What Makes a Story Feel Unrealistic?

by Jami Gold on November 10, 2011

in Writing Stuff

Sepia-toned drawing of nighttime on fantasy planet with large moon and hot air balloons

With fiction, a fine line exists between stories we can relate to (no matter how fantastical the setting, characters, or plot) and those we can’t. We’ve all heard the phrase “suspension of disbelief” in relation to movies and books to explain how we accept the impossible.

Every genre has different “But that’s impossible!” hurdles to overcome with readers.  Science fiction authors have to make the technology sound believable.  Legal thrillers have to play out according to set laws.  Paranormal authors have to decide if modified DNA, magic, or other things determine the rules of the world.

How Should Writers Make Readers Believe?

According to Wikipedia’s article on the suspension of disbelief, there are competing theories about how writers should best go about making their stories “believable enough.”  Poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested:

“[I]f a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

While fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien argued:

“[I]n order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world. By focusing on creating an internally consistent fictional world, the author makes secondary belief possible.”

So which is it?  Does suspension of disbelief come down to injecting an element of truth and making the characters relatable?   Or is it all about making sure the rules of the world are consistent?  Or is it a combination of both?

Genre Makes a Difference

I write paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  My stories take place on Earth (usually in contemporary times) where the supernatural aspects are hidden (unlike Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series of True Blood fame, where everyone knows vampires exist).

Because of the genre I write, my settings have to be recognizable to readers.  My fictional worlds have to feel like this world.  Readers should think that if only they knew the right people, they’d get to meet some of my characters from the clandestine societies of paranormal beings.

But even in non-fantasy-like genres, authors still struggle to make their stories realistic and believable.  Romance author Julie Leto recently blogged about how romance novels are often dismissed for being “fantasy”:

“One of the criticisms romance writers (and I’m sure, readers) often hear … is that romance novels give an unrealistic view of men and of romance and relationships in general.”

It was Julie’s post that triggered my thoughts about this issue.  Why are romance novels considered unrealistic?  And beyond that, what can writers of all genres learn from that insight?

A Deeper Look at One Genre

Let’s take the first assumption: Romance novels give an unrealistic view of men.  Sure, some romance novel heroes are impossibly rich or powerful, but most of them are damaged in ways that most people should stay far away from.  And at their core, whether the hero is a sheikh or a fireman, their personalities are often very realistic.

What about the second assumption: Romance novels give an unrealistic view of relationships?  At Julie’s post, I commented:

[W]hat makes it a romance–and thus what makes it feel like fantasy–is that [the hero and heroine] are perfect for each other.”

Is it unrealistic to think normal, real-life people like you and me can find someone who’s perfect for us?  Not perfect.  But perfect for us.  I’ve written before about how much I think real men have in common with romance heroes.  As long as both parties are working toward a good relationship, real-life romances do exist.

In other words, the unrealistic aspects of romance novels (at least for those who bother to read them before making judgments) aren’t about a lack of truth (what’s more true than the power of love?), relatable characters, or inconsistent world rules.

The romance novels I’ve found to be the least believable were those where the author didn’t do enough with motivations and/or actions to show why the hero and heroine were perfect for each other.  Believability is broader than either of those theories up above.

So What Can We Learn?

I think the basic rule for suspension of disbelief comes down to this:

Keep the reader in the story.

As soon as readers remember they’re reading a words on a page rather than living and breathing with the characters, the suspension bubble has burst.

Many things can take readers out of a story:

  • Writing that calls attention to itself: poor grammar, sentence structure, poor formatting, overly “writerly” writing, etc.
  • Writing that makes the reader have to reread: convoluted sentences, point-of-view issues/head-hopping, etc.
  • Plot issues: plot holes, contrived plots, overly complicated plots, etc.
  • Character issues: unrelatable, too perfect, backstory and behavior don’t match, missing/inadequate motivations for actions, etc.
  • Story or premise issues: premise doesn’t make sense, inconsistent world-building rules, too shallow (no element of truth), etc.

