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Tell Me A Story: When does the Disbelief Get Too Heavy to Suspend?

Monday, March 12th, 2018 | Posted by Elizabeth Cady

Tell Me a Story-smallI’m going to pause in my Podcast ramblings to ask a question: When does inaccuracy pull you out of the story?

I have unusual parameters on that one. I’m a Classicist by training, which means I know far more than is healthy about the Roman Empire and Greek Civilization ca 100 BCE. But I can usually set it aside, especially for movies. “Gladiator” remains one of my all time favorites. My first piece of writing for Black Gate was a review of Clash of the Titans, and I had good things about to say about both versions!

In other words, my expectations on historical accuracy are low, especially when the movie is going for “fun”. The more seriously it takes itself, the more likely I am to give it hell for screwing up. If you want to see me apoplectic, as me about The DaVinci Code.

On the other hand, some things drive me up the wall. For example, I was recently re-listening to Blood Rites, book six of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

Anyone who lives in Chicago is already nodding.

Butcher originally wanted to set his story in another city, the story goes, and his publishers required him to set it somewhere better known. He picked Chicago, despite not knowing the city at all. Which isn’t a problem for the most part.

Until you get to a scene at the climax of Blood Rites in which an important even takes place at Wrigley Field. It’s after dark, late in the evening. And Harry Dresden stops to remark how eerie the whole place is. The giant, empty, acres-wide parking lot. The silence. The ghostly nature of a place made to be full when it is completely empty.

That sound you just heard was the needle scratching across my mental track.

Now I understand why Butcher made this mistake. Most cities have major arenas slightly outside the city center, where you have room for parking, hotels, and the associated traffic. But Wrigley, a historical landmark in Chicago, is completely different.

Because this is a view of Wrigley from the outside.

7-27 Wrigley field. Chicago Cubs Players parking lot on the West side of the ball park along Clark Street. Shot from the roof of the Cubby Bear Bar. Sun-Times photo Robert A. Davis

Wrigley field. Chicago Cubs Players parking lot on the West side of the ball park along
Clark Street. Shot from the roof of the Cubby Bear Bar. Sun-Times photo Robert A. Davis

There’s no parking lot. There’s no parking. It’s on a street corner. In one of the busiest neighborhoods in town. It wouldn’t be quiet at 11 pm. It wouldn’t be quiet at 3 am. It’s a loud, bustling, 24 hour a day corner next to some of the most popular bars in Chicago.

I shook it off, I got back into the story, I still LOVE Dresden. Especially when read by James Marsters. And for anyone not in the upper Midwest, it probably flies right by without notice. In fact, when I mentioned to someone that the books are notoriously off on geography, they scoffed at the idea it was a problem.

“There are no Red Court vampires in the city, either,” they said.

(That’s what they want you to believe.)

But it got me wondering. What knocks you out of a story? Fight mechanics? Erroneous poison details? Gross historical errors? And when can you ignore it? Why can I overlook Trolls on Michigan Ave but not the addition of a parking lot?


  1. In an episode of Star Trek:Enterprise, an alien gave Ensign Sato, the ship’s linguist, a printed book in a dead language she had never seen before. Later, she commented that she’d made good progress in reading it, apparently without the aid of a universal translator or comparison to any language she knew.

    I found that unbelievable, even in Star Trek where most aliens speak English. Linguistics just doesn’t work that way.

    Comment by Jeremy Erman - March 12, 2018 11:53 pm

  2. What I just can’t accept is when a story, purely as a gimick, mentions some point in the later parts that this fantasy world is actually Earth in the distant future. Which for some reason has magic.
    In a work where magic has always existed on Earth I can kind of live with it, though I am not a fan of urban fantasy. But magic coming back because of an apocalypse, that just doesn’t work for me. And most of the time, it’s completely irrelevant to the story. None of the characters know and it has no impact on the plot. It’s just a gimick.

    Comment by Martin Kallies - March 13, 2018 1:36 am

  3. It’s internal consistency for me. If the protagonist is left-handed in chapter one and right-handed in chapter eleven, there ought to be a damn good reason for it, like they fell though the Rhennius Machine or something.

