Lending Fantasy “a Semblance of Truth”
By Susan Fletcher
By Susan Fletcher
Nowadays, we use the term “willing suspension of disbelief” to talk about all kinds of storytelling. In the hands of a skillful writer, readers are willing, for a while, to forget that the events they’re reading about never actually happened--and, in the case of fantasy, couldn’t possibly have happened. For the moment, we are willing to believe.
I had forgotten, until just a second ago, when I looked up the source quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that “suspension of disbelief” originally referred to the supernatural in particular. I’m glad for the reminder. Because, while it’s hard enough to persuade readers to believe in our realistic stories, persuading them to believe in our faeries and vampires and dragons can take every ounce of craft that we can muster.
Here’s the original quotation, maybe a bit of a slog for 21st century readers, but I think it’s worth the trouble:
…it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural…yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
–Coleridge, Biographia Literaria
So how do we invite belief in our fantasy characters, our fantasy worlds, our “shadows of imagination?”
There are many ways. To name a few: creating rounded characters and penetrating their hearts; refining our fictional magic so that it has rules, limits, and a price; and the skillful use of concrete detail. Way too much to go into in a single post. So I’ll focus on the last one: detail.
Flannery O’Connor wrote:
...when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it...I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein--because the greater the story’s strain on the credulity, the more convincing the properties in it have to be. (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, p. 97)
Laini Taylor’s use of detail absolutely knocks me out. Blackbringer is fecund with luscious detail; she revels, frolics, delights in it. I’m going to check out a few examples now to suss out why they work so well. Because it’s trickier than just laying on one detail after another. It’s using the right details, in the most effective ways.
Fuzzing the Boundaries
Here’s an example from Blackbringer:
He … turned slowly, surveying the array of shining eyes that peered out at him from the encircling woods. Imps, nightjars, weasels, dryads, toads, all staring in awed silence at the spectacle of the caravans. (p. 56)
Okay, you’ve got your fantasy animals – imps and dryads – cozily cheek-by-jowl with your real ones – nightjars, weasels, and toads – as if they utterly belong together in the world. When you put the real animals in there among the fantasy ones without the slightest hint of distinction, the reader tends to accept the whole kit and caboodle. “Nightjars” is an inspired touch. I actually had to look it up. It sounds like a fantasy thing, but it’s not.
Here, Taylor does it again:
Most of Magpie’s knots were like that. She had saved such glyphs as footprint magic, scrying, fire husbandry, and hypnosis, to name but a handful. She had even rescued the sixth glyph for flight from oblivion, which had resulted in a funny little spell involving eggshells and rain. (p. 254)
I had to look up “scrying.” It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I couldn’t find it in my Webster’s Unabridged, but I did find it online. And is “fire husbandry” something the U.S. Forest Service does, or is it something way bizarre? “Footprint magic” has to be a fantasy thing. Did Taylor make it up? No – I found a reference to it on a website about the mystical arcane. I do know that hypnosis is real. But somehow, the melding of the familiar and the magical and the things I’m not exactly sure about…knocks me off balance. Fuzzes the boundaries between the real and the unreal. I feel myself losing my foothold in my familiar, daily world and slipping sideways into the faerie realm of Taylor’s fantasy.
There’s something else happening here, too: “…involving eggshells and rain.” Delicious! Eggshells and rain are both real, vivid and particular. But they’re so seldom associated with each other that, by their juxtaposition, they make the real seem otherworldly.
One more example in this vein:
As she greeted the others, her eyes kept returning to it. Chestnut pudding, corn bread, ripe red tomatoes, custard in fig syrup, soft blue beetlemilk cheeses wrapped in leaves, steaming stew, crispy fried squash blossoms… (p. 354)
Do people make pudding out of chestnuts? I googled it; yes, they do. Do they fry squash blossoms and eat them? Googled them: yes, they do. Corn bread, check. Ripe red tomatoes, check. Custard in fig syrup, why not? Stew, check. Soft blue beetlemilk cheeses wrapped in leaves? I dunno. They’re blue, they’re soft, they’re wrapped in leaves. I can see them. They’re surrounded by all that other real though sometimes unusual and whimsical food… Didn’t I just see them on the menu at Chez The-Next-Hot-Thing? Sign me up: I’m willing to believe.
