Writing Excuses 14.7: How Weird Is Too Weird?
Key Points: How do you balance the familiar and the strange in your storytelling? Typically, you get one bye, you can ask the audience to believe on big thing. Everything else has to follow from that. Beware of “Oh, it’s magic” so anything goes. This depends on the expectations of the audience, and the genre you are writing. But even serial urban fantasy has one major shift, not anything and everything. Make sure the audience knows where they are and what they are doing. Sometimes the worldbuilding is too weird the first time, but re-reading is okay, because now you know something about what is going on. Sometimes you can do more weird things by connecting them to the first bye. Think of a budget — weirdness, boring, anything that challenges the reader, they all draw on your budget. Too much, and you lose the reader. Learning curve… add weirdness slowly, building off other weirdness.
[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode Seven.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Weird Is Too Weird?
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Margaret] I’m Margaret.
[Howard] My friends used to call me How Weird.
[Ooh! Garbled… Starting this podcast]
[Howard] Yeah. How Weird is too weird. Just…
[Brandon] Oh, no. Sorry. No.
[Howard] That was like fourth grade.
[Howard] And junior high.
[Brandon] Well, let’s… We’re going to theme this again. This is our year of worldbuilding. So we’re talking about how weird is too weird, specifically in our worldbuilding. Let me just ask, how do you, and I kind of want to bounce this off Margaret first, because she’s the one we’ve heard the least from regarding these topics. How do you balance the familiar and the strange in your storytelling?
[Margaret] Well, it depends to a certain extent on the media that I’m working on for that particular project. But in television, one of the rules of thumb that I sort of inherited from my training in my experience is the idea that you get one bye. Like early on, you’re setting up, the beginning of your film or the pilot episode of your show, and you get to ask the audience to believe one big thing. Everything else has to sort of follow on from that. A show that… I mean, an exciting example of a show that no one has seen because it never actually turned into a TV show, but I was working on a show called Day One for NBC. The bye for that was these giant alien monoliths suddenly erupt out of population centers all over the Earth. This is the vanguard of an alien invasion. It would have been a really cool show. But that’s the one thing we get. We don’t get that and armies of flying elephants and dolphins can now talk. Like, you get the one thing. Past that, everything either has to come from those monoliths and the alien invasion, or it’s got to be rooted in the familiar world that the audience is already going to be familiar with.
[Brandon] That’s very interesting.
[Howard] There’s a flipside to that coin that gets cited a lot by apologists and whiners of all flavors. That’s, “Oh, you can believe in a universe that has dragons, but you can’t believe in a sword that cuts through a horseshoe?” Well, you didn’t say it was a magic sword. A sword can’t cut through a horseshoe. I will totally believe in dragons, because they gave me… That was their one bye. If they want to tell me that dragons cut through horseshoes, that’s fine, I can probably absorb that, and say that their one bye is magic exists and that includes creatures. But you have to pay attention to this. You don’t just get… You don’t just get to throw these things down because, oh, hey, it’s magic.
[Brandon] So let me ask you, Margaret, do you take that same perspective on fiction? The one bye? Or would you kind of say that’s a short form, television thing?
[Margaret] I think it depends a lot on the expectations of your audience, and the genre that you’re writing in. When I’m working on Bookburners, this is very much designed to be in the vein of something like X-Files or Warehouse 13. It’s that urban fantasy sort of set up. So the assumption is that the world works basically the way that we assume that it does, but also there is this encroaching magical force that is coming into the world that causes this. We don’t get that and the major power… And the Vatican doesn’t exist. You can only shift around so many things before it starts to feel arbitrary. What you want to do is make sure that you’re setting your audience up in a way that they know where they’re standing and what they’re doing.
