(Technically, this is Teatime Thursday, but for the sake of consistency I decided to keep the usual title.) Welcome back to teatime!
Today I prepared a cup of Verdant Tea’s most famous tea, Laoshan Black, which is also one of my all-time favorites. It’s a straight black tea with lots of flavor, and an interesting savory quality to it, which makes it stand out among the sweeter teas in my cabinet.
To go with the tea, I had an apple turnover from the bakery at my local supermarket. It was extra sweet with lots of sugar, so it made a great complement to the savory flavors in the Laoshan Black.
Last time, I talked about how speculative fiction frequently defies the laws of physics, and how fans sometimes like that and sometimes hate it. So how can writers break the laws of physics without irritating their audience? Like I said, it seems to vary from person to person (a phenomenon I call the Personal Logic Threshold). Based on my experiences as a fan, however, I believe a few guidelines can maximize a storyteller’s success in this area, where most fans are concerned:
When breaking the laws of physics, do it in such a way that it matches the overall tone of the story. If you’re writing a silly space opera that resembles fantasy more than hard science fiction (i.e. Star Wars), fans are more likely to forgive technological inaccuracies or physically impossible action scenes.
Generally, resist the temptation to defy physics in order to give your characters an easy out from conflict. Remember, this also depends on what kind of story you are trying to tell (see #1). Are you George R. R. Martin, who writes gritty realistic fantasy in which people facing death cannot hope to escape by, say, using magic martial arts moves? Or are you Brandon Sanderson, who writes such RPG-inspired action scenes as part of the fun? The latter will have more leeway.
Any way in which a story world defies physics (as we know them) can be improved by foreshadowing it, long before it becomes crucial to the plot. If you show a character flying when the fate of the world is not at stake, then the audience knows that human flight is possible in that particular story world, and won’t get confused or angry when it happens during the climax. Picky fans with a lower PLT might quibble about the specifics, like Sheldon does in the clip from my last post. But they won’t be surprised or befuddled, which is worse.
There is one more aspect to this topic that I should mention. In the end, like with Superman, story logic matters the most. Being faithful to story logic means the writer must satisfy the audience’s needs for a good story, and understands that those needs may trump certain physical realities—and that, especially in the case of speculative fiction, defying those realities may be a selling point for a large portion of the audience. But this doesn’t mean the characters should be able to defy physics at will with no foreshadowing whatsoever, especially as a way to escape the conflicts they face. In fact, it generally means the opposite. (Refer back to guideline #2, as well as my post on Story Structure.)
In the end, since everyone has a different Personal Logic Threshold, you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone in the audience when you defy the laws of physics. From what I can tell, you can please the most fans by trying to tell a satisfying story, and not breaking physical laws without any sort of foreshadowing or explanation for doing so.
To conclude, I am now going to contradict everything I just said, and point out that sometimes, this whole conundrum doesn’t really matter. Back in my college days, I was a fan of a sports anime called The Prince of Tennis. (I still am, in fact!) The story is about a twelve-year-old tennis prodigy who moves from America to Japan and joins a middle school tennis team. It starts out as you would expect: the main character meets a lot of talented tennis players, and they play a ton of tennis matches. Some of these characters have “special moves” that stretch a tennis expert’s sense of disbelief, but nothing too major, at first. By the time of the show’s second incarnation, however, the characters are hitting tennis balls so hard that they shatter concrete walls on a semi-regular basis.
This, as I hardly need to point out, is not physically possible.
So do I care about this, as a fan of the show? Not at all. For me, the absurdity is part of the fun. I will admit that, as a former tennis player, I often burst into laughter during certain scenes. Sometimes, the “upgraded” versions of the characters’ moves cause me to raise a perplexed eyebrow. But in the end, I love the show because it’s campy and ridiculous. I enjoy it because they shatter those concrete walls. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to watch it.
(In case you don’t believe the part about concrete walls, or how closely this show can resemble Dragon Ball Z at times, here’s the opening sequence from the newest season, which aired last year. I offer no justifications for the saxophone, the pirate, or the glowing tennis ball, either.)
