Plot disturbances

I should so not be writing this post. Too much to get done before we leave Monday. No time! Aaarggh.

However, Gwenda’s writing a quest novel and thinking out loud about whether she can skip the whole boring refusing-to-take-up-the-call part. Also known as “but I don’t want to be a vampire Slayer!”

In a fantasy novel the odds of the protagonist not taking up the call to destroy the one true ring or whatever are pretty non-existent. If they say “no” then book is over, or it becomes something else which is most definitely not a quest novel. So why should the writer spend too much time on that part?

I equate refusing the call with the passage of disbelief. And, indeed, the two often go together: the protag is told, “You were created to destroy this one true ring and in doing so you will save the world!” Protag’s response: “There’s a one-true ring? I’m the chosen one? What now?”

Passages of disbelief can also be really tedious. I pick up a book called, let’s say, Zombie Apocalypse from Hell and am faced with endless setup chapters where the character blithely go about their day squabbling with spouse/children/boss, engaging in other banal and boring activities just so the reader can get to know them. Meanwhile all signs point to the undead walking the streets and eating brains. But the stupid characters don’t recognise said signs, oh no, they keep coming up with lame so-called rational explanations. Yawn. Have they not seen the cover of the book? It’s called Zombie Apocalypse from Hell for Elvis’s sake! Wake up and smell the putrefying flesh! Can we get to the apocalypse already?

One of the things I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer was how quickly and wittily they got through the different characters’ disbelief, culminating with Oz discovering the true nature of Sunnydale and saying, “Actually it explains a lot.”

Do I think writers can skip the refusal of the quest/passage of disbelief? Absolutely! I love books that start media res. Whoosh—straight into the action. Good writers can build character and action at the same time. Funny that. They convey their protag’s ambivalence about the role they’ve been thrust into whilst the character is busying saving the world. Two birds, one stone.

On the other hand, sometimes the passage of disbelief/refusal of the quest is the best part. Shaun of the Dead becomes a lot less interesting after they realise that zombies are real. The opening where the two ambitionless, slacker Londoners get on with their stultifying everyday lives (drool in front of tellie, slouch off to work, buy crisps, fight with girlfriend and/or flatmate) in the midst of the spreading zombie apocalypse is the best pisstake of and homage to zombie movies I’ve ever seen. I laughed so hard I wept.

In Magic or Madness I set up the passage of disbelief scenario a little differently by giving the protag a mother who’s always specifically denied magic’s existence. Reason’s been brought up knowing about magic, but negatively. And although it’s almost a hundred pages before Reason is hit with solid evidence that magic is real, it’s only thirty pages later that she accepts the existence of magic.

I guess that adds up to 130 pages of disbelief, which should make any hardened fantasy reader completely ropeable (sorry!). Fortunately she’s the only deluded point-of-view character. I guess I’m saying it’s cool to take a long time with a disbelief pasage if there’s other stuff going on.

To tie this more closely to what Gwenda’s talking about: one of the main things the writer has to balance is the gap between the reader’s knowledge and that of the characters. Afterall, the protag can’t actually look up at the top of the page to the title of the book (Zombie Apocalypse from Hell ) or chapter (Eat more brains!). Unlike the reader they’re not privvy to the back-of-the-book blurb (“In this scintilating debut all hell breaks loose as Chandler Hammer does battle with hordes of zombies with only her pet dog, Misty, and son, Dopey, by her side”)—they have to figure stuff out for themselves, but in a way that doesn’t bore either writer or reader into a coma.

Nothing easier . . .


  1. John H on #

    i love shaun of the dead – you really don’t know if the zombies really are zombies until they attack someone because they look like all the other poor schlubs, mindlessly trudging through their boring existence. and when shaun and his flatmate are confronted with a zombie for the first time, they mock him like a couple of third-graders making faces behind the substitute’s back.

    what an awesome movie!

  2. scott w on #

    The reason why the long “passage of disbelief” works in Magic or Madness is that we, the readers, don’t know exactly what KIND of magic is going on. In Zombie Apocalypse, the post-disbelief course of events is pretty obvious: dead rise, get guns, hide in mall. That’s what we’re waiting for; don’t make us wait too long.

    But Magic or Madness’ magic isn’t off the shelf—the book’s playing with our expectations of good and evil, happy magic and bad. So although readers of the blurb on the back know that magic is real in that universe, they’re still wondering about it’s shape and texture.

    As long as readers are in the dark about something, annoyance doesn’t set in that the characters are too, even if it’s a different something.

  3. Darice on #

    I think one of the strengths of M or M is that Reason overcoming her initial denial is key to the story. It’s completely bound up with Reason’s distrust of Esmeralda and her fear for her mother, so it helps push the story forward instead of feeling like a forced pitstop on the road to Questville.

    (Hi, I’m Darice. I like your books. *waves*)

  4. Gwenda on #

    Yeah, I agree with them. I think M or M is special in this regard. In any event, it breaks the sort of traditional view of the “refusal of the call,” which is just one little slice of the quote-unquote Hero’s Journey and my impression has always been shouldn’t take that long. which I fully support!

  5. Chris S. on #

    Depending on the circumstances, denial can help make a character real. I mean, if a stranger said to me, “Hey you – You’re the chosen one!”, I’d think, ‘Up your dosage, buddy’. But I get annoyed when characters hit Scully level denial.

  6. Justine on #

    John H: It’s a hoot, but I did find it a tad less interesting when it turned into a standard zombie movie. The opening is total genius. Have you seen Spaced the tellie series those guys did? Even more total genius. One of my favourite UK tv shows ever.

    Darice: [waves back] That’s a great way of putting it “a forced pitstop on the road to Questville”. Brilliant!

    Gwenda: I can’t wait to read how you handle it in your novel. Hint. Hint.

    Chris S: Oh sure, that’s true. But I think it’s actually pretty hard to pull off. Most readers are impatient for the story to start happening and can see the denial part as needless story delay. But when done right it’s fab. Yes, on the Scully-level denial too.

  7. JessieGirl on #

    I think what allows M or M to have such an extended denial is the way you structured the rules of magic combined with Reason’s absence of knowledge. If the good & evil characters had been more obvious, and the rules of engagement more standard it wouldn’t have worked as well.

    Over all I don’t mind moments of doubt. Everyone wonders whether or not they are making the right choices, if done right it can humanize the character. What I have trouble with is pages upon chapters of refusal.

  8. Little Willow on #

    I think it depends on the plot, the writer/writing, and the character – How would the character react? How well do the readers know the character when the destiny/whatnot is revealed? etc.

  9. Amanda on #

    Hey, long time Scott-blogger, first time posting on this blog. First of all, I just want to tell you that this entry had me cracking up. Secondly, I hope you don’t mind, but I quoted this blog in a Latin Final about heros. I basically just used the phrase “refusing-to-take-up-the-call” and I totally cited you, but still, hope that’s cool. Anyway, now that I’ve read a couple of your enties, I might start reading this every week. Especially since your husband promises very exciting news and then refuses to deliver…

  10. Justine on #

    Amanda: Welcome! Glad to be of assistance, though I ripped that phrase from Gwenda Bond.

    Trust me, the withholding of the exciting news is not Scott’s fault. If he could he’d tell you all right now. But he ain’t allowed.

Comments are closed.