Stretching Belief

One of the things I like in a good book, or even a film, is that I don’t have to suspend belief.

I was trawling through IMDB looking at the the synopses of films released last year, and for the vast majority of them I heard myself mentally tutting “would never happen.” I know they’re films, and I know there’s supposed to be an element of make believe, but I have to be able to believe it could happen or it tends to fall into the category of film that I have on in the background because I’ve started doing something else instead.

I touched on this a little with my rambling about my love hate affair with love stories, if something is too far a stretch of the imagination, then like anything that gets stretched too much, it’ll break. Which is why I’m struggling a little with my next book.

In Endangered Creatures I tried to make sure that everything was believable, that even though I was writing about dragons, manticore, angels and dodos amongst others. I tried to make it all plausible, so that you could read it and think “It could be real” and that the next time you visited London Zoo (which I highly recommend, it’s a great place) you’d look at the staff just that little bit harder to see if you could tell which ones weren’t totally human. I tried to give a little background as to how these creatures could be living among us, and how they could either pass as human, or hide in plain sight.

The problem is I’m now writing its sequel, The Breeding Programme, and I’m having to do the same, which means trying to think of other ways that supposedly extinct or mythological creatures are amongst us. How they survive without being found, how they’ve adapted, where they’ve come from and in one case a religion that they follow. Actually, having to do it isn’t the problem itself because I’m having great fun with it. Coming up with ways to explain how boggarts have managed to hide, even from the characters in the first book, has led to some rather creative camouflage inspired by a day out a few weeks ago. Working out the background of imps led me to further develop the dryads in a way I wasn’t expecting, but really like. And making up a religion for the gargoyles was pretty fun after a couple of pints.

What’s actually hard is then winding this all in around the main story threads that I have, without making it seem like I’m explaining things carefully to the reader just to keep that level of belief. Douglas Adams managed this brilliantly in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by having the Book explain things in cut away scenes and films tend to use flashbacks a lot to explain what’s going on. There are lots of other methods of doing it too, but they mostly involve one knowledgeable character explaining to the rest of the characters, and therefore the reader, what’s actually happening. If done right, these are great ways to keep belief. The characters in the book are going along their journey learning new things, and the reader is learning with them. But please, can we have less gurus and wise-men sitting on top of mountains in deep in caves that they have to seek out? If it’s done wrong however, it makes at least one character incredibly dull and boring, and seem almost totally pointless except to explain things.

I’m trying to make sure that when people read my books they don’t mentally tut to themselves “would never happen” because I think it’s a bit of an insult to the reader to not credit them with enough intelligence to know what’s possible and plausible, from what’s impossible.