14.7: How Weird is Too Weird?

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

How weird, how far outside the realm of what the reader feels to be familiar, is too weird? Where is the line beyond which the fantasy is too fantastic, the unreal too unrealistic, or the aliens too alien? In this episode we discuss finding that line, and with the tools at our disposal, possibly moving it.

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



Take your current work-in-progress, and determine what your “one buy” is. Narrow it down.

14 thoughts on “14.7: How Weird is Too Weird?”

    1. FLCL actually does what they were talking about pretty well; one of the first lines in the show is that (paraphrasing) “This town is boring. Nothing ever happens here.” Of course that line is immediatelly made ironic, telling the audience to expect plenty of weirdness to come.

  1. For me, the too weird is when it effects soo much of the world that I can’t envision myself living in that world.

    Just look at Harry Potter. Everyone would like to be a wizard. Every time he sees some new bit of magic, you think ‘how cool would that be’. But the new magic is minor, or slowly rolled out over time, such that it’s never too much for you to imagine yourself being a wizard. Everyone can imagine flying through the air on a broomstick, or unlocking a door with a spell.

    I’ve seen scifi that tried to make superhuman AI the viewpoint character, like singularity type AI, and it’s too weird. I can’t comprehend thinking about a million different things at once, or piloting dozens of android bodies and having tens of conversations simultaneously. I couldn’t picture myself like that.

  2. Great episode. I feel like genre conventions play into this and give you more leeway too. On the tv show Galavant, they don’t need a free pass, at least not much, on the idea that a brave common man with a heart of gold can be the best hero in the land and associate with royalty, because that’s an established genre. The twist in the premise is that it’s a sarcastic musical, and characters don’t always follow the expected tropes in this genre. That’s what viewers have to buy into.

  3. I saw the title and immediately thought, “How Weird Is Too Weird, featuring the guy who invented Roshar.” So I was a little bit disappointed when no one brought up Stormlight. It’s a prime example of a *bizarrely* alien world… where you don’t really care because the writing is just so awesome!

    Homework: My “one bye” on my Paul Twister stories is essentially from the site’s tagline. Paul is “a guy from Earth stuck in a fantasy world,” with the unique and uncontrollable ability to break magic by touch. (A secondary follow-on that’s a major part of the premise is that, being a guy from modern-day Earth, he has no real skills that are applicable in a pre-industrial society, other than the magic-breaking ability, so he has to live by his wits and by selling his power, which usually means working as a thief-for-hire. But he hates that and is always looking for something better.)

  4. This episode was timely for me. I recently chose not to include an idea in a story because I didn’t think I could get away with it. Now I’ve been given a rule that justifies my decision.

    I have a further question though. Should the bye always be stated explicitly from the beginning?

    For example, Dan Well’s first book. Many of the reader’s didn’t realize “I Am Not a Serial Killer” was supernatural when it started and the late revelation bothered them. For a lot of people though, this worked. Dan has said on the podcast that this was a mistake, but could he have gotten away with it if he had instead revealed it a just couple chapters in?

    Another example is Mistborn. The bye there is allomancy. Brandon didn’t tell you about allomancy for several chapters. He did, however, make it clear that there was some form of power that Kelsier and Vin both have. This seems like a method of delaying the exact nature of the bye while making it clear that there is one.

    So, is Brandon’s way always the right way? Must you at least hint at the bye from the start? Or, can you delay some? If so, how long?

    Asking for a friend.

    1. Allomancy is introduced right in the intro to Mistborn. The slaves are huddled in their hovels on a misty night. There are screams coming from outside. The skaa are frightened, but the new guy, the traveler, is not. He’s burning tin.

      Huh? Burning tin? What in the world does that mean? Oh, OK, the next couple paragraphs describe exactly what it means. He’s got Allomantic metals he’s swallowed, which he can magically “burn” to produce certain effects, and the tin strengthens and enhances his senses so he has more precise information about the screams outside. He determines that the screams are because a young slave girl is being dragged off to be raped, and then likely killed. After a bit of righteous indignation, he gets up to leave. The other skaa warn him that trying to confront the lord of the manor would be flat-out suicidal. He leaves anyway.

