I’ve begun editing stories for our next Off the Page anthology. Editing can be tough but fun, and it gives me a chance to expound on my own thoughts about writing.
I was recently reminded that when we write, although we create our own little worlds with their own little ways, each world must be consistent in how it follows its own rules. Even in magical realms, you can’t just have magic work for one being and not for another because it pleases your plot. Magic must work for both or none, or you have to provide a good explanation for this lack of consistency. Unless, of course, you’re working on a clone of ‘Once Upon a Time’ (which I am enjoying for the first time even as I pick on its writing.) Each story must behave according to its own parameters and logic.
The reason for this is: believe-ability. Notice I did not say ‘plausibility’. Because it isn’t about writing something that has to fit our known reality. It has to fit the reality of the world you create. If all unicorns broadcast jazz music from their horns, you might have a unicorn who doesn’t fit in because he plays country music instead. That’s okay. His apparent aberration is an intentional part of your story. But you couldn’t have a unicorn without a horn who could broadcast music anyway. It wouldn’t fit the rules or logic of your world. Writers who ignore this ‘rule’ end up with readers who either put down the story or throw the book at the wall- because you jarred them out of the world. You woke them up from the dream of your story, and now they can’t get back to it.
This can be even more important in books that are based on real life, because there is no ‘magical alternative’ to blame it on. It’s like stage activity in a play. If the actor goes off Stage Right on her way to the garage, and comes back onto from Stage Left carrying a tire pump, it breaks the continuity for the audience. They’ re puzzled. Was that part of the play? How does that work? Did the actor just get turned around backstage? Meanwhile brilliant lines and funny jokes and defining plot points are being missed as the play moves on.
You want to tell a story. You want to make a point, and you want to have attention paid to it. A writer can’t do any of these things if the writing is so inconsistent as to bump the reader out of it. And if you are writing non-fiction, you want to be taken seriously and be believed. You owe it to yourself and the reader to be provide writing that hangs together with sturdy, reasonable logic.
Writing is a tacit contract between reader and writer. What writers do is important. We first of all entertain, but we also teach, preach, counsel, and illuminate life and the human condition. We need the trust of our readers that what we say will have meaning and be worth their time to read – even if only for entertainment. We need to keep the promise we make when we put words down and ask someone to read them – that we will build a world fairly, with no shortcuts or hand-waving – and we will play fair with their imaginations to create a place they can inhabit for a time uninterrupted, without being thrown out by gross displays of mismatched behaviors or wavering parameters, until our message has been rightfully conveyed.
If readers know they can trust us, they will listen; they will read our words and consider them. That is how ideas are cultivated. It is how hearts and minds are changed. It’s how writers change the world.