Rules and Rules

When my very first story appeared, a critic who reviewed it began their review by noting, “This is a world where x does y.”

And they were wrong, that was wrong, but the reader wasn’t to blame. I know why they believed it: because the characters in the world did. And they believed it for the same reason the characters in the world did: because they’d been told so.

It wasn’t a law of nature, a rule of the world, it wasn’t a factual thing at all; it was a (central) religious belief held by a certain part of the world’s population. But in secondary-world fantasy, where so many of the laws of nature are inventions of the author and the reader does have to rely substantially on what they’re told, how do we effectively distinguish for the reader what is fact in this false world and what is itself a fiction within the fiction? The characters believe a thing wholeheartedly, so anything not written from an omniscient POV must necessarily contain and reflect that belief.

The reason I’m glaring at this issue anew today is that I’ve been mapping and re-mapping my novel’s plot, and the mystery at its heart relies on one of those “everyone knows” rules-of-the-world being false. It’s an ancient fiction invented by a group within the story to keep two factions of the populace separate, and to protect a secret held by one of those groups. The characters in the world — in both of the factions in question — believe it, to the point where all kinds of other rules have flowed from it, and society has been structured in part to uphold it.

But a thing has happened in the book that contravenes that rule, because the rule isn’t true, and figuring out that the contrary thing has happened is at the moment critical to the riddle of the book’s events.

A nonplussed alpha reader of the book said to me, “But I don’t understand how x could do y, because [legitimate logical reasons].” And she’s right! It can’t! It doesn’t! But the world is sufficiently weird and full of sufficient other breaks from our reality that no one else yet has blinked at it. We want readers to suspend disbelief, so how do we signpost the places where actually a little disbelief is a wholesome thing, where the gaps are deliberate?

I read a lot of mystery novels, and the one thing I absolutely cannot abide in a mystery is the solution to the puzzle hingeing on a piece of information the reader could not have known, was never privy to, and which the author whips out with a flourish at the end to say Ta da! Fooled you! That isn’t fair in a mystery; the reader needs to be able to play along at home, as it were. And I’m worried that I’m going to do something very like that here.

Listen: Here is how the world works, Rules 1 through 10. Now figure out what’s happened here.

Ha ha! The solution is, Rule 6 was a lie! Ha ha ha!

I may be making too much of this one thing, too? A lot of the story is about the gradual peeling-back of these layers of fiction that people in power have plastered over the world, the stories we invent to explain our universe to ourselves, so maybe it’s perfectly in keeping with the rest that this unexpected thing has occurred. A lot of the rules will prove false before the end.

But I feel strongly that there’s a difference between surprising a reader and betraying them, and while the book contains a great deal from column A, I’m worried that some column B is slipping in there as well. Something about this particular instance seems unfair. It feels akin to the difference between eventually explaining, “And now I shall demonstrate how pigs can fly after all,” versus demanding, “Who could possibly have reached the third-story window of the farmhouse from the outside? We all know pigs can’t fly!” (Knowing smirk.)

And maybe the solution is simply to throw a skeptical side character or two into the mix to stand at the margins and raise their eyebrows at things occasionally, to remind the reader that the world is never unanimous. But maybe there are other solutions I’m missing? Maybe it doesn’t need a solution? I don’t know.

I’m writing this post mostly because just articulating things like this, laying them out, helps me think about them. But I’d be genuinely interested in hearing other people’s thoughts and ideas.

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