Monday, January 6, 2014

Twisting Legality for the Sake of the Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Even when they're writing realistic fiction, writers sometimes have to stretch credibility to make a story work. Novels are often about larger than life situations and adhering to real life rules would take all the fun out of them. This is especially true in juvenile fiction, where plots focused on kids doing things the child reader could never do is part of the appeal.

Sometimes writing things as they would really happen would even hurt the story, as in this reader question:
I asked a question on a writing forum and someone brought up an issue of legality within the novel's plot. My MC is a 12-year-old boy who is recruited by a secret part of the FBI for various reasons including his recent alien abduction. I was trying to decide if the parents should know about his job or not. A commenter asked about the legality of having his parents not know. Of course in the real world that would be an issue but how/when do you worry about those things in fiction? Specifically in a sci-fi or fantasy setting where the rules of real life are already being broken? When do you twist legality for the sake of plot?

In this situation, I see no reason why the parents need to be notified or asked about the FBI job. Readers already have to suspend disbelief to buy the premise, and putting reality into it would probably make it less credible, not more. It would draw attention to the fact that this is a strange situation the child couldn't do without permission, which spoils it. It would also make the child reader feel like the adventure couldn't happen unless Mom and Dad said okay. (And where's the fun in that?) It takes the power away from the child, and middle grade fiction is supposed to empower children.

But if the author did want the parents involved and the situation to be more realistic, then I'd suggest having to get parental permission be a goal of the child protagonist. He gets an offer from the FBI, but he has to find a way to get her parents to agree to it first and he knows they won't say yes. That puts more realism back in, and makes it a problem for the protagonist to overcome. It's also an obstacle kids can relate to--having to get permission to do the really cool stuff. It could even be something he lies about or fakes (like forging your parent's signature on a permission slip) that comes back to bite him later.

When considering legalities like this, think about who the novel is aimed at. Young readers aren't going to care about what's legal and what's not, so having a kid work for the FBI is just fun and seems perfectly normal if it's set up in a plausible way. The whole point is to do something "fantastic" and outside the boundaries of reality. Not adhering to real world laws won't make the reader stop and think, "Hey, that can't legally happen."

If this were an adult novel, then you'd have to worry more about the legalities, because your readers are going to notice and care, and that can hurt the credibility of the novel. When an adult stops reading and questions the plausibility of the plot, you risk losing them. They don't buy it, and once that faith is lost it's hard to get it back. They stop trusting you as an author. You have to play by the rules or they'll call you on it.

However, you can establish some of those rules, so if you have to do something that isn't "real" to make the plot work, find a way to make it plausible, even if it's bending laws or rules a little. Readers are willing to suspend disbelief as long as it makes sense.

There's a shifting line of where plausibility lies in fiction, especially fiction for kids. Much of MG fiction wouldn't exist if writers stuck to what could really happen. Kids typically don't work for the FBI or chase after spies or catch criminals in their spare time. They don't do most of what the characters in their books do.

Reading is a way to escape and have a little fun, and kids (heck, even adults) want to read about the things they wish they could do, not actually do. That's why parents are rarely involved in the story in MG novels. It's not about kids going to adults to fix their problems, it's about kids being independent and doing what they'd never do in real life.

As a general guide, if it makes the story better, twist all the rules you want. If it will make readers stop and question the credibility of the story, then look for a way to make it more plausible.

Have you ever read a novel that made you stop and think, "No way, that would never happen?" How did it make you feel about the book?

30 comments:

  1. I can't think of a novel, but there was an animated movie I watched with my siblings that got that reaction...might've been "How to Train Your Dragon." Of course, given that it's animated fantasy, when my little sister exclaimed "That couldn't happen in real life!" the incongruity made us laugh!

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    1. Funny! My husband does something similar. He'll balk on some detail of a movie that's so over the top unreal, and I'll say, "The rest you're fine with but that you won't buy?" and we laugh.

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    2. I do that too - one of my biggest quibbles was with "Bee Movie". Okay, so I'm okay with anthropomorphic bees who can talk. I'll suspend belief for that. But the idea that all of the plants in the world can be pollinated with rose pollen? That totally ruined it for me!

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  2. If kids' books had to be realistic i think we'd have a lot of empty shelf space. There's definitely a different standard of disbelief suspension when in comes to children's fiction.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. There would be indeed. And the world would be a lot less colorful, too.

