Maybe He Ate Buttercups

What if your story hinges on something being true, but you have no way to prove that it could happen? How do you convince your reader that it could? You could read every scientific treatise related to the subject at hand and devise a logical-sounding theory, but that obviously isn’t always practical (and is certainly time consuming). Or, you could employ a knowledgeable character to admit that they don’t know either, but suggest an off-hand possibility. That would give the readers a way to accept the premise and suspend their disbelief while they read.

Movies do that sort of thing all the time. In the 1984 film, Iceman, scientists discover a 40,000-year-old man, perfectly preserved in ice. When they thaw him out, they are shocked to discover brain activity and are able to revive him. Someone asks the lead scientist, Stanley Shepard, played by Timothy Hutton, how that’s even possible. Shepard says something like, “I don’t know. Maybe he ate buttercups for breakfast.” That was all the audience needed. Something made it possible. Even the scientist doesn’t know, so let’s just accept it.

There are a number of variants on that idea. How do you clone a dinosaur, as in Jurassic Park? Dino DNA will have degraded after millions of years. Plug the missing sections with something similar, like frog DNA. The explanation doesn’t have to be overly technical (as in Tom Clancy’s description of an atomic bomb exploding in The Sum of All Fears), it just needs to be enough for the reader to keep turning the page. Dinosaurs are reptiles, frogs are reptiles. Voila.

It doesn’t even have to be something explainable by the reality we live in. In Big, the main character is tired of being a short kid. He’s granted a wish from a carnival sideshow fortune-telling machine called Zoltar. Sounds stupid, right? Then we see that the machine isn’t even plugged in, which lets us know that there are supernatural forces in control, and that allows us to accept the premise of the movie.

If a major element of your story does need to be explained, though, how can you handle it? Check out the next post for one way to do it, The Doofus Character.


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