    Comment by James Enge - March 13, 2018 1:53 am

  4. That’s incredible — thinking there’s a parking lot by Wrigley!

    Comment by Rich Horton - March 13, 2018 10:11 am

  5. For me, well, I’m sure there are a lot, but one specific one that really bugs me is when, in an SF story, the writers obviously have no idea how big space really is.

    Comment by Joe H. - March 13, 2018 11:31 am

  6. There’s differing levels of “Suspension of Disbelief” and they vary by region and interest. IMO C.S. Lewis would not be published by “Christian Fiction” today for speculating about other worlds even in a multiverse with the same creator. The real barrier is publishing and distribution, now with the internet offering a niche beyond that huge wall.

    But for the story itself – well I think the rule and the exception lies in the classic “On Thud and Blunder” by Poul Anderson… “Gnorts the Barbarian wielded his 50lb sword…” I like that essay but should hate it as it made 99% of all “How to write fantasy/scifi guides” being that essay ballooned into a book – on keeping the ‘real’ elements so you can explain things and be consistent – but not about how to write beyond that.

    First – yes, research can be important – bad research can hurt good writing and surely condemn mediocre writing. Sword and Sorcery was in no small part invented because Robert E. Howard loved to write “Historical Fiction” BUT he was in a remote, isolated town and he was at a time when lots of history was being discovered so even a “History professor in a big city college” would shoot himself in the foot writing an ‘accurate’ novel but then something gets dug up a week later… “It was Caligula’s CAT!?”, “We REALLY found Troy, Pompei!?”

    On the other hand – the story is king.
    Is . it . a . good . story . ???

    Cases in point:

    Star Wars
    Star Trek

    Star Wars – (uh, no such thing anymore, let’s just focus original trilogy) – from any “Scientific” standpoint it’s not that its impossible but rather implausible – it would have to be a retrograde level 4 civ pretending to be a level 3 – or something like a computer simulation in a black hole farming end of the universe far future. This is even by the tech of the day. For storytelling not original either – Mr. Lucas was kinda scared he’d be sued by whoever fed off the corpse of E. E. “Doc” Smith… But – so what – the stories captured generations. Even now with him sold out and the Hauz uf Mauz chewing up and excreting some product with the name slapped on its still selling.

    Dune – even more implausible. Heart plugs wouldn’t work. Stilsuits would cook you. The rest is Bolognium powered by Magic… Yet, I’d better beware lest some guy wearing blue full cover contacts stab me if I’m ever at a convention and get recognized…and I’ll say that to praise Dune to recognize the storytelling power. For instance, check out Jorodowsky/Mobius the “Incal” storyline. It was inspired by the best film never made…Sweet Jeebuz they should have made it… Just from a failed movie attempt inspired a lifetime of another scifi universe.

    Star Trek – again, afraid a bunch of people wearing Spock ears will clobber me after they get done with the yearly burning William Shatner in effigy over that ancient “Get a Life” joke. Star Trek is actually far more plausible – right up to the “Warp Drive” which would actually work since Space/Time itself has proven it not only can but does move much faster than light. And I’m more friendly to “Humanoid ETs” that people seem allergic to – though really they had a shoestring, give ‘em a break…

    But – the “Transporter” – biggest piece of “Bolognium” in science fiction – ahead of even stuff from DUNE. It was actually meant to be a drama thing, for normal only transporting non-living matter – but the crew doing shuttlecraft were smokin’ weed (allegedly) and didn’t finish in time so Rodenburry re-wrote the episode to use the Transporter and just went with it… The only thing I like about the “new” Star Trek is in another plot flop they essentially proved that if you have a working transporter you don’t need a starship – though original Star Trek had that too…

    But – these stories are all wonderful with fanatic followings even decades after publications.

    It’s needed to have internal consistency – and reasonable to good research for anything real, modern or historical – hence “Thud and Blunder” – BUT – too much has been wasted as if this was the beginning and end.

    I hate as much as modern P.C./SJW pandering all the works that I can almost tell were done with “RPG Generator” software you can find online and a lot of typing to fill pages for a surface only story as thin as the cardstock cover. Beyond whatever quest, space empire, orcs, ray-guns whatever makes the world – what is the story? The theme? The mood? The layers of meaning?