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  3. That's an interesting question I hadn't yet considered. Quite a few children's stories have kids out and about without supervision and it's never bothered me. I can't think of a story I've read recently in MG that gave me any pause, though I always wondered about the MC's father was in Neverending Story. I wonder if the MG audience cares about the things adults would notice?

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    1. I think that adults reading kidlit see it differently than the intended readers. We know what's normal or real in whatever situation we're reading about. Kids will spot things adults won't though. Different logic parameters.

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  4. While I agree with the broadstrokes of Janice's answer, I think the issue is FAR more nuanced than that, and I definitely need to write my own blog post on this matter, as those of us who write about animals (In a NON-100% naturalistic context) have to face this issue ALL THE TIME!

    It's a lot like two blog posts I read on Project Mayhem last year regarding what kids in general look for in a book-

    http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2013/08/critical-success-vs-reader-success.html

    http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/2013/03/what-kids-say.html

    My comments there make the overall point that while kids may not care about awards and reviews, the people we (As authors) NEED to work with to reach them (Parents, educators, Agents and Editors) are going to be critical about this, and just because something is fiction, doesn't mean we can dodge certain things or just give the pat "It's fiction" excuse.

    As much as I don't want to sound hostile in any way to the "Gatekeepers" in terms of children's books, that's a factor we as authors need to deal with, and in the best case scenarios, books are often stronger and more engaging when there's enough validity to allow the fantastical to happen.

    After all, historical fiction is in many ways to ultimate example of this push and pull between fact and fiction, because anything pertaining to REAL history needs to be accurate, so the fictional characters and events anchoring that story have the intended resonance and weight that all readers appreciate.

    I say this not (Solely...) in anger but from my own personal experience as a reader and a writer.

    Something I think you can relate to, Janice, your "Healing Wars" trilogy needed to deal with war by necessity of the plot and your protagonist's ability. Just because the world isn't "Real" doesn't mean there was carte blanche to do whatever once you had a story, right?

    Sorry if I sound mad, I'm not, I just wanted to make the point that we need to face this issue even though we're targeting fairly open-minded kids, and trust me, Janice, kids DO CARE about this if you get something wrong they're fanatical about (I once got called out by a beta-reader for mischaracterizing how a goat moved versus a horse, I was writing about a goat-legged faun)

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    1. I'm not saying throw out the rules for MG, just that there's a common suspension of disbelief in MG novels. Kids will certainly call BS on things they find wrong, so you have to be plausible and right on details. I'm talking more about true to life realism where it would hurt the story. Things any normal parent would never allow, but they happen all the time in books because the kids can't have the adventures otherwise.

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    2. I do understand what you were saying, Janice, I was just playing devil's advocate, that's all.

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  5. When I read, my expectations are set differently for what I'm reading. If I'm reading a police procedural mystery, there are some things I expect. In fantasy, I'm looking to escape realism so the less sticking-to-the-letter-of-the-law the better. Contemporary? Yeah, different expectations, So I would expect an MG story to flow in a different way than an adult suspense. And although I would notice an adult not being brought in for legality of a kiddo being asked to be part of the FBI for a special task, I would have the suspension of disbelief to not care because of my expectations.

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    1. That's a really good point. If we're already suspending disbelief, it's easy to push the limits on what's okay. But if we expect realism and it veers off, we cry foul.

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  6. I agree - "Is it credible within the storyworld" trumps "is it realistic" every time.

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    1. And a much better story because of it.

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    2. That said, it can be HARD to get to the point from the writer's standpoint, which doesn't mean what you're saying is any less true, JD Paradise.

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  7. When watching movies with my lovely fiance I have learned to just shut it. Elysium had me stone dead quiet the whole time...

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    1. I have been on both sides of that one (grin). I don't think I was able to stay quiet during that movie, though it was actually better than I expected.

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  8. Twisting the rules to make the story better. Love that!

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    1. Thanks! "Serve the story" is a good guideline in just about everything.

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    2. I always smirk out of the side of the mouth opposite her seating position.

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  9. I agree that a lot depends on your expectations. For example, I love the movie `Megamind' and since it's a super-hero story, I don't actually question why two alien babies land on earth and Social Services just let them stay more or less where they fell. It's hilarious, and it helps make one of the themes of the story (the age old question of nature vs nurture) really work. I'd say theme is (within reason) another aspect to think of when you think about bending the rules.

