Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.37: Outlandish Impossibilities

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Some science fiction and fantasy stories arise from a premise which, under even just rudimentary examination, appear utterly ridiculous. And some of these stories are hugely successful. In this episode we talk about how we manage our worldbuilding when the goal is less about building a world which works, and more about getting the audience to buy in on something outlandish so we can get on with our story.

Liner Notes: “Went With The Wind” begins about two minutes into this full episode of the Carole Burnett Show

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write an outlandish impossibility. First: find a three-year-old, and ask them to tell you a story. Now write that story. 

Thing of the week: You Owe Me a Murder, by Eileen Cook.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Outlandish premises, impossibilities. Extrapolate beyond the reasonable to make us laugh and make us think. To explore an issue, to have a conversation. Outlandish impossibilities may be the fastest way to set up the discussion we want to have. How do you clue the audience in? Telegraph it up front. You get one buy in. Hit them early with the premise they need to accept. Treat it as a budget for buy ins. What is the story purpose? To enable other things, spends budget. Build reality and credibility, build the budget. How much can the reader absorb? Prioritize, paint the big picture first, then add smaller details. Hang a lantern on strangeness, let the character ask a question (and promise an answer!). Or put a lampshade on it, treat it as part of the furniture, let the characters take it in stride as normal, while making other things important. Play it straight or play it silly? Scene-sequel and emotional beats. What kind of emotional response do you want the reader to have. Use the character’s reactions, the prose leading up to it, linebreaks, and pacing to signpost this.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 37.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Outlandish Impossibilities.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Some fantasy and science fiction books have very outlandish premises. I’m not just talking about magic, right. That you have to accept magic. Dan and I were talking about these before the podcast. He started groaning immediately when I brought up some dystopian stories, for instance, ask you to swallow a really, really hard-to-swallow premise.

[Dan] So, like, Divergent, as much as I enjoy it as a book, the premise is a future that there’s no conceivable way human civilization will ever arrive there. It is an absolute impossibility. But the story it tells is cool and worth telling. So…

[Brandon] I remember when my wife was reading the book Unwind. She came in and I said, “Well, what’s the premise?” She’s like, “Oh. Um. People argue over abortion so much that they decide that abortions are illegal, but when a kid turns 16, you can turn them in to the state to have them harvested for organs to give to other people. As a compromise…


[Brandon] On the abortion debate.


[Brandon] I said, “What?”

[Dan] Okay…


[Dan] As the father of two teenagers, I’m okay with this plan.


[Brandon] My reaction, afterwards, like, I bet every teenager thinks that their parents would do that. It’s obviously just…

[Dan] Mine will now.

[Brandon] Ridiculous, right. But some of the best stories come from a place of a ridiculous premise. This is what science fiction and fantasy is about, right?

[Howard] It’s not just science fiction and fantasy. This is where I live. I am writing social satire…

[Mary Robinette] You are writing science fiction.

[Howard] Yeah. Well, no, but I’m writing humor. I’m writing social satire. It is my job to extrapolate something beyond the point which is reasonable in order to make us laugh and make us think. That is, in many of these cases, especially the YA dystopias that we talk about, in many of these cases, what we’re trying to do is explore an issue that is not even tangential to the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is just there so that we can have a conversation about what do you do if you are friends with a group of people and only one of them is going to live and you want to be that one. What is… Well, okay, we have to set this up in some way, and we don’t care how, because the story is about this situation. So, for story purposes, outlandish impossibilities are there not because, at least to me, not because they are the story, but because I want to have a discussion about a thing, and that’s the fastest way I get to have that discussion.

[Brandon] Absolutely. A lot of the original Star Trek episodes were like that. Where they’re like, what happens to a culture where they’re stranded on a planet for so long that the story of Chicago mobsters becomes their Bible? How does that change their society? That’s ridiculous, but it’s interesting to talk about. That’s the fastest way to have that conversation.

[Howard] Though the Star Trek episode, the Next Generation episode where all of their conversations are memes. Which we now look at and recognize as oh, that is actually a portion of where our language is drifting. We recognize that we can’t drift completely there, because…

[Mary Robinette] I mean, we had already drifted there. Like, that’s why Shakespeare is written in nothing but clichés.


[Dan] He really should have been [inaudible] better than that.

[Mary Robinette] I know.

[Brandon] So, let’s say you want to write a story like this. Is there any special setup that you would use to clue the audience in, to make them swallow this really, really difficult to swallow pill?

