One Impossible Thing at a Time

Some writers convey the wisdom to younger or newer writers, “Only introduce one impossibility at a time in your books.”

Is this a universal truth? (Hint: Nothing is in writing.) Is this genuinely something readers either dislike or can’t deal with? Does it make the book more acceptable to readers somehow?

The example given at the recent Realm Makers conference, in a class on editing taught by Fantasy writer extraordinaire David Farland, is the Twilight saga. Vampires are introduced in book one, but werewolves are only hinted at. The werewolves are introduced in book two.

Mr. Farland is a bestselling author and story coach, speaker, teacher, and has over fifty published novels to his credit. Seriously, I am not calling out David Farland. I can only salute what he’s done and hope to achieve similar levels of success someday.

So it’s with great trepidation I voice my opinion in opposition to his statement. I disagree, in other words. Humbly, of course, realizing I can’t match Mr. Farland’s sales figures or literary success. But I don’t think it’s true. At least, not for every book and every audience.

Mr. Farland’s point in the class was on the topic of reaching a wide audience. Keeping impossibilities to one per book will make it more appealing to a broad spectrum of people. While it’s not always true, I think there’s probably a lot of validity to it. So bear that in mind, as I must, while having this discussion.

I could cite tons of authors in the fantasy genre alone. They all have books where more than one impossibility was introduced at a single go. (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings leap to mind immediately, but I’m not well-read in the genre.)

Any book wherein magic is used to defeat a monster, say, a dragon? Check.

How about Science Fiction? Where ships move faster than light and thumb their metallic noses at both Newton and Einstein, and move about from system to system the way you might go to the local grocery store?

How about the iconic classic, Alien, in which a ship traveling FTL discovers a long-dead alien vessel carrying a monstrous xenomorph? All impossible, (at least at this point), but all in the same story.

On the supporting end of things, we have Jaws, with an impossibly large and clever shark with what seems a personal grudge against three guys in a little fishing boat trying to catch it. There are loads and loads of books like this one too. So there are, in my estimation, tons of great stories which fall on both sides of the decision.

I read this recently on the New Authors Fellowship blog. And the person who wrote the post also disagreed. But, it did give me pause for a moment, because in my last book, I introduced more than one impossibility.

Yet, reader response to those impossibilities was very positive. One lovely reader went so far as to say it’s the best story I’ve ever written, and she’s read a lot of my work. Only my First Reader has read more of my stuff, so I took that as a qualified statement. (And was flattered, too, btw. 🙂 )

My book’s audience isn’t as wide as someone like John Grisham’s books have. Romance readers are a narrow audience, and those books appeal to that specific audience, even if vast in numbers. But to appeal to wide audiences, Mr. Farland suggests one way is to do is keep impossible things to one per story.

What about you? Do you find a book with more than one impossible thing too difficult to stomach? Or are you more interested in how it’s executed?


2 thoughts on “One Impossible Thing at a Time

  1. Limit impossibilities to one? Hmm. I’ve never thought about it in anything I’ve read, but it would make sense to me, as a reader, that if there was already one impossible thing, there’s no reason for there not to be more.

    Your feedback as a reader is all that matters. I think the reader is willing, by picking up a book that might have those impossibilities, to accept the rules and the story world if the author earns the reader’s trust through good storytelling. I hope. 🙂 So the “rule” doesn’t seem to hold water to me, even if there are many examples.

  2. I think there’s plenty of genres where it works just fine to have lots of impossibility. Heck, even the straight thrillers I’ve read are riddled with it (I’m looking at you Dan Brown and Clive Cussler) and are plenty enjoyable. I only notice too many impossibilities if the rest of the book is lame.

    I thought so too, Bryce. I’ve read a lot of novels where the whole premise assumes a LOT of impossibility all at once, and we’re all okay with that if we just step into the story world. Not willing to do that? Why are you reading fiction? Go to memoirs and history.

    Maybe the thought works for Farland in his own writing, but there’s no way I’d consider that a rule.

    Me either. Glad I’m not alone.

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