Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Taste of Reality – When Physics and Fiction Collide

(yes, I'm posting a day early, but I'll be without access to the internet from my laptop over the weekend, so.)

Hyperspeed travel.
The Force.
Fresh cookies.

What do these all have in common?
They defy physics in one way or another. And most of them are fictional (cookies just pack too much goodness to be abiding by physical laws). You can find any number of these things in your local library, at the cinema, and possibly in your own writing.

But… they defy physics.
They are impossible by definition. Hyperspeed travel breaks what we know to be true about the speed of light and the atomic structure of the matter  hat is supposedly moving faster than that light. Legolas seems to have no moment of inertia, no transfer of momentum, and an uncanny ability to not run out of arrows (final The Hobbit movie excluded). Shapeshifting unpacks and re-packs matter without caring about the universal truth of density equaling mass over volume. Cookies taste way too good to be realistic when fresh.

Yet… we read about them, watch them, cheer them on, and… accept them.
Let’s take a look.

Suspension and Hyper-Suspension

When we write, we attempt to create a new reality. It’s not identical to ours, unless we’re writing nonfiction. But at the same time… it’s best not to stray too far. The farther from our world you wander, the less your reader will believe.

Take the idea of shapeshifting, for example. If you have a human who can turn into a dog, we’ll accept them. You have two natural things you’ve taken and turned into one unnatural thing.

But when you have an alien with seven hands and no mouth morph into four separate little balls of fur that say “meep” repeatedly, it takes a lot more work to believe and understand.
It can happen, of course. We can believe you. It just… takes a lot more work. I can easily imagine a human morphing into a dog (partially because the idea of werewolves is similar and said idea has been around for generations), but I’m already having difficulty picturing an alien with seven hands and no mouth.

This believing of unbelievable things is called suspension of reality. Your reader gives you the benefit of the doubt and will accept what you offer. To an extent.
After all, it’s your job to create for me – the reader – a world that mirrors our own. If it doesn’t mirror ours, there’s nothing for me to come away with that is tangible and real. Rather, all I can take from it is that your world is cool, mine is not.
Is that the point of writing?
Something says no, to me. Maybe something else tells you yes. But okay.
Suspension can take your story a million places. It varies by reader, but generally stretches farther than you’d expect, but shorter than you wish. A reader of fantasy or science fiction will be more willing to believe that a human can transform into a dragon despite the fact that the mass of the dragon stuff into a human would make the human figure extremely heavy and… yes anyway. A reader of Victorian historical fiction and memoirs is less likely to allow you to do such a thing.

So suspension depends on the audience. It also depends on you. When you set up your story for suspension [by title, genre, and quickly establishing the setting in the first chapter], you can get away with more. If you’re writing a story in the Wild West, don’t introduce cyberpunk elements halfway through your story.
The second you do, the suspension snaps and slaps you repeatedly in the face. And stomach. And face. Mostly the face.

When you reach beyond the boundary of your target reader, they’ll stop believing you. Anything you say after you break the wall of belief will be ignored. Including your theme, the beautiful things you wanted your reader to see through your character.
Kicked out the door because you broke a law of physics.
Take Legolas.
I, for one, am willing to allow Legolas to do any number of things: slide down stone stairs on a shield, walk on top of snow, swing himself about a horse’s neck without affecting the horse, and even balance atop the heads of dwarves sitting in barrels floating down a bunch of rapids.
Because he’s Legolas. He’s set up to be that way. Legolas is an elf, the fleet-footed immortal who can hide in broad daylight and trick the cleverest of dwarves without a thought.
But then, during the last Hobbit movie, he does something… odd. There’s this bridge/tower thing spanning a long fall, and it’s crumbling. Legolas is sent tumbling downward, along with most of the bridge-thing, but he starts to climb up the falling bricks.

Why does this extend suspension too far? The second I saw it, an image of the old Mario games was superimposed over the screen. Legolas became a pixelated Italian guy with a red cap. He bounced up bricks suspended on… nothing?
Now this sounds like something Legolas would do, right?
Yes and no.
Truth is, I would have believed this scene if there had been a hint of physics to it. But no, momentum and gravity stood idly by as Legolas put his full weight (no matter how little that may be) on falling bricks without their seeming to be affected.
How? How?