This brings me to my final point: if your audience is having fun, they are much less likely to care (or even question) if your story defies the laws of physics.
Why, exactly, do I enjoy the absurd parts in a show like The Prince of Tennis? I’m not sure. For one thing, I expect a sports anime to be over the top. More importantly, I’ve grown to have so much affection for the characters that I don’t care how many times they twist the laws of physics. I just root for them to be awesome, to grow and change during the course of the story’s conflicts. If they do that by playing supernatural tennis, I don’t mind.
But that’s me. I know plenty of people who don’t like the show, for exactly that reason. The show is really popular, though, especially in Japan—to the point where it’s still ongoing, even though it started as a comic book all the way back in 1999. (Clearly, then, I’m not the only one who doesn’t mind!)
So as a writer, I always try to keep in mind what sort of audience I want, and what their needs might be. Am I writing for a guy like Sheldon, or someone more like me? Would I overlook a certain story development, if I read it in someone else’s novel? (Would Sheldon overlook it, if he’s a part of my target audience?) Does it match my story’s tone? And if all else fails, is it awesome in a story sense?
If the last answer is yes, my target audience will probably overlook a moment that breaks the laws of physics—even if it’s not foreshadowed or explained. They might even love it. Meanwhile, fans with different needs will look for stories that satisfy them elsewhere.
As I’ve said in the past, I love speculative fiction in all forms, especially stories in the fantasy genre. I also love to discuss them with fellow fans. Lately, I’ve been wondering why many fans (including me) can accept certain unrealistic elements in speculative fiction, but not others. I also wonder why those boundaries seem to be different for everyone—and if writers should worry about this balance when they’re writing, and if so, how.
But first, a clip from The Big Bang Theory that illustrates exactly what I mean…
So why does Sheldon accept that Superman can fly, yet go on to complain about the fact that when he saves Lois Lane from a fall, his success doesn’t conform to the laws of physics? The logic of the story dictates that Superman must rescue Lois, or the ending won’t be as satisfying to the audience. (Unless the audience wants a dark or genre-defying Superman story, which is another discussion entirely!) Since Sheldon didn’t mind one violation of physics (a man flying), why does he care so much about the second violation?
You could argue that this is due to Sheldon’s career as a physicist. But then how he can accept Superman’s impossible abilities in the first place? Besides, this kind of conversation happens constantly, not just among fans who are physicists. I’ve overheard plenty of heated debates exactly like this one, while standing in line at comic conventions. So, why? Why do some fans dislike certain scientific inaccuracies in their speculative fiction, while letting other inaccuracies slide?
Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But it may have something to do with what I like to call the Personal Logic Threshold (PLT).
Basically, the Personal Logic Threshold refers to the point at which an individual can no longer suspend their disbelief while experiencing a story. Many times, the occurrence is distracting enough that the person can no longer pay attention to the story at all. Instead, they fixate entirely on the moment that bothered them. Usually, it happens because the story broke the laws of physics in some way, or because some kind of logical fallacy or plot hole occurred. The trouble is, this threshold differs for everybody. I’ll give an example.
(Spoiler warning for The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies up ahead!)
The final movie in Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit features a lengthy battle. At one point, Legolas is fighting some orcs atop a mountain, around the crumbling ruins of a fortress. He starts to fight inside one of the towers, which falls over and wedges between two cliffs. Unbelievably, he continues to fight, as though the tower has simply become a bridge. In the end, the tower begins to break apart. Legolas then proceeds to jump across the falling rubble like it’s a staircase, in order to reach solid ground and avoid a deadly fall.