[Mary Robinette] I think that’s a really good point. As you were talking, I was thinking about China Mieville. Like, with the new weird movement, the basic bye is stuff is going to be weird. We’re going to have women whose heads are bugs. Not the head of a bug, but their head is a bug. But gravity works the way gravity works. Electricity works the way electricity works. So if China were attempting to do stuff is going to be weird, I’m not going to explain the physiognomy of any of these creatures. But and also gravity doesn’t work the way you think it does. That would be two byes. So I think that you can do kind of a blanket bye in terms of this is sort of a genre expectation thing.
[Brandon] Right. Say, I’m thinking of like Hitchhiker’s, right? Where the… There is not one bye. The bye is nothing will make sense, but it will be funny. But I do think genre expectations are a big deal here, right? When you write… You pick up an epic fantasy that’s a 1000 pages long, it’s secondary world, you are going on board for I’m going to get a lot of worldbuilding. When you sit down to watch a new show that’s been pitched to you as a science-fiction thriller with a singular hook premise, you want that premise to be the focus of the show, not and then this other thing.
[Howard] You brought up Hitchhiker’s… I assume you’re talking about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes. So much weird. The reason they get away with it is that the narrative voice would take some of the weirdest… Hey, boy, this came at you from left field. I’m going to now use this… Use the opportunity to explain it, as an opportunity to be funny and to satirize something you didn’t see coming. So as that extreme weirdness happens, the voice sells it in service of something else. I think that’s where I draw the line.
[Brandon] The voice is the familiar.
[Howard] You want to make it weird…
[Brandon] In the Hitchhiker’s Guide.
[Howard] The voice is the familiar.
[Margaret] You, as the reader, have a literal guidebook to all of the strange stuff that is going on in those books.
[Mary Robinette] Plus, the point of Hitchhiker’s is that you are Arthur Dent. So the expectation that has been thrown down is everything is just going to seem strange.
[Brandon] Everybody else gets this but you. That’s kind of the joke.
[Brandon] Let me ask this, then. Have you guys experienced media or read books or stuff where the worldbuilding was too outlandish for you? That it was hard for you to get into?
[Howard] Yes. I’m going to apologize for it, because I loved it anyway. Iain Banks, Look to Windward. The opening sequence is a war, battle thing, in which we are just immersed in the POV of an alien who is essentially a six-legged giant ferret. He never says, “These are six-legged giant ferrets.” I never get all at once a description to tell me where I am. I read the first chapter and was lost as to who I was until I got to the end and thought… Oh, I was actually kind of disappointed. Oh, these aren’t people. This had felt very human. Then I read it again. Reading it again, I was fine. I felt like I was the target audience for this. I was absolutely the target audience for any Iain Banks’ novel. But that first chapter was too weird on first reading. Iain Banks… His one bye for me is if you have to read it again, read it again, this is going to be fine. You’re going to love this. It’s going to be okay.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which, Mary, you’re going to give to us.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. So, this is The Nine by Tracy Townsend. Which is, for me, right on the edge of too weird, but in ways that are… I, like, finished the book and have been recommending it quite a bit. It’s… It feels like London, and it feels like a steam punk London, but there are these other creatures that are going through. It’s a… It’s taking advantage of the many worlds theory, so it’s a version of our London, but definitely on a different world, and there are these creatures that have their eyes in their feet.
[Brandon] That’s different.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. And, so there’s all of this very solid worldbuilding that goes from that single premise. But my brain is like, “Why would that evolve?” Like, and then trying to picture it, and trying to understand how it all works. So they tend to be arboreal, they do a lot of moving through trees. They have ferocious teeth, but they have no eyes in their head. Their eyes are in their feet. It is… It’s… For me, like, I think one of the lines for me on the weird factor is how much time I spend trying to picture it in my head and if that’s going to throw me out of the story. Now I pitch this is a book of the week because I think it’s a gre… Terrific heist novel. It’s got great character building. The steam punk makes sense. Frequently, when I read steam punk, it’s like, this does not… Why… None of this makes sense. There’s so much to love about this book. But if you are looking for something that is like, “All right, things are going to get weird,” the nonhuman races in this world are weird. There’s also tree people who are… Will shave their bodies, plane their bodies to take on specific shapes in order to cater to humans. It’s like… There’s so much stuff in this book. It’s just filled with “Whaaat?” There’s a ton of that. But mostly the reason you read it is because great characterization. And just a thrilling heist novel.
