Preparing Readers for the Impossible

Making the unbelievable feel real.

As I’m slogging through a recent ARC, and I do mean slogging, I’m trying to figure out why I can’t get into the story. It’s a great idea, something I’ve never read before. Time travel kid, alternate timelines, and a unique idea of using time as a web, rather than a linear structure which allows those with the ‘power’ to pull objects from alternate timelines through holes in space-time into the character’s present. It should be awesome, but something is off.

There are obvious elements that I can point to right away: an unnecessary “the one” element, short-choppy scenes, and a lack of explanation for the MC’s quest. But these are not necessarily a death sentence. “The one” stories are well rooted enough in the vernacular of fantasy that, if the writing is done well, I hardly notice the worn out trope. The same goes for short scenes. Good writing will make a short scene feel concise and the plot fast-paced. Then what was bothering me?

Miraculous things kept happening, without any preparation, and then life went on as if nothing happened.

Preparation is Key

Lack of preparation in fantasy is a disaster waiting to happen. Particularly one that categorized as magical realism. If you have a scruffy wizard grinding things with his mortar and pestle and something behind him explodes without explanation, the reader will forgive it. At Merlin’s table, we expect magical things to happen. If the same thing happens at John Smith’s kitchen table, your reader is going to say, “Wait, what?”

In this particular book, the MC would inexplicably “remember” things when it was convenient for the plot.

*During monster attack*
MC: “But I’ve never touched a sword in my life.”
Sidekick: “Here hold mine.”
Never before mentioned memories of being Zorro flood back into the MC.
All enemies are dead.
MC shows no surprise at remembering being Zorro.

While this is a stripped down example, it is an accurate outline of something I had noticed throughout the book.

No, no, no, just no.

How this should have been handled.

There are plenty of movies where an MC rediscovers lost memories. The Bourne Identity is a great example of this. In the movie, Jason Bourne doesn’t suddenly remember all his skills. In first fight scene he initially doesn’t fight back until the policeman touches him. The sensation triggers a sensory memory, which is a separate memory from the repressed cognitive one. Jason realizes the sensation of being attacked is familiar, and he follows the tactile memory. We see Matt Damon portray this internal dialogue through facial expressions, first surprise, hesitation, and then finally curiosity as he explores the memory. The entire sequence feels believable, despite the reality that a smaller Jason Bourne could not really wire-jitsu two much bigger men who were also trained in hand-to-hand fighting.

What to do instead

1. Plant a seed in a previous chapter.

Rather than have the master swordsman memory come out of nowhere, the author should have alluded to the skill earlier. Since the MC is a kid (Never mind that the Zorro memory in question occurred when he was 10 years old.) He could have easily been swinging a stick around in the woods and had a flash of familiarity. Find some realistic way of alluding to a hidden skill. In the Long Kiss Goodnight, ex-assassin Gena Davis is chopping vegetables in the kitchen and rediscovers her forgotten knife skills. She makes the wrong conclusion, (that she used to be a chef) but the hint is there. She’s really good with a knife.

2. The discovery

Take the reader through the process of rediscovering a forgotten or innate skill.

  1. Surprise
    This feels familiar (recovered memory) or What just happened? (innate skill)
  2. Confusion
    But is shouldn’t (memory) or How did I do that? (innate skill)
  3. Test the waters
    If your MC suddenly remembers he was Zorro in a past life, he is still going to be tentative the first time he uses his skills. He can gain confidence quickly, but the first few strokes will be restrained. Similarly, if your MC discovers his telekinesis, let him test it by moving a glass on a table, not stopping a train.
  4. MC has success (or let her fail a few times, even better.)
  5. Then move on to bigger things.

3. Take time to process.

Discovering your new incredible gift will affect your MC. I hate it when the MC suddenly has a strange power and is “taking it so well.” Cat Winters does a great job with this in “A Cure for Dreaming.” The MC’s sudden magical ability affects her interactions with everyone in the story, and as a result her relationships with those around her change. She also explores the MC’s fears that the ability with be permanent and how it will affect the rest of her life. These are thoughts a person would really have. The MC needed time to adjust emotionally to her new abilities. Even a helpful skill would take time to adjust to. If your MC is no different after attaining a skill that she was before it will not feel authentic.

I’m only a third of the way through this book, and I’m hoping that these issues will work themselves out since I love the concept of the book. But if I were at the bookstore, this one would have gone back on the shelf. As a reader I enjoy being surprised, but I hate being confused. Avoid this pitfall by preparing your readers for the miraculous. Then the magic will feel real.

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