    Comment by GreenGestalt - March 13, 2018 3:17 pm

  7. Sci-fi writers should never use numbers. I can’t think of any case where a number didn’t feel ridiculously off.

    I think it comes from a shared assumption that the massive statistical outliers in growth in the 19th and 20th had to be extended into the future by making any development exponential for eternity.

    Those millions of colonies with trillions of people on them… Where do all these people from when fully industrialized societies consistently have negative population growth with immigration? Why are people in high tech utopias suddenly have 4 to 5 children?

    Almost every time you can just completely ignore any numbers that are stated, but then it becomes a disappointed suspension of disbelieve. It’s not okay, but you have to endure it.

    Comment by Martin Kallies - March 13, 2018 4:26 pm

  8. I had this experience with Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, which inexplicably portrays Co-op City — a large housing development in the northeast Bronx where I grew up, and which I still visit every few weeks — as a rubble-strewn urban battleground of poverty and desperate hustling. It’s nothing of the kind.

    Comment by FredH - March 13, 2018 5:47 pm

  9. Not strictly on topic, but re-reading books of yesteryear is always good for a laugh, cyber-punk especially, and particularly in regard to the internet – I’m guessing because they were speculating about the near future?

    In Gibson’s Neuromancer, there’s one scene where a whole rack of public-access phones all start ringing at the same time – one of the AIs making its presence felt. Yeah, right. I remember leaving my cell phone in work one evening and scouring Dublin for a phone booth. In Sterling’s ‘Islands in the Net’, somebody ends up with crucial footage that they want to release to the public, but how? In the name of God how? (YouTube, dude, to cite just one of many possibilities). Finally, somebody recommended Delaney’s ‘DriftGlass’ on this site a while back. In the first story, the mc – a guy who services spaceships in a remote part of the galaxy – goes down regularly to collect his mail. In fairness to Delaney, the story was written in1965, long before the rise of the internet.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - March 14, 2018 8:24 am

  10. Let me add that “Suspension of Disbelief” has an odd catch-22 – reality itself can “Trump” it, so to speak. The current world we live in, changing with the arrow of time, has its own expectations about what is right and wrong and these change over times. But events in reality can and do things that even the most wild of fantasy or far out of science fiction wouldn’t dare try to sell…

    I’d argue we are in a world of “Bad Science Fiction”.

    9-11 wouldn’t have been accepted by any scifi publisher – “Uh, how did the Terrorists sneak a Nuke…?” – “That many operatives with terrorist ties and no longer legal right to be in the USA, why weren’t they just deported weeks or months before…”, “The investigation to who should be hung out to dry for all the loose ends was stopped from the President’s desk – just before it reached it – and no mass rioting?” – “Uh, that Bohemian grove angle is halfway decent … uh, the elites just party there but they already rule the world, slowly driving it into the ground with short-sighted greed, it’s just a party place… boring…pass”

    Frankly, they used to bash science fiction (still do) in not predicting “The Internet” or – to give a nod to Aonghus – its full impact… H.G. Wells “The Sleeper Wakes” essentially had NETFLIX. It’s just what do you want to write about and what do readers want to read about – Zapp Ray-Gunn shooting rioting inferior Venusians to prove that the Earthman purchased the planet fair and square and they can use the rear entrance to any human building going forward – or people posting “Pony” rule 34 stuff on a .chan board at 4AM?

    When something predicts the future legit, it is like classical Cassandra rejected in its time. A neat book “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” is about the economic decline of America and scarily on track. BUT – it was hated at the time it came out and dismissed in the first part – the plot device showing an upper middle class girl getting poor so there’d be something the reader could identify with. She was poor because her dad was a “Movie Scriptwriter” and they stopped making new movies, just kept re-releasing classics because they were terrified of any loss, any risk…

    Well, what do we have now? One Re-Make after another. The thing that ‘Trumps’ fiction by reality clobber is that they spend far more than making the original, just make sure there’s nothing new really added, just ‘re-boot’ the story. And if it flops they do it again and again, due to tax breaks able to bet on a slow slide and make a profit.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - March 14, 2018 2:48 pm

  11. The blasted post-industrial wasteland of Hyde Park? The home mailbox standing out on the street in Lincoln Square? Yes, I’ve had to work my way around those things too.

    Comment by Phubarrh - March 15, 2018 10:58 am

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