Thursday, March 8, 2012

When Your Reader Says, "I Don't Believe it!"

Plausibility is a huge consideration in fiction. We're already asking people to read something we know and they know didn't actually happen, and since they're doing so willingly, they'll suspend disbelief to a point and even accept fantasy elements. Yet, if they just can't buy the premise, or the emotional reactions, or some of the plot events, they're often pulled out of the story to the point where they can't be recaptured. I think that's because, for those readers, the story is no longer fulfilling one of the great functions of fiction: To give shape and meaning to life and help tease out truth. Life can be random; fiction cannot, or it loses value. (Just as an aside, I think another great function of fiction is to nurture compassion and a sense of connection to others.)

There are times, though, that we use in our stories events that might make readers skeptical. Here are some ways I've found to make the implausible more plausible in fiction.
  • If your premise is too weird or far out to be believed, postpone it. Open the book with related tension --- but not the full low-down --- that keeps building while at the same time deeply investing us in the character(s). Work in any necessary knowledge or background (history or science, for example) that will be needed for the reader to buy the premise, as the tension- and character-building continue. When the far-out premise is finally revealed, readers will hopefully be so emotionally in tune with the characters (their fear will be the readers' fear, for example), and so prepared by the groundwork, that they will accept the big reveal. Examples: Unwind by Neal Shusterman; The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell.
  • An aspect of the above: Make a believer out of your MC. Then make readers believe in your MC. Or vice-versa. This will help readers believe what the MC believes.
  • At the same time, try making one character a disbeliever. Let that character voice all the objections to the implausible aspect that you'd expect readers to voice. Readers feel a lot better when they know you know something's fishy, and will often cut you some slack if a character is saying the things they wish they could say. Then let other characters either prove the disbeliever wrong, admit he might be right, or take his objections into account when planning the next action. I think it was children's author Sid Fleischman who said, "If you can't cut the implausible element, point to it."
  • To make a villain believably scary, make sure he holds a valid point. If he's right in some way, that's scary. Also identify something good about him. Does he love his mom? Make him human. Is he a gifted musician? Make him normal. Does he love ice cream and forget to empty his pockets before he washes his jeans? Reveal some background that creates sympathy for him. The abusive man in Kathi Appelt's The Underneath broke my heart because of how he'd been treated as a little boy.
  • If you're using an unlikely event in your story, list as many reason as you can why such a thing could not happen. Then look at each obstacle in turn, and work out at least one reason why this obstacle will not prevent the event. 
Have you had to "sell" an implausible aspect of a story? How did you do it?

27 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Great advice! Skilled writing can make anything believable.

Marcia said...

Laura -- Yes, I love books where I'm thinking, as I read, "I shouldn't be believing this, but I do."

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I know I was thinking what a skilled writer while reading Unwind. Good examples

Janet Johnson said...

I have definitely used the "point to it" method. It keeps me reading/makes me feel better when books I read do that, too.

Barbara Watson said...

As much as I disliked that man in The Underneath for the way he treated everyone and everything, his growing up story was always in the back of my mind. These are excellent concepts. During the revision of my current MS, I've had to alter my original ideas based on the implausible factor.

Bish Denham said...

Excellent advice. Sometimes I feel quite ignorant of all it takes to put a story together.

Dawn Malone said...

*Loved the advice that the villain shouldn't be 100 % bad. I'm revising now, and have not given the attention to the villain that I need to. Thanks for the reminder!

Faith E. Hough said...

I definitely use the "point to it" method quite frequently, and it has served me well. For me, it's also important to analyze the implausible elements to see if they need to be there at all; often they aren't needed as much as I'd thought...

TC Avey said...

All very good points. I especially like making a character a disbeliever and use him/her to voice all the concerns.

TC Avey said...

All very good points. I especially like making a character a disbeliever and use him/her to voice all the concerns.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Great post. These are such wonderful points for a sticky situation. I especially love that quote: "If you can't cut the implausible element, point to it."