[Mary Robinette] So, there’s a thing, I think Margaret was the one who talked about it, about the buy in, that you get one buy in. For me, what I try to do is telegraph that kind of upfront. It’s like, this is the world that were going to be inhabiting. A really simple thing is Little Mermaid under the Sea. The buy-in is there are mermaids. There are mermaids. That’s the… It’s like, after that, you roll forward from there. But, you demonstrate to it. The other thing that’s happening in Little Mermaid though is this is a musical at a time when people had stopped doing musicals. So that entire opening number is getting people used to the idea of mermaids and undersea culture and musical with only very, very tiny plot progression. Like, there’s really very… Not much is going on there besides this is the culture. This is the buy-in we’re asking you to do.

[Brandon] This is a really excellent example, because, as I was thinking about this topic, there are some times where for learning curve purposes, you play a little coy with some of your worldbuilding elements. In some of my books, I wait to introduce the magic till later in the story because I know people are picking up a fantasy book, and I’m going to step them through characters and things first. But in a lot of other stories, you need to hit people right up front. Little Mermaid’s a good example. Harry Potter. Often times, the prologue is there to say I am hitting you up front the premise you need to go… You’re going to need to accept. There are wizards in this world, and there’s a dark wizard who almost took over the fantasy world. Buy into that, and then we’ll talk about the character.

[Dan] I see this a lot with the chapter critiques that I do, where they are trying to slow roll the revelation of their world and some of those worldbuilding elements. You can do that with some things, but there are some things you have to get out right upfront because otherwise we’re going to be constantly redefining your story every couple of pages and going, “Oh, oh, wait, they’re actually riding on mammoths instead of horses. Oh, oh, wait, they also have holograms.” Like, some of that stuff you need to…

[Mary Robinette] That sounds like a very specific…

[Howard] Holographic mammoth mounts?

[Brandon] No, Dan’s absolutely right. I get this with my students a lot. They don’t know which things to get you to buy into first. A lot of this is we need to know a tech level for a fantasy book very quickly. We need to know kind of your big premise of the world very quickly. If it has got this really big premise.

[Howard] Our episode with Margaret, How Weird Is Too Weird. It was back in February. One of the… That’s when Margaret said, you get one buy [or tennis bye?]. The concept that I use is you’ve got a budget for buy ins. What is your budget? With your new students, just the concept of you have a budget… They may still overspend. But you can point at it and say, “The problem here is not that you have too many ideas. It’s that you exceeded your budget.” How do we… Can I quantify budget on a spreadsheet? In a sense, I can. Because when I am outlining things in the spreadsheet, I have a column that says, “What’s the story purpose for this?” If the story purpose for anything is make the other things possible, then that is a budget negative. That is something that is… That is a spend that I need in order to make the rest of the story work. So I have to look at the other cells and I have to… Those things have to… They have to be really important to the story. They have to be putting money in the bank. They have to be building credibility. Hunger Games works because the interactions between the kids feel real. If the interactions between the kids felt fake, then we don’t have anything that we’re going to read.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that someone told me early on… I can’t remember who this was… Was that you can drop a worldbuilding detail about every once a page. What they meant was not you get one worldbuilding detail per page, it was that you get one thing that matters per page, roughly. That that’s about how much the reader can absorb before they drop something else and forget. So you have to give them time to absorb something before you give them the new thing. Which is what can often lead to that slow roll. That you will have… Like, well, I’m going to give you these worldbuilding details, but you don’t prioritize the ones that you need to do. So it’s like you hit them with kind of a worldbuilding detail that paints sort of a big picture thing, and then you can start feeding them the smaller details after that. Does that make sense?

[Brandon] Yeah, that really does.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and pause here, though. You’re going to tell us about our book of the week, which is You Owe Me a Murder?

[Mary Robinette] Yes. You Owe Me a Murder, which is not by Dan Wells. It is by Eileen Cook.

[Dan] I don’t owe anybody, I always pay up.

[Mary Robinette] That’s true.


[Mary Robinette] You are not a serial killer, either.


[Mary Robinette] So, You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook. It is a young adult novel. It is basically Strangers on a Plane. So if you’ve seen the Hitchcock film Strangers On a Train, it is that premise, but it’s teenagers on a field trip, like, study abroad thing to London. That scenario happens on the airplane. It’s an outlandish premise, that someone would sit down next to… A teenager would sit on a plane next to someone else and say, “Why don’t you kill my person? I’ll kill yours.” Yet, that is exactly what the book is. I tell you, this book is one of those things where I’m reading it and pretty much every page, I’m like, “Oh, no no no no no no no. No no no no noooo.” It is such good characterization, because when she has made that single outlandish premise, every character interaction after that is completely plausible, follows this logical causal chain. It’s so tightly crafted. It’s such a good book.

