Monday, August 29, 2011

The Miracle Exemption

I had a debate with my friend James by Skype this weekend about what really worked in the sci-fi movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  He pointed out that the miracle examption is done really well and that it brings the story full circle by the end, making it a thoughtful, provoking film.  So that's where I got my blog post for today.

If your story is not grounded in reality, you really only get one miracle exemption (including more may ask too much of the reader but you never know--it is a risk though). This is the thing that the reader is expected to swallow as being completely plausible. Examples: The yellow sun in Superman...it's the source of all his powers. Or the spray aerosol can in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that essentially forces evolution on primates by increasing intelligence within the brain. 

There are rules to the miracle exemption. One of them is that you need to adhere to the miracle exemption completely. Your story needs to follow it and never deviate from it. That is one of the keys to the science-fiction and fantasy in stories that I've read and liked.  And seeing that I've read quite a few stories, my opinion may be worth noting. 

The second is that if you want your story to come full circle, it needs to come back to the miracle exemption and make it crucial to the story.  In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the aerosol spray ends up dooming the entire human race. So not only is it just a device to make apes smarter...it is the mortar upon which the entire franchise is based.  In a word...brilliant.

What is the miracle exemption for J.K. Rowling? You need a wand to do magic. Does she ever deviate from that? Nope.  Does it come back around to this? Yep in that wand that Voldy wanted to use so badly.

What happens when Superman doesn't get sun for a long time? His powers weaken. Does it come back to this? All the time in movies as he goes to absorb sunlight to do extra-powerful and strenuous stuff.

So if your story has a miracle exemption within it, stay true to it.  My sci-fi series has one miracle exemption and I stay true to it and revisit it often.  No it's not faster than light drive. My sci-fi series takes place entirely on earth.  However, FTL-drive is one commonly used miracle exemption that makes space opera work.  Another is instant communication across great distances. You have to have this in order to have a story work.

Do you use a miracle exemption in your story and how important is it?  Have a great Monday (I should be exempt from Mondays).

30 comments:

  1. The first thing I ever wrote was what I thought was Sci-fi (although apparently it was futuristic fiction. Whatever, it was way too short).

    It wasn't a great story, but thinking about it it did have one miracle exemption (on which the whole plot hinged) and it did come back to it in the end, so maybe there;s still hope for it :-)

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  2. Great food for thought Michael. I remember having this discussion with my brother over the phone once and pretty much laid it out the same way. I haven't thought about it in a long time though and it is good to remember.

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  3. I've been gnawing on a YA project for a while now that has a miracle exception in the form of a piece of technology used on children. It's a MOSTLY real story, so your point about using only the one thing to ground the rest is important.

    EJ

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  4. Doesn't Superman have like fifteen miracle exemptions by now? All the heat vision and X-ray vision and all that nonsense, or does that just stem from the yellow sun thing?

    Especially in sci-fi and fantasy there is always the need to suspend disbelief; you just have to be careful as the author not to make readers have to suspend it too much.

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  5. I haven't thought about this before, but your right. Since I'm writing a fantasy it will be important yo my story. Great post!

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  6. I wish I had argued with someone about this stuff this weekend. Plausibility is so important, but you're right, it goes further than that. Make your rules and stick to them. And bonus points if the exemption cuts two ways, as in your example.

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  7. Interesting post! I tried to follow your blog, but the F5 button didn't work. Now following you on Twitter :).

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  8. I've understood this concept for some time, but I was never aware that it had an actual name to it. Brilliant! Just about every story of mine has a miracle exemption, and I didn't even know it. Now I really need to see that Ape movie.

    Thank you for upping my story making know how, and thank you for all of your encouraging comments. :)

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  9. I've heard of the definition, but not the term. Thanks for teaching me something :)

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  10. hmmm...never heard this term before, I'm wondering if this could be applied to the Paranormal world as well? I'm going to have to think about this, I don't write Fantasy or Sci Fi; but am kicking around a Paranormal story...

    Michael, your blog is awesome! I learn stuff and often laugh out loud, I'm so glad I joined the Campaign!

    Thanks!

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  11. Cool topic! I always called this the "central conceit."

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  12. I don't write Sci-Fi, but of course I understand the concept. Good post.