No one knows, I guess. Bad editing? Poor storyboarding?
Regardless, Legolas broke the wall of believability and it took me the better part of the remainder of the movie to regain that trust of the movie’s actions. I became so cynical after that part of the movie that I found half a dozen flaws that no one else around me seemed to notice.
They didn’t notice because his anti-physics didn’t affect them as much.
There’s the burden of the individual.
And the burden of the author.

A Delicate Line Ten Miles Wide

In that last example, the suspension was broken because I stopped believing. Others around me hardly noticed.
There’s always a chance you’ll break someone’s suspense. If I write a fantasy book, I don’t expect a lot of eighty-year-old ladies who’ve never read fantasy before to be impressed. But I can get away with a lot if I write that same book for an eight-year-old boy.

How do you decide where to stop?
I actually have two simple things for you to follow:
-Newton’s first law
-The indestructability of matter

What are these?
Let me explain:

Newton’s Third Law

You probably know this one from your science class, or from hearing it as a proverb of some kind. Wherever you hear it, it’s the quickest way to maintain that suspension while pushing the boundaries of “fantastical”.

Newton’s third law of Motion is as follows: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

So when you push on a rock, it pushes back. When your character creates heat in one area by magic, some other place has to become cold. When your character climbs by jumping up falling rocks, each step makes the rock stepped on fall faster.
Now I don’t expect you to be able to follow this law – or any of Newton’s laws exactly. That’s impossible in most fantasy and science fiction settings. If you break the second law of thermodynamics ("the entropy of the participating bodies of a system must always increase or stay the same") to use your magic system, you’ll be okay.
Because not too many people really understand what in the world that law actually means. If your magic system doesn’t quite fit the idea of stable or increasing entropy, that’s okay.

But when actions don’t have consequences, you begin to unravel what your reader understands and is willing to accept.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

The Constancy of Matter

There’s this saying: “matter cannot be destroyed”. While not wholly true, it should be true for you. Unless your story deals heavily in antimatter, at which point I hope you have a degree in some sort of nuclear science, yes?

Here’s the deal: don’t “annihilate” stuff left and right. When your Dark Overlord of the hummingbirds starts vaporing planets with his laser vision, everything falls to pieces, including your story. First, for using a hummingbird as your villain. Second, because “vaporizing” matter is hard, and is really more complex than just “destroying stuff with red light”.

Well… I guess it’s that simple. Science lesson is over.

Diversity in Reality

Oh here I go again.
Connecting everything to this topic. I’m so good at this. Meanwhile, what I’m about to say is true. So pay attention.
Letting your story be real allows it to be diverse.
When you follow simple rules of physics, your reader is less distracted by the otherworldliness of your dragon-morphing platypus and more engaged by the story and theme.

Physics isn’t always a pretty subject. I mean, it’s a lot of math and critical thought. Thankfully we don’t have to use all of it.
Just a little goes a long way.

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  1. Science and writing. Best. post. ever. <3
    I actually have "magic" in my story and was trying to figure out how to make it all realistic and fantastic at the same time. It's actually really hard. Because I have the science side of my brain telling me none of that is ever possible, and the fantasy side of my brain telling me it's just fiction and I do what I want. XD In the end, I guess, it has to be a little of both. *nods*

    1. It really is a balance.
      If nothing else, come up with a scientific-sounding reason for your magic that satisfies that part of your brain, even if it doesn't /really/ make sense. Enough to sate the science. *nod*
      I'm the same way; magic systems that follow science are HARD. But magic systems that follow the physics of motion are not, so I tend to make up for the one by the other.

  2. How did I miss this post? Dear life, please stop. I need to read this post again.

    First off, I just have to say that my suspension of disbelief regarding Legolas in the Hobbit movies was completely destroyed the moment he stepped onto the screen (figuratively, of course.) Dear Hollywood, please stop.

    On a more serious note, I think that it is also important that when breaking physical (and other) laws of this world you must create /and stick to/ laws in the story world which still apply. Laws are important. Your story won't survive without them, whether or they're from this world or another.

    1. Ha.

      It took me a little longer, because I was expecting him, but yeah. He broke it quickly.

      I definitely agree, laws and rules are important.