    Something a friend of mine pointed out, too... with mid-grade books there are times when what would really happen in a situation is just too scary for kids, so the author deliberately tones things down, maybe makes the villains silly, or bends things so the heroes are in less mortal peril. I'm especially thinking of kidnappings and foiling robberies and the like. Ronald Dahl liked stupid villains I think for that reason. (Of course, Ronald Dahl books can be disturbing, so maybe it didn't work that well...)

    Sorry I haven't commented for so long, incidentally. There was a lot going on in real life for me this past year. I seem to be back (at least somewhat) now though. :)

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    1. Great examples, and very true. Part of what makes novels so great is that they aren't true to life, just "realistic" is the general sense. Ideas offered and explored.

      No worries, and good to have you back! Life should always come first. Glad things are calming down for you :)

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  10. It's a tough one. One of the rules of kid-lit is to "deparent" the children so they are forced to act on their own accord. Finding credible ways to do this is getting harder in a world of helicopter parents. However, I believe that most kids long to have a secret part of their lives hidden from adult eyes, so maybe they applaud those who manage to achieve this, by whatever means possible.
    I really liked your proposed solution to the queriers' question about forging a signature and having it bite them later- adding that real life element gives scope for a nice little plot twist. Elegant!
    Reading your post, I was reminded of a story, not sure whether its apocryphal or not. Walt Disney was cornered at a party by a lady who was very knowledgable about wild life and animal behaviour. She lectured him at length about some of the inaccuracies of the actions of the deer in Bambi, such as the bucks not abandoning the doe in the face of danger and yada yada. He listened politely to her rant and finally spoke up."You know what else was wrong? Deer dont talk."

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    1. Love the Disney quote. That does sum it up nicely, doesn't it? Stories aren't supposed to be accurate depictions of real life, but writers do have to deal with those realities. The focus on making it more real is taking some of the fun out of though. It's *fiction*, folks! (grin)

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  11. Great topic, Janice. I actually bumped into this with a YA novel I wrote. I had the MC going under cover w/ police to catch a criminal. I asked a cop friend of mine about that. He said it would never happen. Too risky for the kid. I ended up changing the story to a way I like better, which is great. But it taught me to think more about situations like that.

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    1. I think it's probably even tougher with YA, because the lines are so blurry. The readers are young enough to want the fantasy, but old enough to know how the world works. And with so many adults reading YA, those readers are certainly gong to pick up on anything glaring. There are almost always ways to make what we want to do work, but sometimes that takes more work.

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  12. The questions "is it legal?" and "could it ever happen?" are not diametrically opposed. Most of my characters do things that are illegal. Even some of the police and other officials.

    Is it illegal for FBI to use a kid without his parent's permission? Definitely. For Black Ops? Maybe. Do FBI officers ever break the law? Of course. Do they ever break FBI rules? Certainly. You just have to craft the right circumstances!

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  13. I think this goes a more fundamental issue -- which is more important, story or being accurate? It's issue that all writers have to deal with. I watch the the TV show NCIS, which is set in Washington, DC. The show gets some elements right so it really sounds like DC and not just slapping a location on it. And they also get some elements really, really wrong (a place where I worked is used in an episode). But I also grew up in California, and if I only had the experience of visiting DC instead of living here, I wouldn't know that some of the stuff was pretty wrong -- and the show is very well written. That makes it easy for me to say, "Yeah, you got the place where I work really, really, really wrong, but it's not a deal breaker."

    A lot of that is in the skill of telling the story and making what you do have believable and caring about it -- basically owning it. And also picking the battles. What's most of the audience going to know and not know? Whenever I see the topic of research and fiction writing, a lot of writers treat it as a college research paper, out of fear that 1% of the audience is going to call them out on a factual error.

    As a reader, where I've had the most trouble when a story is inaccurate is because the author didn't do a good job with the story in the first place. I can think of a story set in DC that wasn't accurate, and it felt like the author threw it together at the last minute and then couldn't figure out how to end it. Always tell a good story.

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    1. I made a joke just the other night how Rock Creek Park must be the most dangerous place in DC, because almost every week a body is found there (grin).

      I'm with you. I know writers of all genres need to fudge things once in a while and I don't mind that. I'm much more annoyed by plots or motivations that make no sense, or authors breaking their own established rules to make a twist work. I'll suspend disbelief, but play fair.

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