Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 1

I’ve posted a few serious pieces in recent months—marketing, editing, etc.—so thought it was time for a bit of light relief; something more frivolous, a little tongue in cheek. What follows are my random musings on the believability, or not, of the stories I enjoy reading, watching and writing.

Most of the stories I write are utter bunkum. Complete tosh. They are, at best, highly unfeasible. If readers took me to task and claimed that some of the scenarios in my tales are totally impossible, quoting scientific evidence to support their position, I’m not going to argue with them. Why would I? They’re right.

But then, we don’t expect horror or fantasy tales to be necessarily possible, though there are still unspoken rules to do with internal consistency and logic. On the other hand, many readers of science fiction expect stories labelled as such to at least be possible if feasible technological advances were made, or if certain conditions pertained that don’t exist here but that might exist in a solar system or galaxy outside our own.

The human brain is marvellously complex. It operates on many levels. (That’s got me thinking about Shrek, insisting to a sceptical Donkey that ogres have layers, like onions.) When we settle down to read a horror novel, or to watch The Walking Dead or a Harry Potter film, we do so in full knowledge that what we are about to read or watch is, from a rational viewpoint, a load of nonsense. Utter bunkum. Yet we lap it up and go back for more.

Yes, it’s known as suspending our disbelief. Although on some level we are fully aware that the storyline or plot device is far-fetched, that it ought to make us pull a face like the cat in the photo above, we’re willing and able to believe in it for the purposes of being entertained. Or, at least, we’re willing to not so vehemently disbelieve it that it would prevent us from continuing to watch or read.

I think there’s a line, the placement of which will vary from person to person, beyond which our willingness to suspend disbelief becomes stretched to breaking point. At that moment, what we are being asked as readers or viewers to swallow becomes too much, it becomes too ridiculous, and we’re no longer willing to play along. The best fiction writers and screenwriters, the best TV and film directors, are those with the ability to embroil their audience in the work so completely that the line is pushed farther and farther away. Perhaps so far away some of us may never reach it.

And there’s this: no matter how incredible something may be, it can be exciting to allow yourself to imagine it’s possible. We all realise that dolls can’t be possessed by evil spirits, that immortal humanoids living off blood don’t exist, that aliens don’t live among us waiting for a signal to trigger our extinction. We know that people who have died don’t get up and walk around—the thrill lies in supposing, but what if they did?

Not sure what you’d call that level which allows us to be enthralled by fantastical stories. Fanciful? Imaginative? Whatever you want to call it, it’s the part of me I most cherish. It’s the part that takes over when I pick up a Stephen King novel or turn on the TV for Game of Thrones. It’s also firmly in control when I sit at the computer to write.

When I allow my imagination free rein, I picture my rational side shuffling off to a corner to sit with arms folded, pretending to sulk. But really he’s watching what I’m up to, ready to leap to his feet like a lawyer in an American courtroom drama and yell, “Objection! That’s too ludicrous even for you!” When that happens, I usually take notice. Usually.

That’s one of the good things about being a writer. Particularly a writer of the sort of speculative fiction usually pigeon-holed as horror or fantasy or science fiction. It’s make-believe taken to the extreme. If I want to have my characters able to travel beyond the speed of light, or journey through time and space in an elevator, or encounter ghosts or zombies or a vampire masquerading as Father Christmas, I can. It’s fiction. It’s made up. It’s utter bunkum.

The aim for us writers is to spin the yarn in such a way that the reader is willing to come along for the ride and is able to overlook the bunkumness (is that even a word?) of the story. It’s what makes successful authors successful. Especially in the speculative fields I mentioned earlier: horror, fantasy, etc. I mean, when you strip them back to the bare bones, many celebrated novels of those genres are, at their core, utter bunkum. Yet, they’re massively popular, and rightly so because they’re so well written and entertaining.

In Part 2, I’ll take a look, for a bit of fun, at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum.

Till then…

Guest Post – Kath Middleton

Today I’m hosting the lovely Kath Middleton. Though we’ve never met in real life, I’ve ‘known’ Kath online from the days when she was a reviewer and great supporter of indie authors. She’s since crossed the divide and joined the writing ranks with a great deal of success. Without further ado, it’s over to Kath.

Genre

What’s a genre? People used to ask what kind of books do we like. That’s the genre. Some genres are more popular than others. Look along the shelves in your local library. Some genres cover many shelves, some one small section.

How do you become a bestselling author? Obviously you need to write a great book. It has to be literate—sounds obvious but there are books on sale that don’t follow the rules of grammar. Above all, you have to write in a popular genre.

Crime, thriller and police procedural are linked genres and are very popular with readers. Romance is another genre that sells well. I’ve read some stunning books in the Literary Fiction category, although I know that title can put people off. They expect it to be worthy or stuffy. People know what they like and steer in that direction. They don’t want to read something they are not expecting, in general. If they love science fiction they don’t really want it to end up as a bodice (or space suit) ripper. If they love horror they don’t want it ‘tainted’ with humour. If you want to write a best seller and make money, look at the top 100 books on Amazon and choose one of the most popular genres.

That said, many authors write because they need to scratch the itch. It doesn’t matter what the genre—in fact, I often don’t know what genre I’m writing till the book is finished. Even then, it may cross boundaries. Many of us, particularly independently published, write what we’re interested in. Lots of people are interested in more than one thing. I would find it tedious to have to restrict myself to one genre. I start with ‘what if?’ and move on from there.

In the days when everyone had to interest a publisher to get a book in front of an audience of readers, genre was particularly important. If a publisher accepted your thriller and it sold reasonably well, they would want another thriller. If you had an urge to write comedy, you had to suppress it. They wanted more of what would make them money—not whatever you felt the urge to witter on about this time.

Today, with indie publishing, people can follow their own interests. I know several authors who have written in more than one genre and some have written a kind of genre-mashup. A humorous thriller, a historical crime novel, a supernatural story that doesn’t dive straight into horror. Indie publishing has freed people to write what interests them, not what will guarantee big sales for a publisher.

These days I largely read indie fiction. It’s so refreshing to read what the author is driven to write, to scratch that itch. Most indies know they will never get rich. They could increase their chances by following the trends in fiction and by sticking to best-selling genres. I believe that if a writer isn’t producing books they feel strongly about, you can tell. If someone churns out books in a certain style just to make sales, there’s a deadness to the stories. I wouldn’t want to read that. I love something different and a bit edgy. Something the author is excited about. If the person who writes the book isn’t fired up with love and enthusiasm, you can hardly blame the reader for being unenthusiastic.

Let’s hear it for the genre mashups, the cross-genre books, the books you couldn’t fit into any single genre with a shoe-horn.

Oh, and the real way to make money with your writing? Ransom notes.

Links

Kath’s website: www.kathmiddletonbooks.com

To purchase Kath’s latest release: The Angel Monument

Bio
Kath Middleton began her writing with drabbles (100-word stories) and contributed a number to Jonathan Hill’s second drabble collection. It wasn’t long before she moved up a size to contribute short stories to anthologies. Shortly afterwards, she progressed to writing longer pieces and her first solo work, Ravenfold, was published to some acclaim. This was followed by the novella, Message in a Bottle. There are now several more books, from short stories to novels. Kath likes to put her characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out. She believes in the indomitable nature of the human spirit (and chickens).
Kath is retired. She graduated in geology and has a certificate in archaeology. When she’s in a hole, she doesn’t stop digging.