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The Suspension of Our Disbelief

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This is a crux point between some critiquers and I about how long you can "not get" what's going on in a speculative fiction story and still be willing to ride along with the narrative until you have a better clue what's going on. I'm not sure if it's generally true that fantasy/sci-fi/horror/paranormal-fic/etc. readers are more forgiving to entering a world with a splash, swimming rather than drowning until they see a recognizable shore, (like the visuals? I've been writing today!), or if I'm just fooling myself and should explain a lot of thiings upfront/ease my way from this normal-looking world into the weirdo one in order to bridge the transition comfortably.

My first draft had slice-of-normal-life, cut to slice-of-paranormal-life, back to slice-of-life, etc. popping between the protag & antag POVs until just before they inevitably meet. For geeks-like-me readers, this posed less problematic than non-such-stuff readers. Still, it threw many & was considered more jarring than good. The rewrite is generic, but flows gently into the unknown ocean. I'm less thrilled, but maybe this is more effective. (?)

Going back to old favorites like "Neverwhere," "Midnighters," "The Reluctant Swordsman" and "The Architect of Sleep," I tried to discern the patters these authors created when transitioning from one world to another and they were pretty drastically different about the time lag (from 30+ pages to only 2-6). So I thought I'd hit the Blueboards with this one.

What do you Blueboard SF&F/H fans think?
#1 - October 12, 2007, 12:12 PM

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Good question. I have no insight whatsoever without thinking more, but I'll look forward to others' thoughts!  :bat:
#2 - October 12, 2007, 01:06 PM
The Farwalker Trilogy
The Humming of Numbers
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No answers, Duskydawn, except to say that as I reader, I adore writers who don’t spell things out too quickly, who respect my intelligence enough to let me add up the hints and start figuring things out by myself.  As Billy Wilder said about screenwriting, “Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.”  Of course there is that moment where you frown, sigh, look at the cover of the book like it’s going to tell you something, and then start thumbing through what you’ve already read because you think, I must have missed something--I should know what’s going on by now.  Of course you don’t want that, but there’s no word count to tell you when you’ve passed that point.

Re Neverwhere—it’s been a while since I read it, but having a main character who doesn’t know what’s going on is very different from throwing the reader into a world you don’t explain with characters who seem to know but aren’t telling.  Gaiman could probably delay explanations because here you had a main character who was discovering things along with the reader—this made the reader feel that it was okay not to know exactly what the situation was—it was reassuring.  That character—I forget his name—was so likable.  You knew HIM even if you didn’t know the world.

I have this problem in my writers’ group.  There are one or two people who just want everything spelled out right away and I find it frustrating.  I’m never sure if it’s really an error in my writing or just a difference in stylistic preference.  Best of luck.
#3 - October 12, 2007, 01:16 PM
WITCHLANDERS
Lena Coakley
Exquisite storytelling plus atmospheric worldbuilding equals one stunning teen debut. Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

I like surprises to come, so long as you throw me a bone now and then. Let me learn a bit and begin to feel like an insider - one of the cool kids. But keep the big stuff cloaked in mystery. Doon took a long time to uncover many mysteries, and yet you began to feel comfortable in the world for other reasons.

Just 2 cents.
#4 - October 12, 2007, 01:21 PM
Bazooka Joe says, I have the ability to become outstanding in literature.
http://samhranac.blogspot.com/

tulipwars, it's Richard Mayhew. And he, like Julie Day and Wallie Smith, had to discover their new worlds just like the readers, coming along for the ride. What I was concerned about was that these books *also* somehow manage to cut away from the MC's perspective so the reader gets a peek at how the new world works from more experienced characters' POVs without losing the flow and tug of the original MC's storyline.

When can we cut from the MC to a more knowledgeable character in order to give, as Sam Hranac so aptly described, as a peek to be "one of the cool kids."