      The scene isn’t principally from his POV, so we don’t see what happens next, but in the next morning when the skaa awake, they find the manor burned down and the slave girl, sill alive, talking about how Kelsier killed the nobles and all the guards, which makes people think he must be some sort of demon because no ordinary human could accomplish that.

      So before chapter 1 even begins we have a basic understanding of several principles. Allomancy is magic that gives you power by swallowing and “burning” metals. One of them is tin, which enhances the senses. There are others that turn you into a supernaturally powerful fighter, able to take on a dozen or more guards and win. And it’s rare enough that the common people regard it with superstition and confusion rather than understanding.

      It takes a few chapters before we get into the details of how Allomancy works, but we’ve got a decent grasp of what it is right from the beginning. It seems to be something Brandon does a lot. Warbreaker and The Way of Kings both start out with scenes where some advanced practitioner (Vasher and Szeth, respectively) accomplishes something difficult by using their magic in really high-level ways. In these cases, we get to see it happening and get a basic explanation of how it works up-front, but then we have to wait even longer before our POV characters start learning the powers themselves. It’s particularly clever in The Way of Kings, because Kaladin doesn’t have a mentor, so when his powers first start to manifest partway through the book, he doesn’t know what’s going on, but the reader does. You can look at this and say “he’s starting to do some of the same things Szeth was doing in the intro,” long before the text makes that explicit.

      Even in minor stories like Sixth of the Dusk, where the magic is much more subtle and low-key, we start out with Sixth in his canoe, worrying about ocean predators and relying on his magic birds to keep his mind hidden from theirs. The big outlier is Elantris, where we learn up-front that the Elantrians used to have big, powerful, impressive magic back before it all fell apart, but we’re a significant ways into the book before even hearing the term AonDor, much less learning anything about it. It’s hard to say whether this is because it was an earlier work and Brandon hadn’t found his “signature style” yet, or because, due to the nature of the story, there wasn’t a good opportunity at the start to show off how Elantrian magic worked.

  5. Amazing episode! But I’m surprised you didn’t mention the weirdest of weird: the bizarro fiction. I mean pick any Carlton Mellick III book and I can guarantee it’s the weirdest you have read. That’s the limit.

  6. And it’s the screenwriting foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard, tackling that whimsical question, “How Weird is Too Weird?” A.k.a., how do you balance the familiar and the strange in your storytelling. With a metaphor from sports, the foursome talked about worldbuilding with one bye, audience expectations, genre, and connecting weirdness. When it’s all in your budget, you can get away with weirdness, boring stretches, even challenging! Read all about it in the transcript, available now in the archives and over here:


  7. I feel like nothing can really be too weird. There are great examples of stories which completely destroy the idea of what should, or even could be a story. The Fraternity of Toast for example, or Soda Drinker Pro, or some of HP Lovecraft’s work, though that’s on the more doubtful side. Though the audience for the truly strange is a very particular one and would likely best serve self publishing rather then traditional.

    1. “Too weird” is the line between comprehensible and incomprehensible for the reader. It moves, but it’s there. For every example of successful-but-weird SFF we’re missing examples of unsuccessful-because-too-weird SFF—things that never made it out of (or even in to) the slush pile.

  8. Jasper Fforde is another one who gets away with tossing everything and the kitchen sink into his books, to the point that it’s generally better to assume that the world the characters live in is always different from reality. In his Thursday Next series alone, there’s cloning, time travel, cheese smuggling, an elevator through the center of the Earth, the Crimean War lasting until the 1980s, violations of geometry and physics, probability manipulation, vampires and other standard movie monsters, a national crisis with the surplus of stupidity that isn’t being spent, a denomination that is all the other religions combined, family members intermittently ceasing to exist—and this is all before you get into jumping inside works of literature and interacting with fictional people.

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