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Monday, November 27, 2017

Inconceivable! Dealing with Problems of Unbelievability

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a story, and I've found that perhaps some of the worst feedback to give and receive is that of unbelievability. There is a kind of stinging and feeling of foolishness that comes with the criticism. I've had it, and I've given it--multiple times each. Most often, this criticism is given to new writers.

Now when I say believeablitiy, I'm not saying your stories can't have any dragons or magic or advanced technology. Stranger Things Season 2 recently came out, and I've heard people complaining that KFC wasn't actually called KFC in 1984, or that no one had side parts until later years. Isn't it funny that we have no problems "believing" that there is a parallel world where monsters live and that a young girl can have psychokinetic abilities, but people can't believe that a character has a side part? What a funny life we live in our entertainment.

If you've been told that something in your story is unbelievable, there could be a few different reasons as to why. It might simply be that what you put in the story couldn't actually happen in the real world--if you are dealing with a real world setting. Or it could be because the mechanics of fiction is different than our reality. Here are the different reasons and routes unbelievable content manifests itself in fiction.

The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I recently read an article about a woman who got pregnant a second time, when she was already pregnant. It's weird right? That's not how nature works. However, this woman had a rare condition that allowed this to happen. Now, you can say this is a true story, because it is. But if you try to put this into your story, without proper explanation, or when you already have a lot of other unusual things happening in your story, it will probably ring false. Critics will say, "But what are the chances of that?"

This is because fiction works off rules of probability, not what actually happened. The less probable something is, the more likely your audience will be skeptical. It's even worse if you stack up multiple improbabilities into one piece. This is one of the reasons you may hear about the "one impossibility rule," which is the idea that audiences can only believe in one impossibility per book. Of course, there are ways to break this rule, and it is broken in many works, but generally speaking: one impossibility. And this works off the suspension of disbelief that audiences come to a story with, which is a topic all its own.

There are a few tricks to getting around the probability issue. One is validating the audience's skepticism, but it has to be done with care and not overused. Otherwise, it will still ring false.

But almost always,

Probability > Reality

Tension is More than Conflict and Spectacle

Another avenue unbelievability takes to get in, is through conflict and spectacle. This usually happens when the writer is trying hard to make the story "really good" by making it intense, skyscraping stakes, and putting in massive hooks. The story may start fine, but suddenly, conflicts are going crazy, and the writer is throwing in intense scenarios that don't actually fit the story or aren't portrayed with real-life consequences.

For example, you might feel that your romance story is getting a bit boring for the audience, so you throw in a serial killer. The protagonist knows about the serial killer, but has no problem walking home alone after midnight, or she encounters the serial killer, but decides (for no legitimate reason) not to contact the police, because that's not the direction, you, the writer, want to take the story. Or maybe your character gets accused of murdering someone (because crazy conflict is good, right?), but that's not actually what you want the story to be about, so you don't flesh that part out, and eventually get back to the main storyline.

These sorts of things happen because the writer thinks the crazier the conflict, the better. They might be afraid their story is too boring, and so they are trying to liven it up for the audience. What they don't realize is that tension is what keeps the reader reading, far more than conflict.

Tension doesn't necessarily need outlandish conflict. It doesn't need a spectacle to be interesting. Tension can happen in a conversation between a father and daughter. It can be present when a protagonist is deciding who to invite to a concert when she only has four tickets and six friends. Tension can be there in a job interview, where the characters are trying to appear cool and collected and professional, but inside are not.

Tension > Conflict

You don't need to throw in crazy conflicts to make your story interesting. You just need to learn how to take advantage of tension.

Now, if you want to throw in crazy conflicts, fine, but the consequences, facets, and ramifications of such things must be spoken to, to be realistic. Some things you just cannot turn a blind eye to. And don't forget to incorporate the probability aspect.

You can read more about tension vs. conflict here.

 Writing What You Don't Know

Sometimes something is unbelievable just because the writer didn't do their research. For example, if you were writing about the Mormon church at a part in your story, and you told me that Mormons worship Joseph Smith and have a golden Bible, as a Mormon, I'm going to giggle.

Look, the research part of writing is perhaps my least favorite part of writing (others say it's their favorite), so I understand that it can be annoying, especially when you just want to write the story. But sometimes you've got to do the research. And honestly, research has never been easier to do than it is to do today. You can find much of what you need online or in books. If you can't find that, you can find knowledgeable people to talk to or ask. Try not to feel stupid about asking questions. Most people you will talk to will probably want to tell you more than you want to know. And of course, make sure you are choosing reliable sources to get your information.

The other facet of this problem is inexperience, and in some ways, I feel that inexperience is its own topic.

Maybe you want to write about what it's like being a Chinese woman in the West, but you are a Caucasian teenage boy in a small town in the South. Maybe you want to write about an astronaut on Mars, but the furthest you got into your science career was high school chemistry and biology. Maybe you want to write a story about how a Christian helped convert an atheist--but you've never spent sincere time speaking with atheists about their genuine perspective and end up writing a two-dimensional caricature that turns a blind eye to the intricacies and complexities of the argument, "Is there a God?"

Really, inexperience can crop up in any number of things.

All of us are inexperienced in some way.

Does that mean you should only write about what you have lived? Of course not. That's ridiculous. You think everyone who has written a female character has been a female? Do you think only straight actors portray straight character? We're writers--we are imagining things we haven't lived all the time. It's likely we'll all write something wrong from our inexperience at some point.

In some situations, you can go out and gain the experience you need. If you've never been to the beach, maybe you can go to the beach. But if you've never been a Chinese woman, then maybe you need to speak and spend some time with one. And don't do anything stupid that compromises your moral standards just to gain firsthand experience.

Even if we don't have personal experience of something, we can sometimes draw from past experiences that may be similar or relate to said experience, and go from there. In some cases, for very specific set-ups or information, we can bluff it as writers, but it takes practice to make such bluffs believable. If you have access to someone who may have experience with whatever you are writing, you can ask them to read over your passage.

Convenient Human Behavior

One area in particular that audiences don't have a lot of patience for when it come to unbelievability, is human behavior. We will read about aliens and superheroes and not blink an eye, but when a character doesn't act human (or within the realms of whatever species he is, if you are writing speculative fiction), we won't believe it. In some beginners' stories, it may manifest itself in characters not having logical or probable reactions to certain things.

For example, if your protagonist's child dies unexpectedly, and then the next scene shows us the protagonist still moving forward preparing a holiday party with no sign of grief or distress, the audience is going to be skeptical (unless your protagonist is villainous and was the one who killed the child). This sort of problem usually relates to the tension/conflict problem. The writer throws something big into the story to make it more interesting, but then doesn't want to actually include the ramification of such a thing, so out of convenience, they continue the story without showing the character grieving. It's convenient human (or "inhuman") behavior.

Other times this happens because the writer simply doesn't know how to write a character who is in that particular emotional state. In my example, the writer may not know how to write a parent grieving for a child, and so, they don't. They continue on with the rest of the story. In that way, this problem can relate to the research and inexperience section too.

In some cases, it's not so much about a character not acting logically human as it is a character acting out of character--out of the boundaries the writer has already set. If your protagonist is a huge pacifist that believes in the sanctity of all human life and then goes and shoots an innocent bystander, without explanation or development, the audience isn't going to buy that. Maybe it was convenient for the plot, but it doesn't fit the character.

In general, problems in this area stem from the above three sections. However, unbelievability in human behavior can be so damning and so common, that I've put it as its own section.

Now go forth and write believable fiction!


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