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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » How do you explain the supernatural?

   
Author Topic: How do you explain the supernatural?
Omega
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Well, in my most current writing endeavor, which is a Sci-Fi, I have a "power" as many Sci-fi/Fantasy stories do. With most SF, it tends to be things like Psionics or psychic powers, whereas with Fantasy its magic or something like that. The point of this thread is to talk about ways you explain (in writing) the mechanics behind your creation as well as providing a place for people to get tips from others in the discussion (because I for one have found it difficult in the past)

The main reason I'm posting this is because my book's powers are all based on realistic physics, so theoretically, it's all potentially realistic. This has me doing MASSIVE research on particle physics and cosmology, and while I'm going to do it anyways for fun, I don't know if I need to go into as much detail as these sources will. When should I draw the line? When should I explain things in a simple manner and when should I explain them in their complexity? Should I explain through dialogue or narration? I'm sure its all circumstantial but I figured its worth discussing ;D


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rstegman
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I am unpublished as of yet, but in my stories, I do things like the people with magic have an accumulation of a metal in their brains that is distributed in a way to accumulate and release surrounding energies that appears to be magic. Amplified psi power.

The story I used that best in, was where an alien installation designed to protect the planet from asteriods was leaking energies. The locals because of high nickle content in the food supplies, accumulates in their brains. The nickle interacts with the mind and the energies to create a magical effect, especially when the person is trained to do so.

One could also use imbedded chips interacting with energy projectors, One thinks of what needs to be done, and the projectors cause it to happen.

The real key is whether the character of your story knows and understand how it works. He could be using it and has no clue of the mechanism causing it. It could be coached in religious mumbo jumbo to hide the real way it works.


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dreadlord
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O.K, starting off: your power is mental, yes? then have it be something along the lines of people who are so smart that they can simply will something to happen and it will, or maybe they just have some genetic mutation. (it will take some research, but its JUST theoretically possible.)


in magic, its whatever you want it to be. in a story called Blue Adept, only specific people could use it, and even then each spell could only be used once. or you could go the Shannara path, where their are two magics: one "old", which was actually a science, and one "new", the actual magic.


just my thoughts.


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Omega
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well, HE doesn't know how it works but he is taught how it works. That's the real problem i guess, lol

EDIT: meh, I like to have a little bit more than just willing things into existance. It gives me something more to delve into and can even get me points for being unique (if it is (which i doubt))

[This message has been edited by Omega (edited February 27, 2009).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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One thing you might want to remember is that characters in stories don't need explanations for things they use all the time (just as we don't need explanations for cell phones or tvs).

So you have to find a reason for explaining something, and that can get tricky.

You may just want to let your characters take things for granted and not worry about explaining anything. Let your readers figure out how it works by what you show them in the story.


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Owasm
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I have a similar problem with a story I just started. I was going to go through an explanation in the story and while I was writing it I realized that this is significantly more detail that a reader will be interested in.

My solution will be writing a full explanation with as much boring detail as is necessary to document all the detail... then condense the explanation, distilling it down to the desired level. Doing it that way will give you the ability to have all the context you want on a document without burdening the reader with all of your research.


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JohnMac
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May I suggest a different line or research? Instead of looking at the science side, go look at those books that take such things happening for granted and explain them in their own way - the New Age section of the book store. This way you'll see their view on the universe and how it makes sense to those that say they have these power themselves. Furthermore, this makes sense to me because if I had such a power, I'd start there too and work my way out to the more "reasonable" sciences in time. Start easy and work out to the hard, so to speak.

Just my two cents.

John


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extrinsic
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Explaining a supernatural phenomena is dicey. Some writers do it so well that the explanation contributes dramatically to a story. One writer who I believe does wonders with psionic and psychic powers is Julian May in her Saga of the Pliocene Exile, Galactic Milieu, and Trillium series.

Some writers just treat a fantastical phenomena as a matter of fact and write around it without explanation. A wave of the hand representation when done well is still a slight-of-hand trick, but not necessarily disruptive. When done poorly is when this Turkey City Lexicon foible goes awry. Julian May establishes the phenomena of her novels' milieus by a small portion of explanation and a small portion of hand waving.