[Brandon] So that is You Owe Me a Murder…

[Mary Robinette] You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook.

[Brandon] So, kind of along that topic, how do we write characters who take something very strange is normal, and how do you not alienate the reader from that character, but instead, pull them into that character’s way of thinking? I’m thinking of a lot of these fantasy and science fiction books where you… Dystopian, but also just epic fantasy, where people just take it for granted that X, Y, or Z. In the Wheel of Time, we take it for granted that there are dark friends who live among us who, it could be any of our friends, who might just murder us in the middle of the night. They just accept that. That’s part of their world.

[Dan] That one’s easy, because it’s true.

[Brandon] How do you write characters that take something really outlandish, that’s part of their life, and integrate into them and not make them alien?

[Howard] If I have… As a reader, if I have a question, if I think something’s outlandish, and a character beats me to the punch by asking the question, and shrugging and moving on because there’s no way for them to find an answer, I will shrug and move on. Especially if that character is already sympathetic. Because the author has acknowledged that, “Hey, some of this…” Maybe it’s a question that I’m given the answer to later. That is… They’ve bought another 20 pages from me, because they promised me I’m going to get an answer. They can break that promise and give me something that I like more. They just have to have that character in that moment ask the question that I’m going to ask.

[Brandon] So, this is one classic method, which is hang a lantern on it. When the character asks the question, it allows us to say, “Oh, the author’s thinking about this. I’ll get an answer eventually.” But what about these worlds like, say, the Golden Compass, where everyone’s soul manifests, or a chunk of it, as an animal that skitters around the world and interacts with them? No one questions it because the whole world has it. How do you make that work?

[Dan] Well, one of the ways to do that is, first of all, to just let the characters take that completely seriously and take it in stride, the way that that world is, by giving them something bigger to worry about. When someone from our world reads the Golden Compass, that’s the first thing that stands out. It’s like, “Wait, what’s a demon? Why is there this cat following her around?” Like, we have these questions. She doesn’t, because she’s very concerned about whatever other thing it was, and… it’s been years. She’s traveling around inside a university or something. She has her own wants, she has her own desires, she has her own goals. That is what is important to her. So we get caught up in that story, is she going to be able to find her friend, is she going to be able to get that thing she wants, then, a chapter later, we realize that we’ve just kind of taken the rest of it in stride, the way the characters have.

[Brandon] So, this is kind of the opposite to hanging a lantern on it…

[Dan] Exactly.

[Brandon] Is to downplay it so much, and make other things important, that we start accepting it.

[Howard] It’s lantern versus…

[Mary Robinette] Well, I don’t…

[Howard] Sorry. Lantern versus lampshade, for me. Lantern is when you’re calling attention to it by asking a question. Lampshade is when you’re turning it into furniture.

[Mary Robinette] So, I feel like it’s less about downplaying it and more about assigning it a place on an emotional scale. That, for me, is that if you have a thing that is outlandish, it occupies an emotional reality for the character. Carol Burnett talked about this when she was doing comedy, specifically, she was talking about the… For those of you who do not know Carol Burnett…

[Dan] You’re wrong and terrible people.

[Mary Robinette] It’s okay, I just turned 50. That’s why I watched her as a… When I was a small child. But just do yourself a favor and pull up YouTube… We’ll put this actually in the liner notes. The Carol Burnett scene where it’s a Gone with the Wind takeoff, and she… There’s this wonderful scene in Gone with the Wind, where in the original, where Scarlett doesn’t have anything to wear, and so she takes down the curtain and makes a gown out of that. They do that same scene, and she makes a gown out of it, but she does not remove the curtain rod.


[Dan] And is knocking things over…

[Mary Robinette] Comes down and just… Someone asked her how she played something like that. She’s like, “My character believes that she has made the right choice.” My character… She occupies the emotional truth of her character. I think that when we’re dealing with an outlandish thing, it occupies a place on an emotional scale for our character. If we assign it there and give them appropriate responses, that then also tells the reader how to react to it. So if they are reacting to it as if this is completely normal, then our reader knows, “Oh. Okay.” If they are reacting to it as if it’s outlandish, then that tells our reader a different thing.

[Dan] To go back to what I was saying before, that scene’s a great example, because that scene is not about there’s a curtain rod in my dress. No, that scene is about I have to impress the suitor. So she has a goal. She has a thing. We have hung, to abuse the metaphor, we have hung a much bigger lantern on something else. So that’s where all our focus is pointed.

