Writing Excuses 6.24: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Andrew P. Mayer joins Howard, Mary, and Dan at Dragon*Con 2011. Andrew’s has one book out, The Falling Machine, and the second book in this “Society of Steam” series, Hearts of Smoke, comes out on November 22nd. Andrew describes them as “steampunk superhero” novels, which nicely takes us into our topic, which centers around taking a ridiculous, over-the-top concept and using it to create brilliant and realistic literature.

We discuss a number of concepts which seem, at least on the surface, to be completely ridiculous, and which have been turned into wonderful stories, books, and series of books. We also talk about how to pull this off, and what writing skills we need to bring to bear.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Mainspring, by Jay Lake, narrated by William Dufris

Writing Prompt: Give us a story about a character who discovers that there exists a pill to grant you the powers of a god.

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21 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.24: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime”

  1. Eh, kinda. He only became a god-on-earth because of his inborn abilities being added to the allomancy pellets. Plus, I’d still argue it’s more a demigod than a god. He wasn’t capable of causing deus ex machina stuff, unlike a certain other character later on. (Brandon’s been quoted as saying that he’s uncomfortable with using him in the post trilogy Mistborn writings because he can literally do what he wants.)

  2. There’s an important distinction that needs to be made between ridiculous (implausible) and ridiculous (silly).

    Both can certainly be turned into sublime stories, but in different ways. I feel like turning something ridiculously implausible into a good story is as “simple” as adding wonderfully believable characters (see: Doctor Who).

    I think taking something ridiculously silly and adding the elements for emotional response is much more difficult and is precisely why I have never liked anime or the Final Fantasy franchise.

  3. @Michael Winegar

    But those are the reasons why I think a lot of anime and games like Final Fantasy deliver better thank American cartoons and games. When I see pictures of a giant techno-organic baby, I think, “That’s absurd.” When I watch Akira and I get caught up in the real dangers and horrors of superpowers, it ends up making that techno-organic baby make sense.

    The real solution, as you said is to use “wonderfully believable characters.” You mention Doctor Who, which is totally outlandish in every possible way, but Amy Pond’s childlike wonder of her bizarre friend solidly motivates her. Rory’s undying love of Amy makes him real, even if he was temporarily plastic.

    For an audience, having something really crazy in the plot makes it difficult to approach. Focusing on the plight of the characters usually makes things work out, even in something as high-concept as Inception. That’s the way I take it, focus on character first, crazy comes later.

  4. Loved this podcast. Starting with ridiculous elements and then trying to figure out how to deal with them seriously is just another way that I think authors can use constraints to increase their creativity.

    When I have no constraints at all and I can write anything you want, then it’s sometimes hard for me to focus, or even to get started. Just having one fixed point is a great help– even if that one fixed point is an angsty teenage lichen / lycanthrope hybrid.

  5. I just took the scheming Utah-Raptor dinosaur-god out of my neolithic fantasy story. Are you saying I’ve got to put him back in?

    Anyway, making the characters act believably goes a long way to letting me accept bizarre way-out-there ideas. Michael Winegar hit it right on the head. Give me characters I can care about and I won’t mind the alien princess running the mafia so that the space-time continuum doesn’t get ruined before its due back at the reality library run by the magical dolphins.

  6. @Len Berry

    It goes without saying that we all have our own preferences in story and our own experiences that provoke various levels of emotional response.

    The example of Inception is a perfect one to illustrate what I want to say about my own story-experiencing preferences. The idea that thieves can navigate the subconscious dreams of a subject and pull out fully realized ideas is, of course, ridiculously implausible but we suspend that disbelief because we want to experience Dom’s story.

    However, as one friend put it, “In MY dreams, chickens turn into cupcakes and talk to me.”

    I think Nolan could easily have let Inception slip into absurd dreamscapes and we would have forgiven him because, “hey, we’re already floating around in a dream world.” But the serious tone of the movie would have been compromised and I would have been less willing to believe the emotions that were juxtaposed to the talking baked goods.