Supernatural phenomena that fit with human expectations are more often taken as given than technological fanatastical phenomena. Motifs of extraordinary inborn ability, metaphysical realms and capabilities and creatures, milieus derived from cultural consciousness, concepts from worship and belief practices, and the like, come prepackaged with acceptance. The challenge then is not to violate readers' preconceptions and beliefs. Bending mine a little, I find titillating.

I think that when explanation of any kind is essential that it's best combined with as many of the other narrative modes as possible without "dazzling prose or other verbal fireworks" to distract a reader with trickery. Explanation, summary, exposition, description, sensation, emotion, and introspection narrative modes combine in indivisible ways in narrative; however, how they combine to good effect can be investigated and determined.

For me, a necessary explanation is one that also contributes dramatically (causally, antagonistically, sympathetically, and/or suspensefully) to a story's plot movement. If the explanation doesn't contribute dramatically, it's probably superflouus.

Cite from Turkey City Lexicon http://www.sfwa.org/writing/turkeycity.html


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Omega
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these are all really great suggestions but I think I left a little bit of info out that might change some things.

the problem with me being able to just go "he did it" is because my book is set billions of years in the future where humans evolved a whole other brain lobe which grants them access to various abilities. And it's not just with some people, everyone can do it. So, there is a vast well of knowledge of how it works. I think you've hit on the head the idea of what I need to do.

And in this case, would it even be a supernatural phenomena considering everyone (age 21 and up) can do it and is common place in society? Granted the character obviously is unique but still


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satate
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I think your problem might be how to explain it without,

"Well, you know we all have two brain lobes."

"Of course, everyone was taught that from birth."

One idea is to have a historian point out how humans used have one one brain lobe. I'm sure there's lots of others. The trick is to make the historian and explanation relevant to the plot and story line.


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JohnMac
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Another lobe?

A way to work it all in?

Hrm...off the cuff I'd say have your main character have a close family member have the lobe damaged/removed for some reason accident/illness and have the doctor explain that the lose of the lobe means the abilities going away too. This would make the family memeber "abnormal" in the sense that he/she couldn't do what everyone else can do.

The fact that humans evolve this lobe and the abilities means the abilities are no longer "supernatural" merely natural - since they are not beyond the normal, on the whole, for the race. I don't see a need to explain the "why" people can do or even the "how" just set a series of reasonable limitations and stick to them. After all, it is normal for our kind then. Make these limitations seen by the reader, and be consistant.

Just my two cents.

-John

[This message has been edited by JohnMac (edited February 27, 2009).]


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extrinsic
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Julian May's sparse explanations in Pliocene Saga and Galactic Milieu both revolve around spontaneous selective evolution. To my mind, that's not inconceivably a product of ready reader acceptance of the imaginative likelihood, if not, due to wish fulfillment.

A challenge of futuristic narrative is identical to one of historical narrative's challenges, authentically interpreting a different time period from the present-day one for present-day audiences. Perhaps cliché from its simplemindedness, a recurring motif of fiction and a bias of any time is believing that people of the relatively remote past would find a present-day future unimaginably wonderous. One of the mainstays of fantastical genres controverts that trite motif by way of fait accompli, it happened, it's done. So that if everyone has a supernatural ability and takes it for granted might not need explanation, unless unraveling how it happened is relevant to the dramatic premise of the story.

No one believes that H.G Wells' time machine is real. The narrator doesn't explain how it came into being, yet the time machine motif is the imaginative premise upon which the story stands or falls.

For an example, assume that magical abilities are commonplace talents in today's real world; however, constant tapping of magic's energy reservoir by everyday absentminded wishful and magical thinking drains it away frivolously. Therefore, no one can practically practice magic anyway. Say that's been the case since legendary magical ability left the mundane realm thousands of years ago when the population was less than recent times. In a story, showing a way to husband magical energy for practical usage would demonstrate why it's possible without having to explain why. The method and practice of husbanding becomes the explanation without having to be explained. Hand waving, sure, but then it becomes accomplished fact as far as a story is concerned. Readers' ability to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy a story doesn't require any further explanation. I'd be inclined to show how the magic reservoir replenishes, which would further explain without explanation.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited February 27, 2009).]


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philocinemas
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Omega, I have not read up on this enough, in this specific area, to give you a fully informed argument. However, I would guess there would be some evolutionary requirements for what you are suggesting.