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  13. FTL travel is the miracle exemption in my previous WIP. If the characters weren't able to travel huge distances, then the whole setting and story itself would unravel.

    Great post!

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  14. Believability is one of the hardest things about science fiction. If you have an alien with unusual powers, then that's already one exemption.

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  15. This is the first time I've heard of the expression miracle exemption. I agree though, you need to keep the ME's to only a few (or better yet, just one) and you need to keep it throughout the book. Great post.

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  16. The Spice in Dune, that's one miracle exemption that had far reaching consequences.

    I've got what I think is a miracle exemption in my scif-fi but I need physics to hurry up and give me a cutesy way to make it feel "logical".

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  17. Interesting concept. I suppose I do, and now I'm wondering how strictly I adhere to it. I'm hoping it's very strictly.

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  18. Fantastic point. It seems like I've heard someone famous in sci-fi mention something similar before. Their's was called a 'whopper', but it was the same point. You're allowed one whopper per book. Make it count.

    FTL & instant communication have become tropes I think. Even some 'hard' sci fi writers have thrown up their hands and started using it in their stories - but that wasn't their miracle. I think if the audience is prepared you can build upon accepted tenets of the genre without it counting as your miracle.

    In my own writing? Yep, I got 'em. It's hard to say how well they're used. I figure if the reader can accept a premise (advanced aliens are/were here), then it would be easier to take the logical steps with the story as things get weirder.

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  19. I write realistic fiction, but even there, you need to explain coincidences and limit them as much as possible. I think you're right--that the reader feels cheated... like you haven't done due diligence if it is too easy. And you definitely can't change how something works mid-game. I read an article from Rowling, too, on the limits of magic... can't bring back the dead (this is why horcruxes are such dark magic) can't create real love (only the obsessive brother)--and so much of the story requires these limits in order for the reader to NOT have grounds to say 'then why didn't they just..."

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  20. Hmmm... thought provoking. I do make use of a miracle exemption in Doorways, and it does have a vital part in the landscape of the story. Its history, but as I said, it's part of the landscape.

    :-)

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  21. still need to see this movie! agh!

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  22. This is why I sometimes hate fantasy. Fantasy writers will often decide to do whatever they feel like doing and excuse by saying "hey, it's magic" and leave it at that. It just doesn't work that way. There have to be rules even when you're making stuff up.

    As for my own work,yes, but I cant tell you what, because that would ruin the surprise. Let's just say it has to do with imagination.

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  23. I don't write Science Fiction, but in my WIP that I'm working on, I guess you could say the miracle exemption is that a perfect stranger is willing to take in a teen she doesn't know anything about. It's a suspense of disbelief in a way.

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  24. I do use a miracle exemption in my stories! I didn't know that I did, but after reading this post, I realize it. Now I'll look for miracle exemptions everywhere.

    Have you heard about the skeptic? In an otherwise realistic story, the magical element must have a skeptic who doesn't believe in the magic and needs convincing. It takes the skepticism away from the reader.

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  25. It bugs me when people who write religious books get to have a lot of miracle exemptions.
    Miracles hardly happen in real life so the only escape is fiction.
    My grandson is so fascinatied by Super heroes that I would hate to limit the number of miracles on him. I tell him that superman can save good people. Will there ever be one? I am sure he will see some super humans among real people too. so please do not limit miracles:(

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  26. rise of the apes is awesome! and good analysis of why it rocks!

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  27. Agreed - we should ALL get a miracle exemption from Mondays!

    Hmmm, I think I may need to revisit this concept in my writing - I think I've been using it without realizing it! Thanks for the thought-food. :-)

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  28. Now that I understand what it is, I'm sure I do. I do know that I keep to what I believe is miracle exemption, Michael. Although you know I believe I was given an honest to goodness miracle with my Christopher. So... excellent post, my friend.

    BTW, miracle exemption from Monday and making it a do fun stuff day is sweet!

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  29. I really enjoyed reading this post. All your examples are intriguing. Now you have me wondering what the miracle exemption is in my books...hmmm.

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  30. I had never heard of this. Now that you mention it, it is pretty fascinating. Ignore one scientific impossibility and you can use that to allow for a million gaping scientific impossibilities.

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