Monday, April 4, 2011

Suspension of Disbelief

So I've kind of been AWOL this past week due to excessive real life drama, and its got me thinking - how much is too much?

You see, I've lived a very annoying, obnoxious, excessively dramatic life, which is annoying and obnoxious because I'm actually very low key and loathe drama in my personal life with a passion.  Get enough of that at work, thanks.  Yet occasionally, it seems to follow me home like a lost little puppy - if that puppy were the size of a woolly mammoth.  The amount of truly out there stuff that decides to all occur simultaneously strains credulity - and I'm like....really?  ALL that really just happened?  At once?  For realsies, universe?  And the universe replies, why yes, yes it did.    

And if I can hardly believe all of that really just happened, you can imagine what other people think when I give them the play by play.

So to tie this into actual relevance, I was thinking about conflict in our writing.  Not the nature or types of conflicts, but the sheer amount.  As writers, we're constantly told that passive is boring.  Readers want action, they want high stakes, they want tension and danger and well, drama.  Say no to the down time, cram in more excitement, more, more, more!

So my question to myself and you and the Mighty Arbiters of Good Taste is how do you tell when your tension and drama crosses over to the other side?  Shifts ever so slightly from being in the 'edge of your seat' camp to the 'oh gimme a break' camp?

In television, they call it Jumping the Shark.  When your drama verges on the ridiculous and the reader/viewer is no longer willing to suspend their disbelief.  You've lost them, because you pushed the envelope just a little too far.  All things in moderation.  So how do you know when to pull back and rein it in? 

Your main character is failing school perhaps.  And they just broke up with their girlfriend or boyfriend.  And their parents are getting divorced.  All that is dramatic.  And all that is believable because its theoretically linked.  If a teenager's parents are getting divorced, its going to affect their schoolwork and strain their friendships and relationships as they attempt to cope.  It's all symptomatic of an inciting conflict, even if that's not apparent to the character in question.  All they see is everything going wrong with their life and it all piling up and OMG FML WHY ME UNIVERSE WHY ME?!?!?  But we the readers, ever so slightly removed, can see the bigger picture, view it a little more rationally, and accept that this IS actually all believable conflict because its so intertwined and feeds into each other.  And thus, its good drama and a good story.

But then, the main character's beloved dog dies.  And their car breaks down and their parents won't pay to get it fixed so they have to get a job.  And their best friend starts dating their ex, and the MC finds out they were seeing each before other the MC broke up with the ex and its all stuff continuing to pile on that no longer ties together and has we the readers going really, author?  Really?  That's not all maybe just a LITTLE excessive?

Couldn't you at least have let the MC keep their damned dog?

But the point is, its a fine line.

For me the solution to the drama dogpile is always knowing why I introduce a particular conflict, whether its my MC's grades suffering or his dog dying.  If I have a narrative or character reason for it, then its fine.  It can stay.  If I can't justify it to myself or come up with a good explanation for why it happened or why it NEEDS to happen, then its drama for the sake of drama, and it should probably go. 

So how about you all?  How do you decide when enough is enough and when your characters need a little breathing room?  What's the most you've ever put a character through, or when was a time when you consciously had to make a choice to scale back on some drama because it was just too much for any one character to believably handle?


  1. My honest answer is I HAVE NO IDEA. lol. *fails*

    On a completely (sort of) different note, your remark about the dog dying made me think of Harry Potter book 7. WHY HEDWIG? WHY JK ROWLING? WHY COULDN'T HARRY JUST KEEP HIS DAMN BIRD? ;_;


    LOL, but yeah that's actually exactly what I'm talking about. Its like...was that really necessary? Or were you just being mean....

    Although uh *shifty eyes* to be honest, I've never actually read Harry Potter 7. I read the first six and it wasn't that I didn't want to read the last one, I just...never really got around to it and by the time I thought about it I'd already heard from EVERYONE just exactly how everyone ended up and it seemed anticlimactic to read it at that point, lol.

    Oh and you got my email right?

  3. I personally liked Lori's answer, and am also pleading the fifth.

    LOL. Okay, that's not fair so I'll give it a try. I WAY overshot the drama limit w/my first book. I had my poor MC: accused of witchcraft, kidnapped, manhandled, rekidnapped by a witch who really was a witch, had her babies stolen, was chased and terrorized by a two headed bat while almost drowning. And that was just the first chapter. Haahaa. Okay, I was kidding about a little of that, but not all of it.

    Honestly, I had NO inhibitions about pilin' on those dirty dogs. (BTW, love the drama dogpile phrase--you need to name a post that sometime).

    As always, great insights. Thank goodness we get better w/every book we pen, right?

  4. I can't win. Le sigh.

    LOL. Well, your first book sounds hella interesting to me, so I'll just say I hope you weren't joking about the two headed bat! That seems like the best part!

    And yes, thank goodness for that improvement indeed! Slowly but surely.

  5. Fantastic post. I'm always pushing the boundaries (often having to scale back). I remember for a nano story I had a demonic creature try to kill my character several times (even with a piano falling looney toons styles), that was a tad unbelievable so nothing ever came of that story.

  6. LOL yeah we always try and see just how much we can get away with, don't we.

    Although uh, the falling piano sounds freaking awesome.

  7. I agree about the piano being awesome! And, just to ease your mind, Kalen, the two headed bat was actually the witch's sidekick. So I totally wasn't kidding about that part. Ha!

  8. Oh thank god! *Fans self in relief*

  9. Jumping the Shark.
    ...why have I never heard this before? It's perfect.

    It's funny you bring this up because I have this conversation with my best friend often. Like everything ALWAYS happens at once for both of us, and several times over the last six months, I've just gone, "Dude, if I wrote this shit, no one would believe it."

    I feel like I skirt it pretty often... but I'm really, really mean about drama in RL--as in I've been known to tell my friends (after I let them whine for a day or two, of course) to shut the fuck up and deal with it. So maybe that's why?

  10. Isn't it? Its supposedly a reference to the Wonder Years, when Fonzie jumps a shark while water skiing.

    And that's exactly it, I'm like...yeah right, anyone would believe this.

    And yeah, I'm really the same way, can't stand drama and haaaaaate watching it drag out. Of course you know my particular brand of neuroses and drama better than anyone else here, but like we've kinda discussed in the past, neither of us minds hearing about the other's RL woes because our ways of coping our so similar - we vomit up an epic rant about whatever's pissing us off on IJ or LJ, and then that's pretty much the end of it.

    In other, more exciting news....EQUILIBRIUM! WHEEE!!!!! OMG SO FREAKING EXCITED FOR YOU.