Speed of Plot: Realism v. Storytelling?

As I work on creating an aspidochelone setting for one world (see yesterday’s post), I’ve been thinking again about the question of realism versus storytelling or imagination. In a way, I’ve been wondering if we’ve become somewhat jaded or lost a sense of wonder as readers. After all, how does knowledge of Earth’s geology have bearing on developing an island that’s grown on the back of a massive whale-turtle (much less a dimension hopping one)?

Some authors have clearly avoided the issue. Take Sir Terry Pratchett. Explain how Earth geology applies to a flat world resting on the backs of four elephants standing on a cosmic turtle.

In a way, I wonder again if we’ve been pushing a lot of realism over imaginative world building, in some ways. I’ve particularly been thinking about this is respect to our literary (fantastic and otherwise) forebearers.

The title of this post comes from a phrase used in one of my Shakespeare classes. The example in question is the travel time between two Italian cities in Merchant of Venice. The first time around, it took characters multiple days to reach their destination from Venice. However, when the characters have a life and death trial in the morning, others travel the reverse distance overnight without hurrying. This has been referred to as Shakespeare’s use of “speed of plot”, that is, the travel time is as long or short as the plot needs. (We can add that Shakespeare set many of his plays in Italy, without ever having visited the country; he based his descriptions and such on English stereotypes of Italians and word of mouth from sailors.)

Tolkien also comes to mind with his three sided square mountains around Mordor. True, mountains do not “grow” that way on Earth. But, I think, Tolkien wasn’t concerned about geology (after all, he was a philologist and was more concerned with the languages).

I argue that neither author was worried about the reality of travel time or geology, because the plot called for something else.

At the same time, our knowledge of the sciences is limited to what we’ve been able to directly observe on one planet and remotely observe on one other. Our knowledge of astrophysics is likewise based on one solar system, largely. Case in point, back in the 1950s and 60s, a couple equations were formulated to predict the possibility of inhabitable planets in the galaxy. These have all been largely thrown out in the last 15 years due to discoveries made by the Hubble and other powerful telescopes that provide information unavailable when the equations were first postulated.

2 comments on “Speed of Plot: Realism v. Storytelling?

  1. calmgrove says:

    I suppose it’s about a willing suspension of disbelief. I personally hate novels and films where the application of magic is inconsistent; for others the wonder is all, with motivation and logic irrelevant. At a pinch I might be able to forgive the illogicality if the writing is first-class but too often poor writing and plotting go hand in hand.

    I’ve not been attracted to Pratchett but the fact that worthy studies have explained the physics of his world convinces me he deserves respect. On the other hand the little hard SF that I’ve read can at times be deficient with convincing characterisation, making me disinclined to read more.

    So, in short, I can accept a little irrational ‘speed of plot’ mechanics providing I’m carried away by narrative. The play’s the thing…


    • lordtaltos says:

      I fully agree on magic. “Speed of plot” doesn’t really have to do with magic (Shakespeare, where no magic was involved). That said, adding certain types of magic to the mix (or just secondary worlds) does, I think, change the game with respect to things like geology.


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