After we saw the movie, several of my friends pointed out that this moment defies the laws of physics. Which it does. In the real world, Legolas wouldn’t be able to push up from those falling bricks in order to step across them like that. It’s physically impossible. My friends disliked this moment; some of them were even angry it happened. As for me? I didn’t love it, but at the same time, I felt it wasn’t completely out of place in a Tolkien story. Here’s why:
Legolas is an Elf, part of a magical race. One thing Elves can do—which Legolas demonstrates in both the book and movie versions of The Fellowship of the Ring—is walk on top of the snow without snowshoes, when no one else can. (Not even hobbits, who are smaller and move quietly.) This implies that the way an Elf walks doesn’t conform to our laws of physics. Tolkien never wrote anything about Elves being able to float across falling rubble. But Legolas, like Superman, already defies physics in that respect. So from my point of view, I didn’t think that him jumping across falling rubble was entirely inconsistent with the setting. I thought it was cheesy, but not so implausible that it truly bothered me (especially when compared to other problems I had with the film).
My friends, on the other hand, acknowledged that they could accept a Legolas who walked on snow, but they could not accept a Legolas who floats over falling rubble. For them, it broke their Personal Logic Threshold. The idea bugged them too much for them to accept it as a part of the narrative. Clearly, this is a subjective phenomenon, and varies from fan to fan.*
So should writers worry about this? If nothing else, I think it’s useful to acknowledge that it happens, and try to understand why.
From what I can tell, this break happens in one of two ways. Sometimes, individuals in the audience are concerned with accuracy in a specific area of a story. This usually happens because they have expertise in that area, so they tend to fixate on it. (Like Sheldon with physics, for example.) However, this can also happen when a story goes too far for the audience’s tastes, breaking the rules in a way that doesn’t fit with their idea of what the story was supposed to be like. In the case of Legolas, my friends felt the falling rubble episode was a cheesy “action” moment, which undermined the serious tone of Tolkien’s setting.
(Also worth noting: the Legolas example comes from an adaptation of a beloved author’s work, not from the author himself. This is another factor that can affect a fan’s ability to accept such a moment as a valid part of the narrative.)
So what can those of us who are interested in stories and writing learn from the Personal Logic Threshold? I’ll deal with that in my next post.
(Note: for this reason, Teatime Tuesday will be Teatime Thursday this week!)
*The question of whether stories that conform to the laws of physics are “better” in some way is another subject entirely.
Welcome back to teatime! It’s been a busy week so far. So I decided on a simple tea today.
Shui Xian Wuyi Oolong was one of Verdant’s limited oolong teas, before it sold out. This tea is best enjoyed on its own, steeped quickly in small amounts. So today, I steeped it in my Japanese-style owl teacup, which is a smaller size than most of my mugs, and removed the leaves after only ten seconds. (Seriously! That’s all it takes.)
This oolong is very light, with some typical floral notes. Except in this particular oolong, I noticed a sweet fruity taste as well. (Verdant’s site describes it as being reminiscent of banana, and I agree.) It’s refreshing, and great for sipping slowly during a break.
I didn’t pair this oolong with anything, since the flavor is so delicate. It’s perfect on its own, though!
Today’s tea selection is an old favorite, and pretty fitting for February. Aquarius from Adagio Teas is primarily a black tea blend, with flavors of vanilla and hazelnut. It’s a tasty everyday sort of tea. And since all the Aquarians out there are having their birthdays right now, it seemed like it’d be a fun tea to feature on my blog.
I’m a Virgo myself–a triple Virgo, with the sun, moon, and Mercury all in that sign in my birth chart–and possibly the most Virgo-ish person you’ll ever meet, with one complication: my rising sign is Aquarius. I do seem to feel an affinity for Aquarians and for that Zodiac sign in general, the utopian nature it represents. I’ll be honest, though, I mostly bought this tea because the flavors sounded like a delicious combination. You can find all the Zodiac teas from Adagio here.
I recommend Adagio Teas for two reasons: their prices and their customer-made blends, which are especially delightful if you’re into fandoms of any kind. (Seriously, if you like a particular show or movie or book, the odds are very good you can find a tea inspired by your favorite character on their website. And then you can buy it! And think happy fandom thoughts while you sip your cuppa.)
I paired this tea with some cute little shortbread cookies in the shape of Scottie dogs, which were delicious as well. (Also, adorable.)