When I did this cut after scene one, (leaving the MC and the normal world for a vastly different one following a guy and a sword), so many people went, "Huh? What's this?" I had to reconsider and I'm not sure if I like the results or not.
#5 - October 12, 2007, 01:31 PM

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I think if we set up the possibility for something funky, then the readers are prepared...where the challenge comes in, of course, is that different readers need different set-ups.  Some could handle a subtle hint of strangeness -- others need a blatant clue.

IMO, if we're writing for readers who generally read more fantasty/sf/paranormal than other genres, the subtle hint is enough.

Btw, was I one of those who went, 'Huh?'  :)  You're talking about the one I've read only the beginning of, right?  It's intriguing (images come to mind when I think of it).
#6 - October 12, 2007, 01:55 PM
Robin
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This might be a classic case of needing to be keenly aware of your readers' (i.e., critique group partners') prejudices and weaknesses when evaluating their comments--as you seem to be.

The innate "strangeness" of most sf/fantasy can be the hardest hurdle for some readers to get over, and it sounds like this is where your work is tripping them up.  If, OTOH, even sf/f "vets" are having trouble, then you likely really do have a problem!  OTOOH, even some sf&f writers prefer things laid out in a fairly straightfoward fashion and just choke trying to read something by, say, Gene Wolfe.
#7 - October 12, 2007, 02:46 PM

SarahP

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Yup, this can be tricky, especially as fantasy/sf novels often--as a rule--start with action.  So you don't have time to introduce a lot of worldbuilding detail.

My line on this is to introduce whatever strangenesses you want, but be sure to have ONE thing for the reader to hold onto, as a kind of anchor or reference point.  As long as readers have that, they're likely to be able to go along with a lot of strange stuff.

For example, say your fantasy setting is Victorian era London, but with dragons and magic, and the Queen is a practicing witch...

That's a lot of weird stuff, but as long as you have that Dickensian, familiar London as a starting point, you're probably okay.

Or say a science fictional world set on another planet.  If your protagonist is introduced right away and is a normal kid, your normal kid reader probably won't be too weirded out.
#8 - October 12, 2007, 02:52 PM

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Connie Willis is a master of tossing you into the deep end but giving one or two toeholds so you can climb out and not be drowned by whatever otherness she has in her stories.  I love having to work a little when I read...but I know a lot of people don't.
#9 - October 12, 2007, 03:08 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
www.marissadoyle.com
www.nineteenteen.com

Connie Willis is a master of tossing you into the deep end but giving one or two toeholds so you can climb out and not be drowned by whatever otherness she has in her stories.  I love having to work a little when I read...but I know a lot of people don't.

I love Connie Willis!

Yeah, too much or the wrong action is worse than beginning slow, IMO.  :P
#10 - October 12, 2007, 03:12 PM

This is a more general suggestion, but one thing I've been thinking a lot about is a comment I got once from a writing teacher. She said that readers can put up with a lot if they have confidence that the writer is in full control of the story and knows exactly what s/he is doing. If readers sense from the start that a writer will not take them down pointless paths or confusing mazes--and that all will be revealed in good time--it's easier to relax and enjoy the ride. HOW to accomplish that is a matter of lots of practice, and lots of reading. But when you go back and look at your favorite books, you might want to look for more subtle qualities that give the story a solid feel. I do think there is a fine line between creating mystery/building suspense, and frustrating or confusing the reader. It's a line I'm also trying to figure out how to walk.

#11 - October 13, 2007, 01:14 PM

Yeah, I agree. I compare this to a trust-fall exercise. I will willingly fall into an author's arms/world, confident that they will catch me and carry me along for the ride; but, at the first sign that something isn't solid and consistent in this world & I fall/get hurt, I'm a little more leery. If that happens too many times, I can't trust the book will deserve my trust and I won't want to read/believe it 100%, and I'll warn my friends about that, too.

