Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Devil of Disbelief in the Details

Writing Wednesday

As an author, how do you win your readers' trust-- particularly if you want to tell a fantastic story (as in, "unreal elements," and not "really good")?

Sanderson, Wells, and Taylor, the Writing Excuses podcast crew like to say you should be very thorough about a small detail, like the mechanics of zero-gravity movement, and then simply assert the major things (say, faster-than-light travel or sentient dragons). In other words, show the readers that you know that you're talking about in one case (which they can verify, or that at least rings true), and they're generally willing to believe what you say about other cases (particularly the ones they can't verify). If, however, you botch the small details, readers have reason to doubt everything you tell them.

I ran into this problem with a recently-published dystopian YA novel: there were several places where the numbers didn't add up.

Livestock in the Safe Zone

The author describes the safe zone as being "several times the size of a football field." A bit later he says the livestock pens hold cows, pigs, and sheep, which make the community of about 50 mostly self-sufficient. Leaving aside the fact that sheep produce nothing the residents can use (there's no mention of any attempt to process wool, likely because the weekly supply runs provide clothing and footwear) until they're slaughtered and are thus a terrible choice for the constrained space of the safe zone, we have several kinds of domesticated animals that require either a non-trivial supply of feed, or a non-trivial area in which to graze. Specifically, cows generally require 3-5 acres each.

There are 43,560 square feet in an acre.

A regulation football field, with end zones and side lines is 120 x 60 yards, or 64,800 square feet.

If several football fields means 4, that's 259,200 square feet, or about 5.9 acres. Even if we're generous and assume it's twice the size, that's only 11.8 acres, or enough pasture for about 4 cows.

But the safe zone is divided roughly into quarters, with a lot of paving. Moreover, the livestock quarter has barns and the slaughter house. So there's barely enough land to support one cow, which clearly isn't enough to support the roughly 50 residents.

Does it matter?

This may seem pedantic or nit-picky, but the numbers that didn't add up pulled me out of the story and diminished my willingness to trust the author.

One of the funniest moment in Plan 9 from Outer Space is when the zombies reanimated by the aliens march out of the graveyard and the tombstones vibrate, giving them away as cardboard cutouts.

Last week I posted a note about Thinking Readers. You may want to believe that your readers will be so swept away with the story that they won't notice the wobbly tombstones. It didn't work for Plan 9, and it ultimately won't work for your thinking readers. Botching your details is a sure-fire way to reduce your literary classic to nothing more than a laughable B-movie.


Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net