First, people will have to be larger. It takes a larger opening for a larger head to exit it. Or embryos will grow in tanks instead of a mother's womb. Either way, larger heads would require larger necks and stronger spinal columns (so, most likely larger people).

Second, I question how an extra lobe would form (I would imagine our current lobes would just grow larger). However, if that's the direction you desire, I'm betting it would start as a neural membrane surrounding the brain and would begin as a "birth defect". To form and be successful in the gene pool it would have to give the first children an advantage, other than it's hydrocephalic appearance. Let's say it allows them to have a sharper awareness of subtleties (and the elements of precision and chance). Eventually, having the membrane (named after the doctor who originally discovered it) would be a business advantage. Prospects of wealth would drive the evolutionary wheel.

Third, I would imagine gene manipulation would eventually make it commonplace as people would strive to compete with the "big brains". This could cause the membrane to form into an additional lobe. Of course, gene manipulation could be how the whole thing starts from the beginning, but I still believe the larger bodies would be necessary.

Finally, the new lobe would have to be able to somehow assess and access the quantum world and understand and predict elements of uncertainty and learn how to manipulate matter.

Hope this helps.


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Omega
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once again, good points all around.

I think though that I should just explain it more specifically so as to get the advice. Alright, so like I said, the ability evolved and everyone has it. BUT, from birth to age 21 the ability is inhibited and they aren't taught about it so that when they get the "inhibitor" removed, they can be taught without any misconceptions. Obviously they pick things up by observing adults, but they don't really know how it works or how to use it (hence the teaching turning 21).

I guess the best way to explain it would be like getting a drivers license. Sure, when we were younger, we saw our parents drive and new the motions but not how to do it or what certain things in the car really do. Then, once you can get your license, you learn how with classes. It's similar with my situation. In my book, I planned on having a chapter or so where I have my character introduced and begin training so that I can lay out the details. Then, instead of going through the complicated process of him actually learning, I'll just skip ahead when he knows how (won't be too long) and then move on with the story. Sound alright?

EDIT: @ philocinemas you know, I never really thought of that o.o I guess that was just my "time machine" that I never explained. The book takes place billions of years after this evolution took place so it's coming isn't really delved into in THIS book (probably will have to later). I suppose that the lobe could be small or people are just larger. I'm not huge on specific descriptions so I can go without mentioning people are now 7 feet tall on average with larger heads since it would be normal.

As far as the quantum mechanics aspect, it doesn't really get into that. It's more about manipulation of kinetic energy to start with. But, like some people said, the lobe CAN do that without me having to say so, right? It's just implied. Plus, this society is at the point where they pretty much understand everything about the universe. Well, select people do anyways.

[This message has been edited by Omega (edited February 28, 2009).]


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JohnMac
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I like the idea - but -

(oh that dreaded word)

1) If you're giving us (the reader) all this back story I must ask "Is it necessary?" Can the story be told with fill-ins and flash backs? Must we follow the character through his life like we're reading Dickens?

2) At which point does the first scene happen that actually have an impact on the story?

I'm not trying to cut your wonderful idea to shreds, but we as writers must remember that as much time as we may put into developing a world and character - the readers don't need to know everything - and a great deal of them are not interested in knowing everything we know about the world or the character(s) unless it relates directly to the plot.

You're up to six cents now...

-John


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Omega
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Well I'd say that the exposition ends a little while before the training, things start to get interesting, things are foreshadowed, and then after the training the action takes off. For once it's a little slow to start but I feel like I have to build the characters and set things up before I can start things off. This isn't the kind of world where you can just launch into the action like that since the world is so "static". It's sorta hard to explain I guess...does that make any sense?

and as far as the change goes, I appreciate it ;D maybe someday I'll even get a whole dime :O

EDIT: As far as being like Dickens goes, I hope I don't end up like him o.o (not a big dickens fan haha). We don't really go through his life or anything, just a day or two before the action starts.

[This message has been edited by Omega (edited February 28, 2009).]


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JohnMac
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I can understand and relate to the plan you lay out here. I'm not going to argue hooks, character development, world building, and plots here - every author has his own way of dealing with such things.

I spot you the next four cents.


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Omega
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appreciated

and I enjoyed the discussion. I've never had other knowledgeable authors to talk this stuff out with. I love hatrack forums...