So how to transition this trust of the unknown to the even-more-demanding trust of the unknown? I'm reading Scott Westerfeld's Uglies and considering his grab-the-hand-and-go action-start to carry the reader and think about the big questions later when the MC has a moment to breathe and reflect.
#12 - October 14, 2007, 12:44 PM

daughterofnone

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Yeah, I agree. I compare this to a trust-fall exercise. I will willingly fall into an author's arms/world, confident that they will catch me and carry me along for the ride; but, at the first sign that something isn't solid and consistent in this world & I fall/get hurt, I'm a little more leery. If that happens too many times, I can't trust the book will deserve my trust and I won't want to read/believe it 100%, and I'll warn my friends about that, too.

Great analogy. Can you give some examples of stories that have done this? Where does the fall/hurt come exactly?
#13 - December 19, 2007, 02:14 PM
« Last Edit: January 02, 2008, 05:06 AM by daughterofnone »

BDJ

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Duskydawn,

I had a similar response from my critique group for a fantasy piece I wrote.  They wanted more information up front.  My critiquers are not scifi/fantasy readers (one even admited hating the genre), so I think audience is important. 

If your work is for the fantasy community, I think you can be vague.  I love figuring the world rules out  myself instead of being told.

If your going for a broader audience than you may need to add more details in order to keep them from going...Huh... 

BDJ
#14 - December 20, 2007, 11:50 AM

BDJ, yeah, I find that a big problem is that while I adore the crit groups I'm in, there aren't that many who read this genre; although there is usually still a lot of grammatical, POV, pacing and development insight, I sometimes have to take the "surreality twinge" with a bit of salt. Until I can find a critique group with a high-level of fantasy/sci-fi/horror/paranormal elements (and then decide which other critique stuff I'd have to let go), then I'm kinda floating up the river without a paddle (or, in my case, the River Styx without a pole. Ick!)

daughterofnone -- *love* your icon, by the way! -- I can't give many examples of published pieces because while I'm a big reader (2-5 books a week for research/pleasure reading) the ones I put down are more due to the writing style or the subject than my belief in the story. However, I critique & proofread a lot and this is something I've seen in a bunch of submissions as well as some movies/TV shows in the genre. Time Travel is the most slippery, in my mind -- HEROES did a poor job of it, while "The Time Traveler's Wife" blew me away -- but I mean more specific things that you can point to and say, "Um...no."

Here's one example I'm making up to illustrate what I mean:

The book is about a human boy raised by mole people who goes on a quest to reinstate himself as the long lost prince. So far so good. Sunlight is damaging to the mole people, so he's been raised in their subterranean world and sees nothing of the outside save the starry sky at night when he sneaks out sometimes with his pals to hunt the surface. Still good? Okay. Describing that he walks through the underground cattle fields, watching cows munching on grass is, well, odd -- not to say there couldn't be cool fields of milk-giving animals underground, but I don't think cows would do so great below the earth and grass wouldn't grow here, either. But okay, chalk it up to magic or new use of the words, I'm still in the game. Then the author wrote how "the light streaming from his window" woke the main character up... That's where I lost it. There would be no window in his room, it's underground. Even if you were to, say, dig a hole to the outside -- why would any self-respecting mole person do/allow this?!? Sunlight burns their eyes out -- no one would risk that by building their home this way, human adoptee or not. What if a regular family member walked in? If this was something the boy had created for himself in secret or was a bone of contension/defiance, then maybe I could hang on, but it wasn't treated as anything abnormal to say & I fell with a crash. The author obviously wasn't paying attention to the rules of his own world, and if he wasn't paying attention, then it was a lot to expect that I would, either.

Does this make sense? My favorite books of all time are the ones where new worlds/cultures are created and we play inside this new dynamic, knowing things *could* be otherwise (as in this world) but in this case, they're not. They say, "Reader, go discover something new!" I like that a lot.

 :yay
#15 - December 21, 2007, 05:59 AM

daughterofnone

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Dusky, thank you! That helped greatly! :)

I'll admit, I love Heroes, being the comic book geek that I am. And yes, the time travel thing is beyond full of holes. I had a similar experience listening to some stories at podiobooks.com, moments of "uh...wha? no." where the writer just took me a lot farther than I was willing to go. Now that you explained it like that I can think of a good dozen times I've had this happen.

