09 January 2012 @ 12:41 am
The Flying Snowman (or, When Disbelief Unsuspends)  

A while ago, John Scalzi had a post on his blog about what he terms “the flying snowman.” The post and comments there are worth reading, but basically, it’s the question of when an element in a work of speculative fiction suddenly makes the reader snap out of it and say, “That’s ridiculous! That couldn’t happen!” In other words, where the suspension of disbelief stops working.

This got me thinking about whether the “flying snowman” is different when writing for children or teens than for adults. (Putting aside for a moment the fact that plenty of adults read YA and MG fantasy.) Can you get away with more? Less? With suspension of disbelief in different areas? Or is it really all the same?

I think that when it comes to facts, you can probably stretch them farther in YA/MG than in adult fantasy. I would guess that there are not as many teens as adults who are familiar with, say, the exact composition of lava and how someone might or might not sink into it, or what type of technology existed during a specific historical era. Most of us would like to be rigorous about such things for our own sakes, but if you decide to depart from rigor for the sake of the story and engage in some handwavium, you perhaps have more leeway than you would in an adult work.

When it comes to characters, on the other hand - in particular, young characters - I think YA and MG readers are going to be more rigorous. I believe that as a general rule, your characters’ actions and motivations have to be realistic no matter what type of world you’ve placed them in. And especially when writing for younger readers, your child/teen characters have to act like children and/or teens, not like shorter adults with a more limited vocabulary.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? And do you think there are other areas where suspension of disbelief work differently for younger readers than for older ones?

 
 
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
hilaribellhilaribell on January 9th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
I think you're exactly right that you can fudge a bit more with the tech with younger readers. (And you can't fudge with human behavior, for any age.) My theory is that as long as it makes sense within your magical system, you can make magic do anything you want, and the reader will be OK with it. Flying snowman? All he has to do is activate his levitation spell. And since the reader has signed on for magic, that's fine. However, we all know how people work, and the moment people behave in a way that no one would--or even just in a way their character wouldn't--you've blown suspension of disbelief out of the water.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on January 10th, 2012 12:11 am (UTC)
I agree - with magic, internal consistency is key; with people, you have to deal with that whole reality thing. ;)
Laura Williams McCaffreyLaura Williams McCaffrey on January 9th, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
To spin this in a slightly different direction - some readers, even young readers, really read for the 'information,' the way the tech or magic works. They like the fact-gathering aspect of reading in this genre. So getting those 'facts,' invented or real, right, in a way that doesn't hinder the pacing of the story and doesn't make a young narrator seem too old, too knowing, can be a real challenge. A challenge that I suspect many of us enjoy.

And I agree, getting the emotional aspect of the story right is also both important and a challenge. There's almost nothing that makes a child/teen reader give up on a story quicker than the sense that an adult is writing how s/he thinks ideal children/teens should behave rather than how true-to-life kids/teens do behave.

Edited at 2012-01-09 05:34 pm (UTC)
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on January 10th, 2012 12:12 am (UTC)
True! In some ways I think having a young POV makes it easier to explain those facts, since there's no assumption that the character already knows them. And double true on the "ideal children/teens" vs. real children/teens.
(Anonymous) on January 9th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
Great post Leah. Made me think.

Here are my thoughts:

Regarding facts, I agree with Laura that, whether we write for children or adults, we must get them right. Unlike Leah, I believe that when science is concerned, teens actually know more than most adults, for they are studying it at school now, while adults have long forgotten what they learned. Plus many facts (especially in Biology) were not known when said adults attended High School.

Regarding human behavior, I agree it must make sense for both children and adults.

But what about the behavior of non-human characters?

For instance, I just finished reading Archon by Sabrina Benulis. Her characters are not human, and, unlike so many other “monsters” in Fantasy, their behavior is not believable from a human POV. And yet it works in the context of the world she has created.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on January 10th, 2012 12:14 am (UTC)
I wasn't talking about basic science so much as about more esoteric subjects (i.e. what would happen were one to jump into lava; at least when I was in high school, they didn't cover that in basic geology). With regard to basic science, you're right, people often know more when they're in school than when they're older. I recently came across an organic chemistry final I'd gotten a perfect score on; not only did I not understand my answers, I didn't even understand the questions.

Archon sounds interesting. I think Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card is another example of aliens acting in non-human yet still believable ways. Actually, I think this is a fanscinating topic! Maybe for another TOTW sometime...
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on January 9th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)
Regarding facts, I agree with Laura that, whether we write for children or adults, we must get them right. Unlike Leah, I believe that when science is concerned, teens actually know more than most adults, for they are studying it at school now, while adults have long forgotten what they learned. Plus many facts (especially in Biology) were not known when said adults attended High School.

Regarding human behavior, I agree it must make sense for both children and adults.

But what about the behavior of non-human characters?

For instance, I just finished reading Archon by Sabrina Benulis. Her characters are not human, and, unlike so many other “monsters” in Fantasy, their behavior is not believable from a human POV. And yet it works in the context of the world she has created.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on January 10th, 2012 12:15 am (UTC)
Oops, replied to you above...
A Deserving Porcupine: beakerrockinlibrarian on January 10th, 2012 12:05 am (UTC)
People as individuals have differing levels of disbelief suspension in different areas, too. My husband is definitely the sort of person who will let fact-stretching get in the way of his enjoyment of something, but will happily watch movies (and read books I assume) where the characters are, by my standard, completely unbelievable. Still, I DO think Off-the-wall is more acceptable in young people's lit, where you can have completely ridiculous things happen. But a sure way to kill a book in my opinion when I WAS a kid is to make the kids speak in stilted old-fashioned language...
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on January 10th, 2012 12:16 am (UTC)
This is very true... it probably varies more among individuals than between particular age groups. Still, it's useful (and fun) to talk about overall trends. And yes, I agree about the stilted language. Immediate killer.
katecoombs on January 10th, 2012 01:44 pm (UTC)
I think you're right! Also, I'm remembering times when the magic failed me, and it wasn't always because the magic seemed wrong in and of itself; rather, it was when the author cheated on the storytelling by using magic to solve plot problems. Deus ex machina is the most obvious example, but it can happen anywhere in a book. I was just reading a book in which the magic was fine here, there, and everywhere, and then it wasn't. :)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )