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December 11, 2014

Ask Jami: How Can We Make a Story Believable?

Card hand of 4 aces with text: What Makes a Story Unbelievable?

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

Coincidences:

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.

Too Convoluted:

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

No Motivation:

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.

Too Perfect:

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.

Inconsistent Characterization:

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.

Mismatched Emotions:

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?

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38 Comments on "Ask Jami: How Can We Make a Story Believable?"

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Carradee

This is one of those, well, interesting things with series.

I write unreliable narrators who not infrequently make assumptions or misinterpret things. I’ve had a few readers complain, “But X!” and the answer is “Precisely.” (Which is part of why I think my work qualifies as a literary-genre blend.) I’ve gotten a few comments from readers who say “Something feels off, but I’m not sure what…” and then in reading book 4 on Wattpad, they’ve gone, “OH! I get it!”

Like any other writing choice, it limits my audience to readers who don’t notice or who notice but are willing to stick with it to see if it’s intentional…but it also means that once a reader sticks with it and enjoys the intentionality of it, they go looking for other things I’ve written, too.

(My newsletter is set up so folks can sign up for news about specific genres/pennames/story worlds. So far, EVERYONE has signed up for updates about “all”.)

Kim

When you mentioned the “modified DNA” I immediately thought of Star Wars and the midi-chlorians being the reason for someone to have the Force. I hated that explanation! It completely took me out of the story. Whenever I think of it, it makes me cringe.

Since I write historical fiction set in the 10th century, one thing I need to watch out for is creating characters who are out of their *place*. Kings and other wealthy people talked, acted, dressed, and ate in a different way than peasants. If I have kings or peasants who don’t know their place and it’s not part of the story line, then I’m doing something that isn’t believable.

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin
A lot of science fiction films lose me in the trailer. If it’s supposed to be a fantasy type of science fiction where there are no rules, e.g. Doctor Who, the plausibility of it isn’t an issue for me. It’s films like Sunshine that bug me, where it is presented as if it were plausible. It looked great at the beginning of the trailer but then came the dodgy scientific premise which completely ruined it for me. The “human” element of the story was fine but the sci-fi backdrop was terrible for me. And in all seriousness, who would name a vessel on a mission to the Sun, Icarus? The absolute worst offender has to be Star Trek: Into Darkness. The first ten minutes of that made me weep. If keeping the Enterprise hidden from the indigenous population was such a priority, why not stay in orbit rather than “hide” in the sea? And the volcano? Urgh. That type of volcano couldn’t possibly cause an extinction level disaster and the cold fusion bomb is nonsense. Cold fusion doesn’t make things cold, it’s fusion at room temperature as opposed to the naturally occurring hot fusion in a star. Even if it were possible to solidify the lava in the volcano, volcanoes erupt because of pressure, not heat so it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference *runs around screaming and waving hands* I get that they wanted to make a big impact and I understand the juxtaposition of fire and water, but… Read more »
Davonne Burns

This might be a bit nit picky of me but sometimes word choice can throw me out of a story just as readily as a glaring deus ex machina moment. Having a fantasy/medieval setting yet a character describes something in modern terminology is one of the bigger offenders. Dialog that uses more modern slang or even slang that is too antiquated to be easily understood is another issue I’ve seen crop up in the genres. Even using the wrong words for weapons gets me at times (some authors mix up broadswords with what are actually claymores).

The other thing that gets me is having a young character act too old or vice versa. I recently put down a fantasy novel after only a few pages for this reason. The whole premise was implausible to me once I realized the MC was supposed to be fourteen and I’d not once got the impression he was anything less than late 20s early 30s.

Jennifer Barricklow

My pet peeve (mentioned by Davonne) are deus ex machina resolutions. One of my favorite speculative fiction authors does that ALL THE TIME and it drives me bonkers! Her world-building, character development, and plotting (up to a point) are so amazing that I keep reading her stuff anyway, hoping that this time she won’t just reach an impasse (or arbitrary page limit) and bring in some aliens to save the day. I love everything she does…until the climax. I haven’t given up on her (yet) but I also don’t recommend her books to others because I find her resolutions so frustrating.