The interesting thing is that some stories can fall victim to several of these issues and still be popular (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer comes to mind).  So these mistakes aren’t necessarily the end of the world.  *smile*  But authors who avoid them will keep more readers invested in the story.

What stories have felt unrealistic to you?  What made them feel that way?  Does the level of realism you prefer affect which genres you enjoy?  Can you think of other things to add to the above list?

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51 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Amos Keppler November 10, 2011 at 6:40 am

I tend to agree with Tolkien here.

On the other hand, there is third possibility: The story shouldn’t necessarily make sense at all…

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 8:44 am

Hi Amos,

I’ll be honest with you, when I first started thinking about this issue, I thought Tolkien’s answer made the most sense. As a paranormal author, the idea of consistent world-building and world rules that make sense is huge. But as I started thinking about other genres, I realized that believability is broader than that, especially if we look at non-fantasy-like genres.

For example, in James Bond style thriller stories, the aspect that often makes the stories feel over-the-top is the cardboard villain. They have no backstory or motivation for why they want to blow up the world with some incredible weapon. It makes me want to question the villain, “Dude, if you blow up the planet, where are you going to live?” :)

So in that case, while the protagonist and plot make sense on the surface (internal consistency), there’s just not enough motivation on the villain’s end to justify their actions in a believable way. However, that doesn’t keep me from enjoying James Bond movies. :) It’s just that I know going in they’re going to be over-the-top.

And as for the idea that stories shouldn’t make any sense at all? I’ll let you tackle that concept in a blog post because that doesn’t make any sense to me. ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles November 10, 2011 at 8:01 am

Great post! I know I’ve read some romances by this one author where I felt like it was a big pile of fluff and it came down to the fact that they immediately found each other and instantly couldn’t wait to jump each other’s bones but something external was keeping them apart, but there was nothing whatsoever that showed them getting to know each other to show WHY they were so perfect for each other. I read several by her in the series (sucker for Scottish stuff, and wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the one book), but they were all like that. There wasn’t even really a plot in any of them. Won’t buy any more of her work. Sometimes when books are that bad, I really wish I could discuss them with an experienced writer to analyze what went wrong so I could learn more. I read sci-fi and fantasy too, and have no trouble with believability if the story is consistent. Perhaps it’s also a case that if the characters themselves also believe?

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 8:54 am

Hi Angela,

Ooo, yes, a way to deconstruct stories with other writers sounds cool. I’m thinking back to how I had as much fun tearing the Green Lantern movie apart for those blog posts as I did watching the movie. :)

Hmm, interesting thought about how whether the characters believe would make a difference. In the first urban fantasy I wrote, I received feedback from beta readers that the protagonist accepted all the paranormal elements too easily. Readers (rightly) saw the protagonist as a stand-in for themselves, and they measured her reaction against how they would react in a similar situation. Later on in the story, readers were more likely to accept her reactions as “that’s just who she is,” but at the beginning of the story, readers haven’t differentiated yet, so the protagonist’s reactions needed to match readers’ reactions more closely.

Wow, I hadn’t analyzed that dichotomy closely before. Interesting. Thanks for the comment and making me think! :)

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Angela Quarles November 10, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Yeah, there’ve been several books like that where I really wanted to know WHY it didn’t work for me as I don’t know that I’m skilled enough yet to pinpoint it…

On characters believing, I think you hit on the trick. In the beginning we need to see the character work through believing (as a stand-in for the reader) – coming up with counter theories, etc. – and THEN the reader can trust them through the rest of the book. I guess it’s all about making sure the character’s credibility/expertness is strong enough so that the reader can go along for the rest of the ride?