Marcia said...

Terry -- Unwind just blew me away, and I'm seriously thinking of rereading it just to immerse myself in the author's skill.

Janet -- Yes, the point-to-it method reassures me that I'm in good hands.

Barbara -- Yes, sometimes we have to just dump the implausible stuff, but it's nice to know we don't always.

Bish -- Me too! It's like, "What ELSE?" Some days I'm amazed anybody ever achieves it.

Dawn -- I'm in the process of giving my villain a POV in the book, which, though we can't always do that, is a total help in building her!

Faith -- So true. Anything we can get rid of, we should.

TC -- Yes, to me it seems like a good way to bring in another character that readers will ID with, if it's somebody spouting all the possible objections.

Cynthia -- I remember reading that in something written by or about Sid Fleischman, and I never forgot it.

Mirka Breen said...

If the emotional strain is believable, I will go along. Children too will accept where a story wants to go if they recognize the emotion. Think Harry P's world(s)... Then go with it. Having a narrator acknowledge how unbelievable it seems is one of the best ways to take a hard-to-believe story: “I could hardly believe what happened next, but here it is…”

Janet Smart said...

Good advice. I love reading a book and visiting another world for a while and ...believing.

Andrea Mack said...

Thanks for all these suggestions Marcia. They're great. I hate it when I'm reading and the story just doesn't seem believeable to me. I always stop reading, even if I like the character.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Great advice, Marcia!

I recently tried to read an mg novel by a very famous writer of adult novels. I found the writing to be unbelievable. It was like he had taken an adult story and changed the age of the main character and changed the problem, but the voice was very much that of an adult. I was so disappointed because I love his adult books. :( I couldn't finish the book...

Marcia said...

Mirka -- Yes, that's so important -- that the emotional progression be believable. Although, I often find I don't share the reactions of the protagonist to certain things. If I'm invested enough otherwise, I just chalk it up to being different people.

Janet -- You're right, believability matters if we're going to succeed in entering that other world.

Andrea -- If I just "sort of doubt it" but am involved with the character, I can probably still go on. But when I "just CANNOT" buy it, I'm done.

Sharon -- I know JUST what you mean. Makes me wonder exactly how well that book sold...

inluvwithwords said...

Great post, Marcia. Lots of good lessons here. I think I'm going to have to print this out and refer back to it. Sometimes it takes me a while to fully absorb these things before I can put them into action in my own stories.

Susan Fields said...

Great advice here! I just read a book that I really liked all the way through, until I got to the last chapter and found out the female mc's mother was abducted by aliens and implanted with her daughter, and that's the mc has so many special powers. It made me kind of want to throw the book against the wall. Believability is sooo important!

Medeia Sharif said...

These are great points. My earlier writing was quite random and my villains one-dimensional. I'll keep all this in mind. Sometimes I need reminders.

Marcia said...

inluv -- Glad you found it useful!

Susan -- Wow. Yeah, something like that is a bit much to put in at the END with no warning!

Medeia -- I know what you mean by "random." I'm trying to apply these points to my own "villain creation" right now.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Thanks, Marcia, this is a great post. My WiP's first draft had so many implausibles in it that I'm now rewriting it. Your points are very helpful, indeed!

Marcia said...

Amy -- You're welcome!

cleemckenzie said...

I'm working on that in my WIP. I'm hoping to sell the implausibility by making my characters as human as possible while they explore the fantastic. Wish me luck.

Marcia said...

Lee -- I think we need to find that special way to sell the implausible that fits every story. You can do it! :)

Christina Farley said...

This is a great post! I had to deal with this in writing my last book since it was set in modern day and a different realm. I had to make sure all of the details were acturate and clear so it would seem realistic.

Marcia said...

Christina -- Yes, making sure an alternate world is consistent with itself is a great way to aid plausibility.