[Brandon] Awesome. That was The Nine.
[Mary Robinette] By Tracy Townsend.
[Brandon] So tell me this. Mary, when you’re working on short fiction, how do you budget your weirdness?
[Mary Robinette] So. The… It’s actually surprisingly like television in that you do pretty much get the one bye, you get the one thing that is this is weird. Mostly because everything that you put on the page, you have to spend words on to explain to the reader. So when I’m trying to get the reader to understand something, I know that it’s going to throw them out of the story. Proportionally, that’s going to take more of the narrative than it would in a novel. Even the same number of words. So I tend to also do one bye for short fiction. Usually, the short story is something that is exploring that one idea.
[Brandon] Something Margaret said earlier really kind of hit with me. We will have a podcast later in the year about how to make a story have worldbuilding depth rather than just breadth, which is the idea of taking a concept and digging deep into it. You said earlier this monolith story that you were working on. The idea being that you get your one bye as the monolith, but that doesn’t mean that has to be the only weird thing. You are just going to connect any other interesting science fiction/fantasy elements through the monoliths.
[Margaret] Right, right. The idea in this series, and I think I can safely talk about what we might have done had this been a thing. My apologies, Jesse Alexander, if I’m spilling anything here. But in the pilot episode, there are these giant monoliths. Everybody is dealing with the fact that these things have erupted out of the ground. After that, other strange things start to happen. But it kind of comes at you one at a time. I think that speaks to what Mary was talking about on the short story. The idea of that subjective line of how weird is too weird… When you lose your audience, it’s too weird. Anything up to that point, not too weird. When I started in film school, one of the things they told us was that the only firm rule of screenwriting is that you can’t be too boring for too long.
[Brandon] Try to cut the boring stuff.
[Howard] That’s a really good rule for everything.
[Brandon] I thought about this a lot when I’ve been teaching my class. I’ve said to my students, worldbuilding is the place where you generally are given more leeway. If you can keep your characters relatable, it doesn’t matter how weird it gets as long as that character remains familiar. Now, sometimes, that character you want to be part of the weird, and then you’re going to do other things to ground us. I really like what we’ve come up with with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thing, where the guy is the normal, and everything else can be a little weird, or a lot weird.
[Howard] I… I’m thinking about this in terms of budget. Let me give you an analog… Or analogy. The concept of social capital. People will often ask me, “Oh, will you plug my Kickstarter?” Well, I have a limited amount of social capital. If I plug your Kickstarter, then I’m digging myself into a hole when the time comes to plug mine. As you are writing, as you are introducing weird things, as you are spending time on exposition, but it really needs to be exposed. As you are spending time on navelgazing, but you really want to dig into this emotion. All of these things are coming out of a budget. I don’t know how exactly readers quantify the budget as they are reading, or television viewers quantify that budget, but if you think about it as a budget, you are doing a thing that is challenging the reader, and if you go too far, you lose them. Boring is challenging. Because a slog is challenging. How weird is too weird? When you’ve gone over budget, it’s too weird.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would rely a lot on your beta readers, on early looks at things. Also, I think learning curve… We haven’t even touched on in this, but I do think if you add your weirdness on slowly, building off of other weirdness, then you have things that feel perfectly normal by the end, that if you would have thrown it at the reader in the first chapter, you would have been in trouble.
[Brandon] We’re going to do our homework. Margaret, you’ve got our homework this time.
[Margaret] Yes. The homework today is to… Well, your homework today, if you choose to accept it. Take a project that you are working on. Figure out what your one bye is. Can you narrow it down to one science fictional or fantastical element that is the core to the story you are telling, and have everything flow from that?
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.