We can remake the world as we see fit. One of the main joys of writing stories is the ability to rewrite the rules – from giving voice and sensibility to farm animals to reimagining the laws of physics. One minor drawback – we have to follow the new rules we’ve made.
It’s called plausible narrative, or suspension of disbelief, or half a dozen other things, but it all comes down to not losing your reader. Readers love it when a writer comes up with a new take on the world, a subtle or overt twist on reality that allows for all sorts of exciting and impossible possibilities. Strand a boy in a boat with a tiger (Life Of Pi). Have someone go to Nigeria and stick it to the scammers (419). Flatten the world, dose it with everyday magic, and make it look like rural England (the Discworld series). Do whatever the heck you want. Make up any premise, any new rules, go nuts. That’s what creativity is all about.
But it better make sense, down to the last detail.
Aye, there’s the rub. If gravity doesn’t work in your story, don’t have a dropped knife falling down. If the bad guy suddenly breaks down and says he’s sorry at the climax, you’d better have shown some redeeming emotions in him earlier on. Readers catch these things. Readers put books down because of these things. A serious plausibility gaffe can turn a reader off an author forever. So we do not want to do this.
Plausible narratives are built in a few different ways. The first way is through the task of rewriting. Initial drafts are where we build our world, have fun with the new rules, make up the wild, unlikely and interesting combinations of character traits. Rewriting is where we take a sober look at what we’ve done, and ask if it all makes sense. It won’t, but we can fix it. A character’s inexplicable action in chapter 15 can be set up by a few lines about his emotional hot buttons in chapter 3. We can catch many inconsistencies and make them right in retrospect.
First readers are an invaluable resource for catching implausibilities. Quirky rules and situations that we see as fascinating might just be dumb, or hackneyed, or not worthy of the light of day. First readers will catch these for us before the editor or agent inquires after our sanity. Some of our dearest brainchildren need a little reworking in order to prosper. Some premises simply don’t make the cut. Other people have to tell us which is which.
Writing is making stuff up. Rewriting is, in part, making it all make sense. The first part feeds our passion, our wild abandon, our urge to create. The second part is where we cultivate the warm satisfaction of a job well done – both in our own self, and in the reader.