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Hi Angela,

it’s all about making sure the character’s credibility/expertness is strong enough so that the reader can go along for the rest of the ride

Great way of putting it! I guess if we think about it, when we first meet someone in real life, we have to get to know them first, before we decide if they’re trustworthy or not. So the protagonist has to earn the reader’s trust first. Very interesting. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal November 10, 2011 at 8:43 am

I can buy into a fantasy premise fairly easily, as long as it’s consistent. What will strike me as false are two things — lack of sufficient character motivation to propel the plot, and unlikely coincidences that exist just so the author can tell the story.

And sometimes, with both, the author truly has thought it out, but hasn’t conveyed the reasons on paper sufficiently.

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 9:09 am

Hi Susan,

Yes, plot contrivances and lacking motivation seemed to be big ones as I was thinking about this as well. And I think you’re right that the author often does have the world and explanations planned out, but they might not make it to the page. *cough* I know I’ve received that feedback from beta readers before. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Ann aka WorkingBoomer November 10, 2011 at 9:03 am

This is very good advice which I will keep in mind to use. Keeping the reader involved seems to be the key. Thank you for the input.

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 9:21 am

Hi Ann,

Hope it helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Stephen T. Harper November 10, 2011 at 9:26 am

Great topic and post, Jami.

I write in a lot of different genre’s, and there’s one simple rule that I’ve always held for all of them: You can tell any story you can dream up, as long as you never ask your audience for more than ONE suspension of disbelief.

So… aliens from planet X arrive to kidnap Regis Philbin. Okay. Fine.
Regis Philbin defeats the alien attack within his laser heat vision. Now it’s stopped working.

Tolkien is a perfect example. The suspension of disbelief is that long, long ago, in a previous “Age,” our world was quite different. That’s it. From there he paints a marvelously consistent story where we see that magic once worked, there were many different species that apparently evolved into intelligence, including trees. It all works.

From that one suspension of disbelief then, and as Tolkien suggests, it’s vital that the reader believes everything is happening in the story exactly as it would if it were happening to him or her. Internal logic within all the characters.

If I can do a shameless plug, I just posted a short example of this kind of thing on my blog last night. Conversations with Dead Geniuses features one very strange suspension of disbelief with very little explanation. The rest is like an experiment in how the internal consistency of the characters can take readers on strange but fun rides.

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

Hi Stephen,

LOL! at Regis Philbin’s laser heat vision. (And I’m looking forward to the Google search terms bingo from that phrase. :) )

Very interesting thought about ensuring stories have a single point of suspension of disbelief. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a story that goes against that idea. Even with your example, if it was explained that Regis Philbin was, in fact, an alien from their rival planet, everything would sort of make sense again (and the aliens’ reason for wanting to kidnap him would make more sense). I think you’re onto something. :)

And your short fiction piece is a great example of that idea as well. Thanks for the great insight and the comment!

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Stephen T. Harper November 10, 2011 at 9:59 am

You’re right that you could work the laser vision into the story. How about Regis uses his heretofore secret Navy Seal training to defeat the alien hordes in hand to hand combat?

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

Hi Stephen,

LOL! You have a special talent for this, I think. :) Thanks for the laugh and the comment!

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Roxanne Skelly November 10, 2011 at 11:55 am

I prefer stories where I can empathize with the characters. Get into their heads. Live their lives. The characters have to be realistic, and have at least something in common with me or who I want to be.

If an author can pull that off, I’m more than willing to believe what the characters believe (as mentioned before).

This has caused me a great deal of consternation (the word of the day) in my primary WIP, as I’m having to introduce my protagonist to a new and scary paranormal way, and have her ultimately accept it so I can actually have a plot. At least one that doesn’t happen inside a padded room. It’s been hard, but it’s a core part of her growth as a person, so it’s needed.

I do think SFF authors have a bit more leeway, as readers expect things to fall outside the bounds of their own experience. The characters must remain realistic as far as their wants and needs, but the worlds can be pretty wild and still acceptable.