Cows and grass underground! hahaha! Love it!
#16 - December 22, 2007, 07:16 AM
« Last Edit: January 02, 2008, 05:05 AM by daughterofnone »

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Great example, Dusky -- The created world has to be plausible, make sense, and be consistent, and even if the rationales for some elements have to be explained over the course of the book, they can't on the surface be contradictory.

I started a book last night that made me think this suspension issue *may* be partly influenced by the attitude the reader brings in another way, too, not just whether they like/accept fantasy easily or not. If you know you're reading a published book, I think you go into it with a lot more trust and suspension than if you know you're reading an as-yet unpubbed manuscript, because you're assuming that since it got published, open questions must be answered eventually. The book I started has a short and interesting prologue, but I frankly had no clue what was going on and knew almost nothing about the characters at the end of the prologue. I would have all KINDS of issues with it if it were something I was critiquing (mine or others'). But I'll keep reading because, since it's a published bestseller, I trust that it will eventually make sense.

And this is probably relevant to unpubbed writers in the sense that editors see a lot of junk and are probably going to assume "junk" faster than they'll assume "it will eventually make sense." Probably important to give them reassurance/sense sooner in what will be a first book than later books might have to do.
#17 - December 22, 2007, 10:17 AM
The Farwalker Trilogy
The Humming of Numbers
Reality Leak

www.jonisensel.com

JustinDono

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As a reader I don't mind mystery, and I don't mind being left in the dark so long as other characters are in the dark with me.  What I will not tolerate is confusion.  If I'm reading and it seems like the other characters are all hunky dory and everything's normal but I'm left in the dark, I will toss the book then and there and go on my merry way.  I also won't put up with the author contradicting himself or his characters.
For instance: Eragon (ugh).
In his I-Ripped-Off-Ursula-LeGuin magic system, magic has hard and fast boundaries.  some things cannot be done.  Dragon riders can do more with magic because their dragons give them super magic strength or something, but they still have limitations.  Oh, except when the dragons just decide to do stuff that defies all magical law just because they can, like turn solid stone into diamond.  nobody knows why.  they can just do it.  Also, when the pacifist, VEGAN elves wear full-body leather suits...yeah.  I call foul.  Or when the main character agonizes over killing a rabbit because he's so connected with nature he can feel it's pain and all boo hoo about it, THEN goes out and butchers dozens, maybe hundreds of men, I call mega foul and use the book as something to put in my fireplace.
#18 - December 23, 2007, 06:09 PM

Joni brings up a good point, but I must admit I'm overly-optimistic/naive when I pick up anything -- book, magazine, manuscript, etc. I consider this something worth reading (which is to say, in my mind, publishable); I don't walk in thinking it won't be worth my time, I'm a genre-junkie and am eagerly willing to be lost in a new set of eyes. I *love* reading ideas that I would have never come up with or, masochistically, ideas I came up with that someone else did first! ("Polymorph" comes to mind which was similar to an old manuscript of mine, "BeWere.") I've read stuff by the same author where one piece was brilliant and another completely lost me. (eg: Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age" is one of my all-time faves while "Cryptonomicon" hurt my brain; similarly I'm a huge fan of Neil Gaiman's work, especially "Neverwhere" and "Good Omens" (with Terry Pratchett) but wasn't as big on his collaboration with Michael Reaves on "Interworld." Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is *amazing* while I wasn't as thrilled with "Summerland" and "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" fell somewhere in-between.) Sometimes that's taste and sometimes that's believability. In two of these cases, I wasn't as sold on the world/situation presented. I kept reading, but the payoff wasn't enough to make me jump up and down and gush the way I had with earlier works. Maybe it's just a pet peeve or a sensitivity I've developed, but as JustinDono says, when vegans who cry over bunnies slaughter entire villages, I have trouble following the author's yellow brick road.