    Some of us just get so hung up on the “giant techno-organic baby” that we can’t believe in the other parts of the story.

    Maybe that’s our loss.

  7. On the subject of Inception, I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t take some of the ideas far enough, although I understand why. In one scene a character says something to the effect of “you’re not dreaming big enough” in the middle of a gunfight. The one guy has an assault rifle and the other pulls out a rapid fire grenade launcher. Why didn’t they start dreaming up bazookas or gatling laser death cannons?

    If they had gone to “talking cupcakes” levels of dream weirdness, it would have distracted too much from the story. It’s a balancing act. You have to ask the question, “Does this move my story forward in some way?” If not, then it probably should be changed or removed. Maybe in early drafts of the script, there were such darlings and they got killed.

  8. This podcast reminded me a lot of something I’m working on right now. A buddy threw out an absurd title, and my goal is to turn it into a serious story, despite being absolutely ridiculous in terms of both initial concept and tone.

  9. Afterthought:

    The whole idea about coming up with rationalizations for the ridiculous speaks to looking for consistency in your writing. Many movies have glaring plot holes (ice floats in water, aliens don’t run MacOS, and so on), and if the initial premise were a bit more absurd, people would have thought through some of the elements a bit more carefully.

    So the real trick is to question everything, even if it’s not ridiculous.

    I’m thinking that good practice for this sort of thinking would be to randomly tell a couple lies. Practice weaving that sort of web should give you practice with making things seem consistent.

    I’ll start: I’m actually a 500 year old koloss, and therefore bursting at the seams.

  10. Great podcast — I love this topic since it’s about the kind of fiction I love most. I was a little surprised that no one mentioned what is perhaps the greatest example in pop culture of this technique — Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon takes a silly, over the top premise and turns it into one of the most sublime tv shows ever. With deep, fully rounded characters that we care about a lot. The difference in doing it well and doing it badly is easily seen if you compare, for instance, Buffy and Angel (or Buffy and Spike) with the characters in Twilight.

  11. I do think there’s also a place for fiction with ridiculous things happening that don’t have to be transformed into something 100% serious. Terry Pratchett did give us characters to care about, but he also gave us swords that glow blue in the presence of lawyers and made me laugh my head off. Schlock makes me care, but it also makes me laugh. A lot. I love this kind of writing, that somehow manages to counterpoint absurdity and reality, giving me both characters, plot, and story, and lots of laughter at the same time.

  12. “…I won’t mind the alien princess running the mafia so that the space-time continuum doesn’t get ruined before its due back at the reality library run by the magical dolphins.”


    I REALLY want to read this story. :P

  13. @ Cornan

    Now you’re going to make me write it, aren’t you? You’re going to have to wait a while because I’ve got an old slave plantation, animal shape-shifting, capoeira martial arts, world hopping, family drama I’ve got to finish editing first. And once that’s done, I still have to go back to my neolithic fantasy story (without dinosaurs). You could read the two orphan turned faerie princess books I wrote, “A Clouded Skye” and “Children Of A Clouded Skye”, while you wait.

  14. I think for most of us, who are interested in writing sci-fi and/or fantasy, dealing with the implausible is a daily occurrence. Magic isn’t real, intergalactic starships aren’t real, aliens don’t exist (that we can prove), so this ties directly into how well we, as the author, can suspend disbelief for our readers. As Brandon likes to say, lots of smoke and mirrors and hand-waving is one way, a compelling story/characters/world is another. The reader wants to believe, to accept the impossible as real, so we’re already halfway there, so long as we can, ironically, make the unbelievable believable so long as it conforms to a certain set of rules. We can accept Jack Bauer taking out dozens of bad guys and saving the world every week, but making it cross-town in L.A. traffic in fifteen minutes? Come ON. Unless he had a spaceship…

    My prompt for the week:


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