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Jami Gold November 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Hi Roxanne,

Love your words of the day. :) Yes, with many science fiction/fantasy stories, readers just go along with it. Maybe, as you and I discovered, the difficulty comes in when the protagonist isn’t originally part of the world and they’re learning about it at the same time as the reader. Then the reader has expectations of how they’d react under those circumstances. Interesting. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Laura Pauling November 11, 2011 at 6:13 am

Both with movies and books, if it’s done well, I believe it. If something is unbelievable then the writer or director wasn’t quite there with the skills.

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Jami Gold November 11, 2011 at 8:19 am

Hi Laura,

Good point. And I think many writers know that on an instinctual level, which is why we’re sometimes reluctant to write certain stories, or to let our stories go down certain paths. We know we wouldn’t be able to do justice to the idea. Thanks for the comment!

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Mari November 11, 2011 at 10:55 am

“Why are romance novels considered unrealistic?” ~~ that’s easy for me to answer, although most people don’t agree with me (and that’s okay!): not all romance and not all life situations have a happy ending, life situations aren’t tied up with a pretty floofy red bow at the end.

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Jami Gold November 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

Hi Mari,

It’s true that real life doesn’t always have a happily ever after, but many romances end with not a “ever after” but a “for now – with a chance of ever after if we work really hard at it.” That is realistic. People who don’t read romances–or who limit themselves to a certain romance subgenre, such as category romance–assume they all end with the floofy (great word!) bow. However, many romances (usually the longer single-title books) end more realistically.

And of course, for those who don’t want the happy ending, there are plenty of other genres out there. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Anne R. Allen November 11, 2011 at 4:13 pm

What a great post. Have shared and tweeted. For me, belief comes from the characters–do their emotions, actions and thoughts come across as realistic? Even if he’s a three headed alien, if I can relate to his wants and emotions, it’s “real.”

I just read an interview with the actor who plays Arthur in the road company of Spamalot. He says he prepares exactly as if he were preparing to play MacBeth. He MUST believe in the story, and not “know” he’s in a comedy, or the story doesn’t work. Very insightful, I thought.

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Jami Gold November 12, 2011 at 9:58 am

Hi Anne,

He MUST believe in the story, and not “know” he’s in a comedy, or the story doesn’t work.

Good point! If someone on the creative side doesn’t believe in the story, it veers toward parody. And while parody can be entertaining, it’s not meant to be believable. Thanks for the insightful comment!

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Renee Schuls-Jacobson November 11, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Jami! This is so interesting. I have to admit, I put down books when it’s like character soup. Too many people with freaky-deaky names flying around to weird towns on dragons to get spices for salves. Glurg. But as long as the worlds seem credible and I can relate to the characters, I can usually make it through. If I have to start making a genealogy chart, it’s usually over. That’s why Absalom, Absalom kicked my ass. It’s the only book I haven’t been able to finish.

Oh, and The English Patient. I hated that for 100 pages. But that was a style thing.

Probably. ;-)

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Jami Gold November 12, 2011 at 10:02 am

Hi Renee,

Great point! And I’d go so far as to say that’s it’s not so much of the freaky-deaky names and weird towns and whatnot, as there are too many characters too fast that get in the way of finding any of them relatable. I’m with you on the genealogy chart. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover November 12, 2011 at 8:42 am

You can weave the craziest fantasy world ever, and I’ll buy into it as long as people behave like people. A story loses credibility for me if people behave in ways entirely inconsistent with typical human behavior. A lot of paranormal and sci-fi TV has lost my viewing for that reason. Maybe that’s why Twilight didn’t strike me as real; Edward needed some quirks or foot odor or something to be more realistic, even though I totally bought into the sparkly, strong, fast-driving vampire part of him. In contrast, that was what J.K. Rowling did so well with her Harry Potter series; her main characters behaved like kids and then teenagers, even with all of the wizardry world around them.