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extrinsic
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Several conventions characterize a milieu-oriented story. In summary, the dramatic action of such a story follows a character's unraveling of a fantastical and elaborate world, for survival's sake. The challenges that the world presents cause setbacks and pose obstacles to be overcome. Eventually, the character achieves some sort of sanctuary resulting from lessons learned on the journey.

Other basic conventions, an idea-oriented story poses a question wanting for an answer, what if, what happened, why did it happen, or who did it, etc., a murder mystery for example, a Who Done It. A character oriented-story is about a dissastisfied person seeking an improvement in condition. An event-oriented story is when something is not right with the world and is wanting for correction. Knowing what kind of story the novel will be influences how much and when explanation of the milieu is needed.

The dramatic premise of a story influences which MICE convention is preeminent.

Mr. Card's two writing tomes go into more detail on the concepts and conventions of MICE, milieu, idea, character, event: Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited February 28, 2009).]


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wetwilly
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I don't know if there is a right or wrong answer about how much detail to go into in your explanation. Different people enjoy different levels of detail. Personally, I get bored when an author goes into a bunch of explanation about how a power or something in his/her works. I don't care; for me it's enough to know that it does work, and what's interesting to me is how people in the story will react to it. My current WIP has a guy with supernatural healing powers that just pop up one day, and I never offer a word of explanation. I find those types of explanations annoying. They're boring, and if it's a truly supernatural phenomenon, nobody in the world is going to know how it works anyway. That's the nature of the supernatural.

On the other hand, there are certainly people who would find it annoying if you don't offer an explanation, or enough of one. Damned (by some) if you do, damned (by others) if you don't. That;s how I see it.


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TaleSpinner
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My answer to the question is rather like Kathleen's -- how much explanation do the characters in the story need? This much and no more is what's necessary.

So if one of the characters is a theoretical bio-physicist who has proved that the abilities with which your characters are endowed aren't possible, more explanations might be necessary than without such a character.

Let's not forget, most people use mobile phones and computers having no idea of how they work. Who needs explanations of computers, internal combustion engines and nuclear fission in order to understand "The Spy Who Loved Me"?

(Furthermore, many stories involve love. Who can explain love?!)

However, with speculative science I share your thirst for wide-ranging research because, with a deeper understanding of scientifically plausible possibilities, I feel more confident the story will feel believable, both to a "common woman" and to one who understands the science and its possible futures.

An author who feels confident will more easily attract willing suspension of disbelief than one who does not; confidence is attractive.


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Omega
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and that's exactly why I'm doing so much research (plus it's fun! Although particle physics is proving to be a lot to take in over a few days without someone to teach you the concepts @.@)

Still, the main reason i do the research is to make sure that while the device that causes is impossible (right now), the manipulation of reality it allows is based upon real scientific properties.

For example, if a character wants to dissolve a persons body, they would have to break apart the bonds holding their molecules or atoms together. Then, because my research has taught me the strong force holding things together is immensely strong, I know that if my character does something like that, it takes tremendous energy and will probably exhaust him. The reader doesn't need to know all the details, but I do to write it.


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JohnMac
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If you are going in that direction, might I also direct you to a book OSC swears by for the characters (which are awesome and one has some serious psychobiomutative abilities):

The Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

It might give you a practical way to explain the way they know what they can or can't do as one of the main characters in that book explains it to us as we read - about trial and error and nearly killing herself. But I'll disclose no more, you just have to read that awesome book!

And going back to the New Age section of the book store - many of the books there also give a more practical rather than in depth physics look at how they believe psy skills and the universe works. I know I'm pounding my dead horse, but I had to bring it up again.

My two bits

-John


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steffenwolf
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"For example, if a character wants to dissolve a persons body, they would have to break apart the bonds holding their molecules or atoms together. Then, because my research has taught me the strong force holding things together is immensely strong, I know that if my character does something like that, it takes tremendous energy and will probably exhaust him. The reader doesn't need to know all the details, but I do to write it."

That sounds like a lot of work just to kill somebody, when human bodies are so fragile. Just a localized dissolving, or even a heating or a puncture, involving a major organ could easily do someone in. Disposing of a body to get rid of evidence might require the more gargantuan effort of doing this to the whole body.


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