Or, the essential difference between being BELIEVABLE and REALISTIC
Science-fiction, fantasy, and paranormal writing expose us to worlds that may be similar or vastly different from our own, but which all share one essential trait: some or all of what goes on in there is not, according to the current understanding of the universe and/or limitations of technology, possible. So why are we captivated by these stories? What makes us suspend our disbelief long enough to really get lost in these unrealistic worlds, and come out having been through an experience?
That’s easy. They may not be realistic, but they’re believable.
Although the two terms are somewhat similar in meaning, there is an essential difference. Realism, as opposed to believability, defines something that not only makes sense, but could happen in the world as it is now. It means, close to reality. Comparable to the real world. Cars, ATMs and a visit to the dentist are realistic. Time-travel is not. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be believable.
There is really only one way to make something completely unrealistic be believable. No matter what it is that you are trying to make your reader swallow, make it fit within the inner logic of your world. And this is where things get tricky.
A lot of people, especially when they are starting out, will try to drown out something unrealistic under technobabble, or worse, decide that “because it’s science-fiction, or fantasy, or paranormal, it’s that way because it’s magic and that’s just what I decided”. That is not inner logic. That is not any kind of logic at all. Whenever you decide to include something that is unrealistic in your stories (FTL travel, vampires, magic, etc.) you have to back it up with a justification, which doesn’t mean that you will be tracking down every person that buys your book, and calling them at home, saying, “Well, you know that race of super-powered warriors…” Your justification must be solid, self-evident, and an integral part of the fictitious world you are building. It has to make sense withing what you have defined for your world. It can’t just be “well, these guys have superpowers because they’re superheroes and superheroes need superpowers”. It must be justified with something that is not random but rather coherent with the rest of your world, for example “these superpowers are mutations, because they’ve been happening a lot in the world lately, which means mutants are probably ostracized as different, and caught in a civil rights battle to decide whether or not they should be registered and controlled by the government.” Something incredible is much easier to swallow when it is presented as being part of a set of rules and limitations, because in reality, everything has a price, and everything has a limit.
One last piece of advice, which I will repeat so endlessly that you will get sick of even seeing the word on a page: do your research. Research the principles which exist in real life, upon which you are basing your incredible fact. Want to write about time travel, FTL travel, androids, or any other sci-fi staple? Better know the currently accepted theories and the science behind them. Want to write about magic? Better know about what’s been done with it before, and the most commonly accepted ways to achieve the desired effect, along with its costs. That’s not to say you can’t make up your own system; but the operative word here is system. You can’t just decide “well, it’s magic, so anything goes”. That’s the best way to make at least half your potential readers roll their eyes and close the book.
Writing science-fiction, fantasy and paranormal is not about making up whatever seems to fit as you go along. As with any other piece of writing, and I would say even more so than any other style, it requires careful thought and planning. Look for topics such as magic, science, world-building, creating believable aliens and magical creatures, and much more.