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Jami Gold November 12, 2011 at 11:05 am

Hi Julie,

LOL! at the Edward foot odor. Yes, the relatable factor. When a character is placed on a pedestal, they’re not given any weaknesses and they’re not down here where we can get to know them. I want characters I could hypothetically meet. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins July 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm

I just have to say: There are OTHER ways to tackle this challenge.

Let’s not be limited our options for character relatability.

You don’t have to be gross to come off “Perfectly Imperfect.”

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Jami Gold July 18, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Hi Taurean,

Yes, I don’t appreciate grossness either. I think Julie was using that example in a joking way to talk about flaws. There are many ways to create flaws without taking the gross path (and in fact, I wouldn’t recommend that path at all). :) Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp November 12, 2011 at 10:11 am

I think that with all the discussions involving writing, one thing is clear, no ONE answer is ever the right one. When it comes to suspension of disbelief, I think Tolkein & Coleridge are both correct.

Inconsistency attracts notice just as surely as dull characterizations will. It is the attraction of the readers notice to anything other then the story that calls disbelief into play. Once the shell of reality that the writer has built around the story fractures it cannot be easily rebuilt if at all. This shell applies solely to the story world and is strengthened into tempered glass by the combination of consistency and the human appeal of the characters.

Great post, Jami :)

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Jami Gold November 12, 2011 at 11:17 am

Hi Gene,

Yes, I agree that no one aspect determines the believability of a story. I like your take on how a story creates a shell (what I called a bubble) to hold us in.

A good example of that bubble effect is when we read a present-tense story. The first paragraph or so might feel weird, and then we forget about the tense as we’re pulled into the bubble to live the story with the characters. But then we have to go eat or use the bathroom or something, and when we come back, the first couple of paragraphs are going to feel weird again until we’re under the spell of the story once more. However, if story aspects (inconsistency, bored/confused by the characters) don’t keep us under the spell, we’ll continue noticing the present tense verbs.

Believability works the same way, and as you mentioned, once the shell/bubble/spell is broken, it cannot be easily rebuilt. Thanks for the comment!

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Teresa Robeson November 12, 2011 at 11:11 am

Wow…now I’m going to be up half the night pondering this. ;) I’ve thought about the issue before, of course, but hadn’t revisited it in-depth for a while, at least not in terms of specific books or specific reasons.

Your first two points (writerly-writing, sentences that make you re-read) remind me of the time when a friend highly recommended Rendezvous with Rama to me; I got through about 2 chapters before I ran away screaming…for precisely those two reasons. I’d rather listen to fingernails on a chalkboard than keep reading that book. Haven’t touched another Arthur C. Clarke book since.

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Jami Gold November 12, 2011 at 11:23 am

Hi Teresa,

LOL! Yes, that issue is why I’m usually a genre girl all the way. To me, too many literary stories fall into those traps. As I mentioned in reference to Twilight, that doesn’t mean people can’t enjoy them, but it means less people will be caught up in the story.

No one could read my stories or blog posts and accuse me of not wanting to think. :) However, when I read a story, I want to be thinking about the story–the themes, characters, choices–not “what the heck was that sentence trying to say.” :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nicole November 12, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Very interesting. I’ve been having a bit of trouble myself with the a project I’m working on and I now have a bit to think about.

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Jami Gold November 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Hi Nicole,

I hope this helps. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Heather November 13, 2011 at 9:22 pm

WHAT? Twilight had several of those issues? Hee. Yes, I read them all. At least Jacob was somewhat more believable than Edward…okay, now you know what Team I’m on. Anyway, I liked The Host far better.

On a more serious note, I totally get that some romances are unrealistic. It’s why I can’t crack an Amish romance book and read the first two chapters (in which the man is a sudden widower, with a child who needs someone to love him/her…and the man happens upon just the right quirky/feisty/shy woman to help out).

Thanks for the reminder that yes, people can be made for each other, but we need to keep said couples real and consistent.