[Brandon] This segues us really well into my kind of last topic for this podcast, which is, when do you play it straight and when do you be silly? Howard has made an entire career of this dichotomy.

[Dan] Dancing across that line.

[Howard] You’re not wrong.


[Brandon] So, how do you do it?


[Brandon] How do you decide when…

[Howard] Fundamentally, it’s about scene-sequel and emotional beats. The punchline… If you read Schlock Mercenary strips back-to-back, all in one sitting, it does not read very much like a book. Because the beats are just weird. If I were to tell the whole Schlock Mercenary story as prose, there would be fewer punchlines and they would be spaced differently. So, the comic strip itself is a bad example in some ways. And yet, there are emotional beats in a story which need to be played seriously. Which need to… I want the reader to cry. I want them to be unhappy. If there is going to be a joke, in Schlock Mercenary, I will usually try and pull the joke afterwards, not to undercut the emotional response, but to give us an escape valve for the emotional response. The math, the timing of these things, is a lot different when I’m working with prose. But looking at scene-sequel format, looking at your beat chart for your story, will tell you where you’re going to be silly, where you gotta play it straight, and…

[Mary Robinette] I think the thing that you said that I just want to draw a line under is thinking about the emotional impact on the reader. When you’re trying to make that decision, that is ultimately the decision you’re making, is what effect do you want this to have on my reader? I’m going to play it silly if I want my reader to have a laugh here. If I want them even that as a cathartic thing in a much more serious piece. So what I will do then is that I will attempt to sign post it, again, by the character’s reaction, but also by the prose that I’m using to lead up to that. Where I put my linebreaks in order to get those beats that Howard is talking about in a prose format. If I want to hit something as a punchline, then I’m going to put it in a different place in the paragraph then I would necessarily if I wanted it to just blend into the world.

[Brandon] Right. I think also some of the things we were talking about earlier will affect this. For instance, we talked about a lot of these dystopian books, what they do is this really outlandish premise, but then the characters’ emotional responses are played straight and their interactions are played straight. So even if there are laughs, the story is serious, and you have to accept this premise. A lot of the comedic ways of doing it escalate, right? The premise is weird, and then the next thing that happens spins off of that is even weirder. That’s a very Terry Pratchett way of doing things.

[Howard] There’s a simple tool for prose writers. It’s the line feed. If you have something that you want to stick, that’s where the line feed goes. If you have a punchline, and you want people to take time to process the punchline, that should have been the last thing in the paragraph. If it’s in the middle of the paragraph, then the rest of the paragraph may be working against the joke. Now, it’s entirely possible that that’s the effect you wanted to have. That you wanted them to giggle, and then suddenly realize in horror that that wasn’t where this was going at all. But I use white space a lot. Because for writing humor, the wall of text doesn’t tell people… It doesn’t sign post it. It doesn’t tell you where you’re supposed to laugh. Where you’re supposed to… What’s setting up the joke versus where the joke is.

[Mary Robinette] Technically, that’s because those linebreaks create a… Represent where we pause naturally in speech. The same way the end of a sentence does. But with the sign posting, it’s not just those linebreaks, it’s also, as I said, the prose that we use leading up to it if… Douglas Adams, the opening line of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is a great example of this kind of sign posting, because the style of prose that he’s using gives you permission to laugh. That is… That’s the thing that you need to convey to the reader if you want them to know that it silly, you have to give them permission to laugh. Otherwise, they’ll go into it and you haven’t given them permission, they will not take it seriously in ways that are damaging to the story.

[Dan] I think it is important to point out, whether you’re going for serious story or comedic story, that a lot of what makes these outlandish premises and outlandish ideas work is the emotional resonance that the reader has with them. Divergent, like I said, is not a world that could exist, but Veronica Roth wrote that when she was a college freshman. When she was in a period of her life where she did feel like I am being locked into one path, and the society is trying to choose who I am going to be for the rest of my life. People in high school and early college feel like that. That’s a very familiar emotion. So for the audience she was writing for, it wasn’t a real-life detail, but it felt very familiar, and we have that resonance with it.

[Brandon] We’re out of time. But, Dan, you actually have my favorite homework that we’ve come up with this year.


[Brandon] Give us this homework.

[Dan] Okay. We want you to write an outlandish impossibility. The best way that I know of to do that is find a three-year-old. Ask them to tell you a story. Then take that story seriously. Write it out as if it were a real thing. Whatever bizarre relationships or things or monsters or whatever that that person, that three-year-old, tells you, that’s your reality. Write that story and make it work.

[Brandon] If you want an example of this, go read the webcomic Axe Cop.

[Dan] Yes.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.