Robin
Robin

The first three adults who read my WIP all had issues with a snowstorm at the beginning – I had in my head a 100% realistic scenario, patterned on Real World Geography. Take Buena Vista, a small town in South Park, Colorado, located around 9,000 feet elevation, the top of Cottonwood pass around 13,000 feet elevation, and then a mining claiming on the far side of the pass, down around 8,000 feet elevation.
But I didn’t want to get all bogged down explaining for flatlanders that going up 1000 feet causes climate to change equivalent to going north about 300 miles. (I guess I figured everyone knows winter comes earlier in the mountains…)
But 3 out of 3 of my first readers of those first chapters didn’t buy the snowstorm to get to the claim matching up with the nice fall weather once they got there… (palm to face). The magic was completely believable, but the reality based weather broke the suspension of disbelief… I’ve made some revisions to emphasize the elevation/weather connection… time will tell if I managed to delicately fix the issue or not…

Thanks for another great blog, Jami. 🙂

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
As you know, Jami, I face this issue ALL THE TIME in my niche, and the tricky part for getting beta-readers for my work is finding a mix of readers who get my genre, and nuanced it CAN be and those not as familiar but will offer valid advice. One the biggest problems authors who write non-natrualistic animal stories face is that we’re not 100% nonsensical but we’re also not 100% naturalistic with our nonhuman characters, either, and I try REALLY hard to established that in the context of the STORY’S WORLD (which isn’t always one to one with the world as we know it, even if it’s set there) this is what my characters do and anyone acting outside the confines of that world has a purpose and the appropriate consequences. But as you touch on in your post, as much as we don’t want to bog the story down with densely written explanations of every little thing, being vague about it gives the impression we don’t know the answer ourselves, and for the sake of argument let’s say we do know, but the reader thinks otherwise because they don’t know what we know as the writer, and for me I’m so detail-oriented that I don’t always know to when to pair it down and still be specific. But I’m coming to accept that I simply write in a highly detailed (and not always concise) way, and have to pair it back as needed, because if I try too… Read more »
Summerita

Hi Jami,
I always enjoy your insightful posts and this one is certainly a must read for authors especially those diverging from the contemporary genre like me for instance. I’m writing a romance taking place in the post Vedic period in ancient India and can relate to many of the issues you have raised. Since people spoke Sanskrit at that time, I found it difficult to find the tone of their conversation in English. However my beta reader friends helped out a lot. Phrases like ‘plant one on the nose’ had to go 🙂 I also toned down the heroine’s tendency to call the hero by his first name and provide an explanation if she did as a friend pointed formality existing in those days. However I have taken certain liberties with customs as I wanted to make my characters more than just puppets of convention. Let’s see if that works. Will know when it is released 🙂 Thanks again for the post. It certainly helps to have a check list!

Tahlia Newland

Believability is a very subjective thing though. What one believes another won’t, and how believable something is can also change. Being too timid with our stories is probably as bad as being too extreme.

My latest book is a metaphysical thriller about a reviewer being hounded by a disgruntled author. I thought my original idea was a little too outlandish, so I made it more believable. Then, about a month before publication, I read about that author who physically attacked a reviewer. That made the previously unbelievable believable, so I rewrote the ending using my original idea. The interesting thing is that the book is much better with the more outlandish ending, and I realised that I should have written it that way anyway and not worried whether people would think it believable or not. But I’m not saying to ignore Jami’s good advice; no, I agree with her totally – I hate unbelievable plots and character interactions.

My challenge was to write it in such a way that it was believable for this character at this point in time. So far no one has suggested that it’s not, but I wonder if they might have had it been published a few years ago.

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Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Lol! Of course story writing is no easy task! Otherwise it wouldn’t be as fun! I realize more and more nowadays that art isn’t fun if it’s too easy, haha. (I’m really sorry Jami that this comment is going to be quite long too…Because there’s too much I want to say about this topic! :O) ” 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. ” Hmm could you elaborate on what you mean by a story feeling unbelievable if it has the “wrong/ unexpected” tone? Also, readers might think something is unbelievable because it doesn’t match genre expectations? :O Isn’t that about violating expectations, rather than about believability? Coincidences: Lol, but what if a character remarks that there are too many coincidences that it’s ridiculous? And maybe some other characters think there are too many coincidences that it’s so uncanny as well? As in it’s a lamp shading? 😀 Lol. I imagine that this might be acceptable in a comedy or in a funny/ unserious moment that is SUPPOSED to be absurd in some way. But I don’t know about more serious scenes? LOL that lots of coincidences to screw up the character’s… Read more »
Denise D. Young

This was a wonderful, helpful post, Jami. You actually helped me solve a problem I’ve been having in a current story. Specifically, your point about forcing Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) actions. I couldn’t figure out why a character would stay in a place (another world) that posed a threat to her if she had the option to go home. Then I realized that I had to take that option off the table, and I had the perfect way to do that without breaking the rules of the world. Thank you!

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