How to Explain Away Implausibility

23 Feb
Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

All superheroes have origin stories: Superman came from another planet, Spiderman got bitten by a radioactive spider, and Batman saw his parents murdered and so became a vigilante. Such character explanations are expected in comic books, but they are, in fact, part of almost every story with a fantastic plot.

A great example of an origin story can be found in Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave. You can read the first pages of the novel at her publisher, St. Martin’s, website.

How the Novel Works

The first line of the novel gives away the plot: “About a year before the time traveling began, before I lost Wayne and found Lena, Wayne DeMint stumbled into my bar for the first time.”

It’s a novel about time travel, which poses a basic problem: How to introduce the mechanism that allows the characters to travel through time. The answer depends on the novel’s genre. A sci-fi novel would likely be interested in the actual science behind time travel and would include a lot of mechanics, explanations, and even, perhaps, equations. An adventure or thriller novel would include much less science. My favorite example of a non-scientific answer is the film Inception, in which characters enter people’s dreams. How do they get into the dreams? There’s a box and some tubes that get connected to the characters and—voila—into the dreams they go. The solution contains zero science. The point is simply to get the characters—and the audience—into the dream as quickly as possible so that the plot can move along.

Mo Daviau does the same thing in Every Anxious Wave.

Karl is crawling around on the floor of his bar when, suddenly, he falls through a hole and lands in another time and place. His friend explains that the hole is a wormhole and then builds a mechanism to control travel through it. Watch how fast that mechanism is explained:

He went home to his fifteen computers and wrote the software program, an astonishing time-bending navigational system that harnesses the directional pulls of the wormhole and allows you to choose when and where you’d like to land. Two laptops, three generators, and a series of wires now occupy the desk next to my closet. On the laptop screen there is a Google map with a grid over it. You type in the coordinates of where you want to go, physically.

How does it work? Some computers and wires and a Google map. As an explanation, it’s roughly similar to Peabody’s Wayback Machine—and that is exactly the point. The book’s interest lies in what happens after time travel is made possible, and so it needs to get there quickly. In case a skeptical reader wants more science, Daviau gives them this:

If pressed to explain his scientific understanding of our portal to the past, Wayne would describe Carl Sagan’s theory of the wormhole: that it is totally possible to travel from point A to point B on an unseen plane C.

Carl Sagan does, in fact, have a theory of wormholes, but this is the fastest possible summary of it. Again, audience is key. If this were a sci-fi book, the explanation (and, indeed, the entire book) would be quite different. But the novel is more of an adventure story, and so a bone is tossed to scientifically-minded readers, and then off we go into the past.

These passages create an origin story for the novel’s time travel. They establish its plausibility and allow the story to move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an origin story, using Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau as a model:

  1. Identify the moment of implausibility. Almost every story has one, not just stories with fantastic premises like superheroes and time travel. Most love stories involve unlikely love; otherwise, they’d be boring. Even that great literary genre, coming-of-age stories, has implausible moments. In The Catcher in the Rye, for example, Holden Caulfield escapes from his boarding school, a difficult challenge in real life. In Every Anxious Wave, the implausibility is time travel for a bar owner. In short, the implausible moment is anything the reader might balk at.
  2. Offer a plausible explanation. This is the origin story, but it doesn’t need to completely and totally explain away all implausibility. It only needs to keep the reader reading. In The Catcher in the Rye, the novel is careful to point out that Holden’s roommate doesn’t wake up and that Holden’s grandmother has recently sent a wad of cash—just enough luck to get him on the train. In Every Anxious Wave, Daviau throws some tech at the reader. Is her explanation actually plausible? Who knows? The point is that it says to the reader, hey, there is an explanation. It’s also short and sweet, like Spiderman’s radioactive spider. If it was too long, the reader might begin to doubt it. So, consider what details can you give the reader to make your story plausible. Try explaining the implausible thing in a single breath—or to someone about to answer a phone call. You have until they pick up their ringing phone. What can you say in that short period of time that will make them say, “Oh, okay, got it. That makes sense?”
  3. Answer the skeptics. If someone were to doubt your explanation, what would they say? On what question would their doubt rest? The best answer is not to give more details. Instead, you can try one of three approaches. First, you can have a character or the narrator ask the same question and someone else answer it. Even if the answer isn’t great, asking the question lets your reader off the hook. Secondly, you can let a character confirm the implausible thing, something like “That sure was crazy, getting bit by that spider.” The more characters who see something, the more plausible it becomes. Finally, you can lean on authority. This is Daviau’s approach: she namedrops Carl Sagan, saying, in effect, that her rationale is supported by a famous scientist, an expert. Your expert could be someone from the outside world, like Sagan, or someone who’s an expert within the world of your novel.
  4. Move on. Once you’ve addressed the plausibility issue, don’t belabor it. Move on with your story. Ideally, this means introducing some problem related to the premise. Daviau’s novel sends one of its characters back to a time the character didn’t expect. As a result, the reader is too busy wondering what will happen next to worry about the plausibility of the wormhole.

The goal is to let your readers off the hook, to let them enjoy your story without worrying about the plausibility of it.

Good luck.

4 Responses to “How to Explain Away Implausibility”

  1. ShiraDest February 23, 2016 at 8:02 p02 #

    “or to someone about to answer a phone call” -Nice!

    • michaelnoll1 February 23, 2016 at 8:02 p02 #

      Thanks, Shira! In one of those best-of anthologies, the editor wrote that she chose stories that held her attention while sitting on an airplane. There’s something to be said for assuming your reader is distracted!


  1. An Interview with Mo Daviau | Read to Write Stories - February 25, 2016

    […] To read an exercise about explaining away implausibility, inspired by Every Anxious Wave, click here. […]

  2. Too much, too early | Literatur-O-Meter - April 4, 2016

    […] Noll gibt auf seinem sehr lesenswerten Blog Read to Write Stories einige Tipps, wie der Moment der “Unwahrscheinlichkeit” möglichst gut im Sinne der […]

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