too long and it will train him to know that things that he sees can be seen by the characters too. Maybe later you'll be able to have inconcistencies that only the reader knows while understanding that it is in-universe and not lazy writing.
    – Echox
    May 4 at 7:32
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    The best part is that the "inconsistencies" can end up becoming a great build-up for plot twists. The character might not notice the change immediately and think everything is normal, but if the audience notices something like one characters eyes are brown when they should be blue, it offers a great set-up to the reveal that reality has changed. May 4 at 13:51
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    Like @Echox said, this could be done a little less obvious to the MC, but still be obvious to the reader, such as talking about the MC drinking a sip from their cup which has different contents in rapid succession. Such as the MC drinking coffee one sentence, then tea in the next, then pop, then water, then milk, but the MC doesn't react because they don't notice it. Because it's in a single paragraph, the reader does notice it and it's too close together and too much repetition for simple "bad proofreading". May 4 at 18:10
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An inconsistency the characters don't notice is probably the result of laziness by the writer. A character has blue eyes in Chapter 2 and brown ones in Chapter 15. Little details like how many siblings someone has or the job of a minor character don't "stay put" because the author isn't keeping track of them and just tosses in details in passing, so they don't always match.

When the inconsistencies come close together in time, and when at least one character notices them and comments on them, it's more obvious that you're doing it on purpose. Early on, the reader may think that the character is having memory problems (that's more likely than reality changing.) You can help with that by not narrating where the character put the cup, just starting with them wondering how it got to the windowsill, while the narrator doesn't tell us whether it started on the table or was always on the windowsill.

You can also have characters argue about it or discuss each other. "I'm worried about Dad, whenever he can't find something he won't admit he doesn't remember where he left it, just keeps saying someone must have moved it. He really means it, too!" You can keep this up for a quite a while before the reader comes to realize (somewhat later than the character) that it is actually reality shifting, not memory issues or other more everyday reasons.

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    I think you could get away with blue eyes / brown eyes if the two chapters were closer, and a character did notice something, even if they don't know what. For instance, character A meets blue-eyed character B in chapter 2. Then in chapter 4, A meets B, and B has brown eyes. A doesn't notice what's wrong exactly, but asks B "did you have a haircut?" or "did you change your glasses?" or something similar.
    – Stef
    May 4 at 16:15
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I'm reminded of the scene in "Sleeping with the Enemy" when Julia Roberts' character escapes from her controlling and obsessively tidy husband and is living elsewhere. In one scene, she deliberately leaves the towels in the bathroom in an untidy way. Later that day, when she returns home, she finds that the towels are tidy... and she knows that her husband has found her.

Perhaps something similar, where the character deliberately does something, then later discovers a different situation, would work in your novel?

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Into the Mouth of Madness:

The best way to have logical inconsistencies is to be insane. Have your character doubt their sanity. They see things changing, and are aware of them, but are they remembering it correctly? I swear that cup was red, but now it's blue. Glance away, look back and it's yellow.

This works especially well if the character has a reason to doubt their sanity. Schizophrenia runs in the family, but it is really the ability to perceive reality differently than others. Someone else dismisses the cup changing, but not them. Some people even have their memories change to conform to the new reality, and the cup was always blue. I mean Yellow.

This also creates a whole sense of doubt and confusion, akin to Total Recall, where even the audience isn't entirely sure if the MC is crazy or sane. To make it really fun, maybe the character really does suffer from mental illness and what is real or imaginary is more fluid than they think. If the bad guys can influence people by changing the reality of their memories and perceptions, this may be the thing that protects them from being altered out of existence.

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  • Of course, it also violates many of the unspoken rules and conventions between the author and the audience, so it pays to be really blunt about it early on - so the audience understands what to expect. Subtle can make the payoff more impactful and enjoyable, but that's not much help if the reader drops the book because the author is obviously an idiot, right? :D And from a real-life point of view, you don't even have to have a mental illness; what is real or imaginary is more fluid than most people think - your brain does a lot of self-correction (for good and bad).
    – Luaan
    May 6 at 8:57
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Interesting premise for a global take-over and wide-scale race eradication! I think the problem you will most probably face with your readers isn't that they will think your writing is shoddy, just that your characters are senile, forgetful and/or paranoid, once characters begin picking up on this "someone is moving things" dynamic.

Unsure which narration style you are weaving into your tale, but I would recommend some (at least limited) omniscient technique where you describe the character's decision (perhaps not casual?) to place the cup on the sill (or otherwise view/observe something that's going to move or change later), then perhaps reveal the character's own internal dialog accusing himself/herself of being senile, forgetful and/or paranoid, with perhaps an omniscient interjection-- perhaps humorous-- from the author, to the effect, "no you're not."

When these movements or changes become more significant and frequent, your characters can begin debating amongst themselves "who (and how) moved these things or made these changes?" Perhaps a character even catches something that vanished, reappeared or changed before his/her eyes.

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