Years ago, I talked about some of the issues that can take a reader out of the story. It’s an important problem to learn about because as soon as immersion is broken for a reader, their suspension of disbelief is at risk.
There are plenty of books and movies I’ve enjoyed until about five minutes after the end. Then my analytical nature takes over and thinks, “Hey, wait a minute…,” and I start deconstructing all the aspects that didn’t make sense. (My family’s plot hole analyses are epic. *smile*)
At least in those cases, I was pulled enough into the story that I didn’t notice the issues until after the fact (which is why it’s so important to keep readers immersed). What’s even worse is if the unbelievable aspects are bad enough to kick readers out of the story midway.
Those readers aren’t likely to pick up the book again. Or if they do, it might be to live tweet all the details they find craptastic or to write a hate-read review. Obviously then, we want to make our story as believable as possible, within the expectations of our genre.
Today’s post is prompted by a question from P.J. Quirino:
“What does it mean to make a story believable? Does it mean to create scenes and world and emotions in the story that a reader can relate to and can feel what the character feels?”
That’s not a straightforward question because there are many ways our stories can feel unbelievable. Let’s dig deeper and see if we can discover some tips and elements to watch out for.
The Many Faces of Unbelievable Storytelling
Storytelling is always about finding a balance. We have to make our stories clear enough to avoid confusion, but we also need to leave enough in the subtext that our prose isn’t too on-the-nose. We have to explore our characters’ emotions to lure in our readers, but we don’t want to slow down the pace. And we have to make our plot both unexpected and inevitable at the same time.
(Easy, right? Or not…)
When it comes to believability, issues could crop up within the plot, characters, or worldbuilding. We have to find the right balance within each of those areas, or readers won’t buy the story we’re selling (literally and figuratively).
(I really hope no one ever told you that writing would be easy. *smile*)
However, there’s no always-right “don’t do this” advice because believability varies widely by genre. Unless we’re writing the equivalent of the novel version of the movie From Dusk to Dawn, what’s going to be believable in a contemporary bank heist story is going to be different from what’s believable in a vampire horror story.
So the first aspect of believability to check might be:
- Ensure the premise is plausible within the bounds of genre expectations.
As I mentioned in my older post:
“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.”
Furthermore, within each of the genres, there’s variety based on tone, mood, setting, etc. A spy thriller could be based in U.S. Revolutionary War days and be light but serious, or a spy thriller could be based in contemporary Japan and be dark but funny. Each of those variations will change the suspension of disbelief necessary, as well as the line for plausible and believable.
If we receive feedback that our story isn’t believable, but we’re not suffering from any of the specific problems below, we might want to double check reader expectations. Was there a mismatch between our genre, premise, style, or setting? Did readers expect one kind of story and we delivered a different kind of story?
In that case, we might look at our genre category, book description, tagline, or marketing. Those are all things we could change to match the story we have, rather than trying to redesign our whole story.
However, many times something might be unbelievable within the story itself and need to be resolved. Let’s take a look at the most likely culprits.
Frequent Issues with Unbelievable Plots
Storytelling doesn’t like coincidences when they make the situation too easy on the character. This is the “Oh, she just happened to run into the person she was looking for but didn’t know how to find” problem. It’s too convenient to be believable.
Random events that are coincidences are only liked when they make things harder on the characters. Harder = Okay. Easier = Not Okay.
When plots get so convoluted that readers are confused, they might give up trying to figure it out and just think it’s too implausible. In other words, this is the opposite of too many easy coincidences. Here, there are too many moving pieces to believe that they’d all come together for the resolution in a realistic way.
Not Enough Conflict or Tension:
This is similar to the coincidences issue, in that things are too easy for our characters. Life is hard, so readers want to see the characters struggle. It’s too unbelievable when they skate through the story.
Forcing Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) Actions
Some plot events force the character to act as puppets to the plot. They have to do something the character would know was A Bad Idea because without it, the plot falls apart. Readers can’t believe the character would do such a stupid thing.
Frequent Issues with Unbelievable Characters
This is the character side of the issue of being a puppet to the plot. If we have to make characters do something for the plot to work, we need to give them really good reasons to do that thing, and those reasons need to fit their character. We can’t have a character suddenly take a stand on, say, violence, unless we’ve established their commitment to pacifism earlier. The motivations have to feel true to the character to be believable.
Real people are flawed, so characters that have no flaws don’t seem real. It’s often our characters’ flaws that make them relatable. Imperfect characters are more believable.
Mary Sue/Gary Stu:
Mary Sue or Gary Stu characters are often too perfect and cliché, but another common trait of these characters is that all the other characters love and adore them. This trait creates low conflict and makes things too easy for them during the story. All those problems added together create a very unbelievable character.
Nice people aren’t always nice, but in books, if a character acts differently from how readers expect, more explanation is needed. For example, a character could be nice but show meanness in a scene if a reason is given.
Were they upset or tired? Do they feel guilty now? If those reasons aren’t given to show how their different character traits interact and relate, the character’s characterization will feel too convoluted and unbelievable.
Part of making a character relatable is making them somewhat predictable based on what we know of real people. If we know a character has a horrible backstory wound about being betrayed, we’d predict that their motivations would lead them to try to avoid being betrayed again, and if it happens again anyway, we’d predict that they’d be devastated, or at least upset.
If characters don’t react strongly enough—or react too strongly—that mismatch can make them seem not real. Readers need to buy into our characters to suspend their disbelief for everything else. Like the characterization issue above, if characters don’t react as readers expect, an explanation is needed to keep them believable.
Frequent Issues with Worldbuilding
Details Don’t Make Sense or Fit Together:
Was the magic system explained one way in this scene and another way in that scene? Was an Army Private placed in charge of a platoon? Was a billionaire flying coach?
Some worldbuilding issues come down to premise issues, while others suffer from being poorly thought out or explained. Either way, the details have to make sense to be believable.
Not Enough Details:
Even worse than a poor explanation is not explaining some aspect of the world at all. At least with a poor explanation, readers might assume that we thought about the issue. When there’s no explanation, we leave readers with the impression that we couldn’t be bothered or that we were oblivious to the need.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “hand-waved it away,” the core problem is often a lack of details. Think of the wizard saying, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Dorothy and her companions didn’t believe that line and neither will our readers.
Finding and Fixing Believability Issues
Honestly, that list above is just the issues I thought of off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more, and I hope we’ll compare notes in the comments.
Like many aspects of our writing, we might not be able to find these problems on our own. We once again have to rely on our beta readers, critique groups, or editors to help us identify aspects that aren’t believable. Hopefully this list will give us a head start on figuring out what the cause might be.
By analyzing those problems above, we can see many similar threads. Our stories need to:
- be plausible within our genre,
- mesh the style, setting, and genre,
- avoid making things too easy for our characters (show the struggle),
- not make things so convoluted that only coincidences could force the pieces into place,
- provide appropriate explanations for actions, motivations, and worldbuilding specifics, and
- make characters seem real and relatable through flaws, emotions, hardships, etc.
All that said, believability is often a subjective measure. Some readers can’t suspend their disbelief enough to read fantastical stories at all. So don’t panic if one reader thinks something isn’t believable that others think is just fine. Our goal here is to make our story believable enough that most readers will become immersed. Because immersed readers turn the page. *smile*
Have you ever read an unbelievable story, and if so, what made it unbelievable to you? Have you ever received feedback that your story was unbelievable? Did you figure out the issue, and if so, how? Can you think of other issues that frequently cause believability issues? Do you have other advice for how to fix those issues?Pin It