There's the moment for me when I'm totally immersed in a book -- there are no words, it's just background, painting the picture vividly in my mind so I'm totally in the book -- and then I'm not. I'm still reading, but they're back to being words on a page and the visualization is in the distance, like on a flatscreen across the room. I trip over something and I fall right out of my read. I don't like that. I guess that's what I was trying to pinpoint for myself.

Back to my original thought: I was talking about this manuscript with someone last night and it reinvigorated the passion to tackle it anew. Maybe the key isn't to have the MC in the first scene at all (a big no-no I try to avoid) but put a little scene of the weirdo world first from the POV of the antagonist awaiting the "newest" to arrive and then cut immediately to MC in the normal world...I don't know. But after 6 tries, I have to hit the nail on the head in order to launch this boat!

P.S. Hey, daughterofnone: I'm a comic fan, too -- self-proclaimed "fringe geek!"
#19 - December 28, 2007, 07:56 AM

Yup, this can be tricky, especially as fantasy/sf novels often--as a rule--start with action.  So you don't have time to introduce a lot of worldbuilding detail.

My line on this is to introduce whatever strangenesses you want, but be sure to have ONE thing for the reader to hold onto, as a kind of anchor or reference point.  As long as readers have that, they're likely to be able to go along with a lot of strange stuff.

For example, say your fantasy setting is Victorian era London, but with dragons and magic, and the Queen is a practicing witch...

That's a lot of weird stuff, but as long as you have that Dickensian, familiar London as a starting point, you're probably okay.

Or say a science fictional world set on another planet.  If your protagonist is introduced right away and is a normal kid, your normal kid reader probably won't be too weirded out.

This is a great topic! I am actually struggling with this now. I have a story that starts in the real world, but the heroine is carried off to a place she doesn't recognize. I based the second setting on Medieval England around the ending of the first millenium. I used Norse and Celtic names and legends to reflect the different cultures inhabiting England at that time, but there is a twist. The creatures that exist in the tales from that time actually exist in and are an accepted part of this world. I thought it was a modest suspension of disbelief; however, I received feedback from an editor saying that the blend of real history and fantasy creatures bothered her. She wanted to have it developed one way or the other, either complete fantasy or complete reality.

I am also hampered by the limited knowledge of my MC. She has no idea where or when she is, and she doesn't really care--she just wants to get back to her family. I slip in what details I can, but I don't have a more knowledgeable POV to use. The story follows her exclusively.
#20 - December 30, 2007, 06:09 PM

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I used Norse and Celtic names and legends to reflect the different cultures inhabiting England at that time, but there is a twist. The creatures that exist in the tales from that time actually exist in and are an accepted part of this world. I thought it was a modest suspension of disbelief; however, I received feedback from an editor saying that the blend of real history and fantasy creatures bothered her. She wanted to have it developed one way or the other, either complete fantasy or complete reality.

Possibly there are things in the writing that could ground this more and still keep the aspects you wrote in. But if not, it almost seems like this is just a taste thing. Me, I'd love to read about a blend of real history and fantasy elements!
#21 - December 30, 2007, 11:12 PM

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She wanted to have it developed one way or the other, either complete fantasy or complete reality.
It could also be the way you're handling the introduction of the new world. But then, taste has a lot to do with that sort of thing.

I find it's easier to go from the real to the unreal because that's what your reader is also doing, and they get to make the transition with the mc--like in HP. They get to have a sort of guide (Hagrid) to show them around as they learn the ropes. Maybe you need a Hagrid. ;D An MC in one of my books has a bird for her Hagrid.

Beginnings are a pain anyway, but beginnings of a fantasy world are such a pain.  :banghead I think the biggest thing to work on is balance. Try to make character the center (not the world), then your reader will be engaged in the story naturally, and since your character is a part of your world he/she will allow your world will fall into view piece by piece.

I'm not sure that even makes sense... :wow
#22 - December 31, 2007, 12:34 AM
« Last Edit: December 31, 2007, 12:39 AM by pixydust »

I'm with olmue -- historical fantasy is awesome. I was on a J. Gregory Keyes kick for a while (and that predated Philip Pullman's take by a good chunk) & I'd love to see more of it out there!