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Jami Gold November 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Hi Heather,

I read them all too and enjoyed them. I’m Team Alice. She rocks more than the rest added together. LOL!

Great point! Sometimes with romances, the unrealistic tone can be set at the very beginning–with a far-fetched “meet cute.” In the comments above, we were discussing how realism is especially important at the beginning of a story, when the reader isn’t fully invested yet. But some “meet cutes” between the hero and heroine are anything but believable, and that can make the whole book feel off. Thanks for the comment!

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Kyla November 19, 2011 at 1:08 pm

I agree with both Coleridge and Tolkien. You need believable, identifiable characters in a believable, understandable world in order for a person to suspend disbelief.

I think my favorite part of this entire post was the comment on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I think they are poorly written and have struggled for years to understand what she did that made them so popular. Maybe if I managed to crack that secret I could infuse my books with the same qualities and make a few million myself. ;)

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Jami Gold November 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Hi Kyla,

LOL about Stephenie. If you figure it out, let me know. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Martina Boone March 27, 2012 at 7:33 am

Jami,

Great post, as usual. I love the list of things that can pull you out. You always structure your posts so well!

Martina

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Jami Gold March 27, 2012 at 8:09 am

Hi Martina,

You think so? Wow, I “pants” my blog posts, so I usually discover the point I’m trying to make as I go. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Hey, I like your point about that romances feel unbelievable when the author writes too little, or not at all, about the motivations and actions that make the girl and guy perfect for each other.

I agree that wonderful romances can exist in real life; people just seem to be too cynical nowadays. Anyway, a wonderful romance doesn’t mean a perfect relationship with no bumps or obstacles. It just means that on the whole, it’s great, healthy, and is filled with many joyful and meaningful moments together.

Romances aside, hmm, Coleridge’s human element and Tolstoy’s “internal consistency” theories sound very interesting. I presume the human element will make the characters themselves the focus of the story, which distracts us from anything “too fantastical” in the background. The internal consistency should work, but not always. In Twilight (yes), vampires sparkle. That is the rule inside Stephenie Meyer’s world. So what annoys me is that people keep complaining that “vampires don’t sparkle”. But we’re not talking about “universal vampires” (if they even exist); we’re only talking MEYER’s vampires, not everybody’s vampires. To me, every story–every universe—contains its own rules which are completely independent from the rules of other universes, including ours. It would be helpful not to get frustrated when universe A has a rule X, but universe B does not have a rule X. These two universes don’t have to have the same rules. Any sameness they may happen to have, is just a coincidence. There. That’s my belief.

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Jami Gold April 23, 2012 at 9:34 am

Hi Serena,

Good definition of a wonderful, real-life romance. :)

I understand what you mean by each story needing to be internally consistent but not necessarily consistent over a whole genre. I think some aspects do need to stay the same, otherwise why call a trope an X if it has nothing in common with X? However, I’d say that common aspect would be very basic: Vampires need to drink blood, werewolves have to shapeshift into wolves, etc. In J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, her vampires drink the blood of other vampires–not humans. That’s a huge change that would affect vampire mythology in the human world of the stories (would stories really have developed in that world of vampires being monsters?), yet I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem with that choice J.R. Ward made. I suspect people just like picking on Stephenie Meyer. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 23, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Ooh Ward’s vampires are cool! Yeah I do feel Meyer is over-criticized somehow.

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Jami Gold April 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Hi Serena,

Yes, both authors are popular, write “crack” (addictive books), and have been picked on for their writing. (One reviewer I know swore that Ward’s BDB books should be read as over-the-top parodies of the genre.) Yet Meyer gets picked on by the general population, and people criticize her world-building choices too, even though they both made some unusual choices. It’s easy to think Meyer gets the brunt of it because of her popularity, but Ward consistently lands on the top of the NYT bestseller list too. *shrug* I’m not sure. :) Thanks for the comment!

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