Friday, September 30, 2011

How to Believe the Absurd

Have you ever thought of a story that you wanted to tell, but the concept was absurd beyond belief? For me, premature marriage stories are that way, but I enjoy reading them. The simple truth is that people simply don’t get married without realizing they are getting married or to whom they are getting married. It is absurd. So stories like this typically end up in historical novels or science fiction. How often have we seen the captain of a spacecraft visit a planet, enjoy the hospitality, and only later realize that he had participated in a marriage ceremony. But we enjoy these stories because of the high conflict as one or both people are trying to get out of the marriage and it doesn’t happen easily.

One way to handle this absurd situation is to make it a marriage of convenience, but that isn’t the same as a person getting married without knowing it. But here’s a really cool thing about the suspension of disbelief: the less you try to explain the absurd, the more readers are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Just look at Animal Farm. It has talking animals and it is no children’s book. Look at Dracula or Frankenstein. They are absurd beyond belief, but readers willingly suspend disbelief. The thing they have in common is that the writers never tried to explain how these things could be in real life, they simply put them out there as if they are and told the story.

I fear that I spend too much time trying to find an explanation for the absurd. There are many things in life that don’t have an easy explanation. Gravity, no one really understands how it works, but that doesn’t mean we don’t accept that it works. When dealing with the absurd in a story, the best approach is to not explain it at all. Do we really care how a warp drive folds space? Do we really care how a time traveler gets from one time to another? What we really want to know is what they do when they get there.

Rather than trying to avoid the absurd, we should embrace it. Rather than trying to explain it, we should treat it as an assumption. When the author and the characters in the book treat the absurd like it needs no explanation, the reader can more easily suspend disbelief. For the space of time in which the reader finds himself in the world of the story, he will accept that the absurd is true in that world because the characters believe it to be true, but when the characters try to explain it, they show that they don’t believe it either. If they are questioning it, then it must not be true because it is simply too absurd to be true.