I also agree with pixiedust's insightful suggestion that if we're hooked on the character, then we're more inclined to tag along for the weirdness. I had a critique partner who I admire suggest that I'm getting too wrapped up in the world and not the character, herself. I used to have the *opposite* problem (having an amazing character who then didn't do much in terms of plot) but I DO see her point: like Westerfeld's Tally, if you're intrigued about her as a person, the whizzing action and newness of the world can fall into place around her as she rides.
#23 - January 01, 2008, 09:24 AM

ahsitan

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I love Celtic mythology, and the idea of an alternate history with these characters could be very interesting.

I've written a historical fantasy too. Although, mine was originally written for an anthology submission call. It didn't get in, but the editor promised another invite with the next anthology and encouraged me to market my story elsewhere. The story has kind of grown since then. And my fantasy creatures aren't known by the nonfantasy characters.

I'll have to check out J. Gregory Keyes and Philip PUllman's work. -thanks Olmue

#24 - January 01, 2008, 02:47 PM

gt6

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I think, if its well written, you can go back and forth and readers will follow.  Especially sf readers.  If you have doubts, go back and reread slaughterhouse 5.  Nobody bounces around more than Vonnegut did and he made it work.
#25 - January 01, 2008, 08:37 PM

Well, see, it just happened again.

There I was, reading a new-ish take on an old tale -- enjoying the ride and the new elements immensely -- when lo & behold, I'm dropped like a clubbed baby seal into cold water. (okay, okay -- an unconscious, cold-weather mammal may not notice that transition so much, but I sure as >bleep< did!) In a world where vampires, werewolves, magic and ESP might exist, why would the MC shrug off the weirdness around him as "It must be a trick of the light"/"I'm too tired"/etc. ?? If *I* am supposed to believe in your world's rules, why wouldn't the main character? Is he that dim? Am *I* that dim? Of course not... still, the slap of it irks me to no end. Pfbth!

 :grrr
#26 - January 31, 2008, 04:36 PM
« Last Edit: January 31, 2008, 07:07 PM by Duskydawn »

JustinDono

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Duskydawn, out of curiosity, what book was this?
#27 - January 31, 2008, 05:43 PM

Duskydawn, out of curiosity, what book was this?

I don't bad-mouth books by name. But it's published and a decent take on the archtype, but it's just my pet peeve. (If you're "dying" to know -- pun intended -- you can PM me.)
#28 - January 31, 2008, 07:08 PM

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Was "the weirdness around him" somehow equivalent to the magic/creature stuff? If so, yeah, seems like a foul. But I mean, I can imagine a world where vampires could be scared of ghosts, or it might be routine to cast an invisibility spell but levitation would be really bizarre and therefore a character might disbelief it, or whatever...

Is it just that the rules weren't made clear/specific enough in the first place?
#29 - January 31, 2008, 07:49 PM
The Farwalker Trilogy
The Humming of Numbers
Reality Leak

www.jonisensel.com

Was "the weirdness around him" somehow equivalent to the magic/creature stuff? If so, yeah, seems like a foul. But I mean, I can imagine a world where vampires could be scared of ghosts, or it might be routine to cast an invisibility spell but levitation would be really bizarre and therefore a character might disbelief it, or whatever...

Is it just that the rules weren't made clear/specific enough in the first place?

To me it was more like: "I am a person who can mind-control people and has ESP, but I am the only one in the world that I know of. Wait! Who is this? Some new stranger who says that the sign I thought said 'Certain Death This Way' really reads 'Fuzzy Bunnies Go To Playland, Next Exit.' Huh. Must've been some trick of the light..."

Okay, not really. But you get the idea...

Yeah, I'd be totally fine with vampires spooked by ghosts or werewolves not believing in fairies, that sort of thing. It's just, well, if YOU can do a power (or something like it), doesn't it follow that someone ELSE in this world could, too? To brush it off that way was just...meh, IMO.
#30 - February 04, 2008, 07:13 PM

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