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Separating the exotic and the strange

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Yora, Dec 17, 2019.

  1. Yora

    Yora Maester

    I am a huge fan of worlds that have cool alien features, like people riding on great reptiles, mushrooms the size of trees, big glowing insects, and so on.
    I also really like stories that are journeys into increasingly stranger and more dangerous underworlds.

    The problem is that the former is working contradictory to the later. When the normal everyday world is already full of strange sights, it's difficult to create a visible contrast with weird supernatural realms. Readers are more likely to not notice the difference or not understand why characters react very diferent to things that seem equally new.

    I am so married to my dinosaur forests and mushroom forests that when in doubt, I will stick with those and rather have a less weird supernatural story. But I still kind of want to have both, at least to the degree that it's possible.

    What can I do with the exoticness of the everyday setting to have it interfere less with the strangeness of the truly supernatural?

    I think for a start, it might be a good idea to keep the exotic elements relatively mundane in their biology and physical appearance. Dinosaurs are an unexpected sight in a human civilization, but we can understand the, as big animals like elephants or tigers. A mushroom tree is something you don't see in reality, but we all know mushrooms and we all know trees as something boringly ordinary. I think mabe people would get used to these being ordinary things very quickly.
    And in turn I might keep the fields of glowing moss and mushrooms and huge swarms of glowing insects for scenes that are set in the fully supernatural world. The same thing with talking nonhuman creatures. A dino-horse would be just likena horse, but a talking snake would only be in the supernatural realm.
    But I am not sure how far that would actually hold.
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    My book, Into the Second World, does this. The surface world is fantasy, but it's a steam punk type world. By chapter one the reader has already seen a gnome, an ogre, and a dwarf, along with a railroad that runs on magic steam. We don't spend much time there, but it establishes one sort of thing. In the Second World, it's entirely different. Two kinds of different, really.

    Anyway, I'd say you're on the right track. Create one set of expectations over here. The reader thinks oh, that's weird and there's a monster and ok we have wizards, etc. Whenever you move over to your underworld, it's dinosaurs!

    And of course, the best way to create the right reader response is to create the right character response. They need to be amazed. Or, if they already know about this stuff, they can still have a sense of wonder because it's the first time they've seen it with their own eyes. And then the amazing thing is chasing them and trying to eat them. :)
  3. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    While setting is important (and has to be consistent and make sense within its own rules), I wouldn't agonise too much.

    For me the story will always be the key, so give the setting only so much attention as is needed to tell your story. Everything else is distraction.
  4. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage

    From the book Writing Wonder by David Farland:
    The book then talks about moving from a negative emotional state to a positive, and contrariwise, to heighten the wonder-effect. For example, in Hans and Gretel, the two children are lost in the woods (negative). Then they find a house made of candy (positive). Then they're captured by a cannibalistic witch (negative). This particular mechanic was also used in Pinocchio, Spirited Away and Pans Labyrinth. Beware of free meals!

    One must compose the wonderous stuff. Don't just dump dragons on the reader without any emotional contrast.

    Realistic details can help ground your wounders, so the suspension of disbelief come along a little easier. What happens with a mushroom tree when it dies? Does it suffer from pests, maybe fungus? What is their life cycle?

    Bizarro literature is known to throw in truckloads of weird. I have the feeling that bizarro often feature protagonists who are more raw and relatable than what's seen in other fantasy genres, to ground the craziness.

    This bit is from the blurb of The Cannibals of Candy Land by Carlton Mellick III:
    Plenty of other weird stuff going down too, but mentioning that would be spoilerish. Bu the story's fantastic elements are contrasted with a lot of very human situations. Like the protagonist refusing to buy a gun, because it was the same model Hitler used. Or his bad relationship with his wives.

    The novel Wall of Kiss by Gina Ranalli is about a romance between a woman and a wall. The silly premise is kept grounded by the personal realistic portrait of the main character.

    I strive to make my heroes as flesh-and-blood as humanly possible. Like, the healer only honed her gift by testing it on numerous unlucky critters, and she's insecure and addicted to goatsight. I hope that if the people in my story feels true and believable, then this will make the reader accept the rest of the universe too. If the heroes' feelings regarding the elves seem true, then the existence of elves is a given.
  5. Yora

    Yora Maester

    As an alternative for the contrast between the strange and the mundane, the opposition of the harmless and the overwhelmingly dangerous might be an option.

    Flying lizards that glow in the dark are certainly strange and new, but they don't have to be perceived as a threat by characters. The characters can say "I know what this is, I can handle it." When new elements are introduced readers can't tell immediately if its mundane or extraordinary, but the characters can immediately tell us "I don't know what this is and the things that I do don't affect it."

    I think that might actually be how Star Wars approaches that. The mynocks flying around inside the asteroid scare Leia at first, but Han knows what they are and isn't worried. The space slug is a completely different number and has Han flee in panic.
    Also Jabba is treated just like a person and nobody bats an eye. The rencor, that is just in the next room, is treated as a terrifying monster.

    Saying that things have the wrong color, shape, or position can be an effective tool to hint that something ominous is going on without immefiately telling the reader that it's important. But there is a wide range of other tools to create suspense.

    I think I originally heard the advice to keep the mundane and the strange clearly separated in the context of fantasy games. And that is a rather different situation because you can only tell the players what the characters see and hear, but not what they think. The feeling that something is wrong has to originate in the minds of the players. When you write a story, you also write the characters thoughts, emotions, and responses and the readers will directly receive them.
  6. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Sage


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