Using One Unbelievable Element

Much of the literary fiction I’ve been enjoying lately calls for a suspension of disbelief. There’s an immediate contract asked of the reader to set aside common sense and immerse themselves in an unbelievable element. Readers must accept that contract if they choose to turn the page and fully enter the story world.

Sometimes I find myself a little resistant to such a setup, but I’m always willing to read a few pages. If it’s a good book, it doesn’t take long to set aside my misgivings and go along for the ride, as improbable as it might be.

Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones gives us a murdered girl as a guide and narrator. Lauren Groff’s Monsters of Templeton starts with “the fifty-foot corpse of a monster” being lifted from the lake in an otherwise normal small-town landscape. Selden Edwards’ “The Little Book” launches us into a world where time travel happens. I haven’t read “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender, but the hardcover is on my Christmas list.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker nearly ventures into this territory—with the incredible size of the narrator Truly and the fabled shadow book of Tabitha Dyerson—but Baker also weaves science and the healing arts into the narrative as a justification and real-world explanation. So that’s a little different.

I’m thinking about this topic because of where my new novel could be headed, and also because I plucked The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers off the library shelf earlier this week. In the first chapter of Thomas Mullen’s book, the brothers wake up in the morgue at a police station, seemingly shot full of bullets and yet still alive. It’s not only unbelievable, it’s unsettling, and these immediate reader reactions nicely mirror the confusion the brothers are experiencing as they try to assess their situation.

I stayed up late to read 37 pages.

Why do these stories work so well? Voice. Believable characters with emotional shifts. Detailed physical descriptions. A strong sense of place. A fictional world that seems true and alive except for that one unusual thing. A plot that moves forward quickly, before we can sit around and worry about the weirdness. In short, these novels work because all the other elements fall into place so well.

When the writer doesn’t break the contract with the reader,  the reader will go just about anywhere. And this holds true for all good, lasting books.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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