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The Hand-Wave Opening

The back-cover copy of Fran of the Floods (which I reviewed last weekend) refers to the flooding as caused by global warming. That’s not it, at least, not as we think of it now. In the 1970s story, it’s simply that the sun suddenly started burning hotter, disrupting the weather. And when the sun calms down by the end of the story, the rain stops.

There’s no explanation why the sun gets hotter, but there doesn’t need to be really: as the title of my post implies, it’s just a hand wave to set things in motion (a decade earlier it would have been nuclear testing; a decade later, the greenhouse effect). And I think that’s perfectly fine. The science of how Britain floods is irrelevant to the story of whether Fran can survive long enough to reach her sister.

For a different hand-wave premise, there’s the British strip Wendy the Winner. This comedy strip from the Diana weekly has young Wendy Blake constantly entering contests and winning all kinds of things: a new ultra-modern house that her family hates, a trained seal that has to move in with them … I don’t have kids myself but I’m sure that most parents, after a few incidents like this would tell their daughter Stop Entering Contests. But that would kill the fun (I read this in my sister’s comics, and I recall it being entertaining).

The hand-wave opening is a variation on the old rule that coincidence can launch your story, but it can’t resolve it. Having your protagonist discover at the start of the story that they’re the exact double of the local monarch? Implausible but workable (in Prince of Zenda and Prince and the Pauper to name two examples). Pull that at the climax (“Wait — it’s our prince! Lay down your weapons!”) without establishing it first and the story’s gonna stink.

Roger Ebert put it a different way: grant the movie its premise. Even if it’s improbable or absurd, if it launches us on a cool journey, he thought it was forgivable. I’d agree. We never learn the cause of magic declining in Sisters of the Raven, but the focus of the story is on how society reacts when men lose power and women start to gain it (the same could be said of The Power).

Of course, what constitutes a believable hand-wave depends partly on the reader. There’s a scene in the play Noises Off where one of the actors playing a double role insists there’s no way his character could be the exact double of a Middle Eastern millionaire; when the director bullshits him that the playwright has explained all this (the two characters are half brothers!) the actor’s satisfied. Some people may not grant the premise. Love at first sight is a hand-wave of sorts, but it only works if you can prove the love has something substantial to it.

It also depends on the genre. If, say, you’re writing a near-future technothriller, you’ll probably need a more plausible rationale than “the sun got hot.” You might be able to hand-wave a miracle forensic science technique in an SF story (assuming it’s not about how the technique works) but probably not in a mainstream CSI thriller.

Fantasy is open to hand-wave premises, like finding a talking head in a washing machine. Just so long as the weirdness plays off at the end. That’s why I love writing it.

#SFWApro. Cover by Phil Gascoine, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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