A Tripwire of Smell
On to something new: sensory detail. Here’s a supernatural cake Magpie takes to the Magruwen:
Into his sulfurous cavern this small faerie had carried the scent of honey, tears, and lightning, of thirsty roots in future soil, of wind through wings, a fragrance long absent, but well remembered.” (p. 154)
Lovely! Again, we have the incongruous juxtaposition of familiar yet seldom-combined details. And the sense of smell.
In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman says,
Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the seedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth. (p. 5)
Using the sense of smell in fiction is the closest thing I know to actual sorcery. Evoking smell can override the rational and strike deep in the limbic brain, giving us emotional experience unfettered by analysis. Which comes in handy in the extreme when you’re trying to seduce your reader into believing in your “shadows of imagination.”
More smells in Blackbringer:
And yet here was an imp, smelling of graveyards and drains. (p. 40)
Graveyards and drains are like eggshells and rain. Particular. Vivid. Familiar. But, though graveyards and drains both hint at decay, they’re felicitously odd in combination.
Not to neglect the other senses, here is the sense of touch, when Magpie is magically transported to the Moonlit Gardens:
The sensation was not unpleasant. Like a swirl of moths, the brief curious touch of many soft wings, then it was over and Magpie was standing beside a river, her hands still clasped in Snoshti’s paws. (p. 226)
And the sense of sound from an enchanted knife:
She could hear a sound like the pure ring of crystal against crystal, a fluid and melodious chime that seemed to surround her. (p. 139)Semblance of Truth
In the case of the supernatural cake, the imp, the magical transportation, and the enchanted knife, Taylor is not merely piling on great details. She’s doing something more: describing the fantastic in terms of the real. Another way to put it: assigning real-world attributes to things that never were.
I have done this a few times, myself. In Dragon’s Milk, I described a young dragon’s scales as “like a baby’s fingernails.” My upcoming fantasy novel, Ancient, Strange, and Lovely, takes place in an alternate near-future, so I was free to cast a wider net for detail without the risk of anachronism. The baby dragon’s molting skin is “microfiberish,” an ancient dragon’s thrum is “a Fender bass vibration,” and a baby dragon’s newly-erupted wings are “like, decorative. Not quite functional. Like a fancy hood ornament.” Anytime you can apply a specific, real-world detail to something fantastic, you nudge your readers a little way along the path to suspending their disbelief.
A final example from Blackbringer:
For a long time he held the crow immobile with one small finger of his mind and studied the Tapestry with the rest of it. (p. 161)
How do you describe in concrete terms something as amorphous as a paranormal psychic ability? Taylor’s “one small finger of his mind” is perfect.
Stealing from the World
When I began writing fantasy many years ago, I felt bad that I wasn’t one of those writers who could make up entire worlds from whole cloth. My imagination wasn’t up to it. Still isn’t. For that reason, I do lots of research and use whole great chunks of the real world in my fantasies. Elythia in my Dragon Chronicles is based loosely on medieval Wales. Kragrom is medieval Scandinavia. Eric Kimmel loaned me a beautiful coffee table book on the Vikings; some of my best details came from that: Wadmal and reindeer pelts. Combs made of walrus tusk. Buildings roofed with growing grass. There are three caves in my dragon books, the details of which I borrowed from three actual caves I’ve visited. Dragon’s Milk’s cave is a lava tube in central Oregon. Flight of the Dragon Kyn’s cave is Oregon Caves National Monument in southern Oregon. Sign of the Dove’s cave is Sea Lion Caves on the Oregon coast. The draclings (not coincidentally) resemble my old cat Nimbus, the way they thrum in their throats and knead Kaeldra’s legs with their talons.
I began stealing details from the real world because my imagination wasn’t up to the task of creating a whole world all by itself. But I refuse to feel bad about it anymore. Because O’Connor was right: Reality is the proper basis of fantasy—and to giving those “shadows of your imagination” a “semblance of truth.”
Thank you so much, Susan. You can read more about Susan at her website: www.susanfletcher.com.
StorySleuths Tip #66: Support fantasy writing with carefully selected details. Susan Fletcher suggests:
1. Setting natural details cheek-by-jowl with supernatural or made-up ones.
2. Sprinkling in whimsical details, or details that seem fantastical but are real.
3. Juxtaposing real and vivid details that don’t usually go together.
4. Using plenty of sensory detail (especially smell!)
5. Assigning real-world attributes to your fantasy creations.
6. If you can’t come up with great details on your own, research other times and places.