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Believe It or Not: Writing and Reading Short Fiction

Updated on July 15, 2019
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Chris shares lessons he's learned about writing short fiction in articles about genre & literary fiction, flash fiction, and believability.

Believable Story, Authentic Characters

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Believe It or Not

News stories sometimes are too good to be true or too horrible to believe. There was a story published by a Russian tabloid that tells of a man being attacked by a brown bear in the Tuva region near the border with Mongolia. The bear reportedly dragged the man back to its den where it stored him to be eaten later. The story tells how the man survived for a full month before hunting dogs led hunters to the cave’s entrance. The men said they thought they had found a human mummy but then realized the man was alive.

Is that story true or false? Is it believable? Do you want to believe it but can’t, or do you not want to believe it but feel it probably is true?

It was a hoax. The same photos that the hunters supposedly took were used prior to that story’s release in another story that turned out to be a hoax as well. So if you didn’t believe it, you were correct.

When a story is believable and works for readers, that fact goes largely unheralded. And really, that is how it should be.

Believability is the concern of every writer of fiction and the expectation of every reader. When a story is believable and works for readers, that fact goes largely unheralded. And really, that is how it should be. When a story is believable, the sense of authenticity is unquestioned.

When was the last time you put down a book or turned the TV channel because there was something in the plot of the story you weren’t buying? I was visiting my mother recently, and she loves the old Matlock series with Andy Griffith. I enjoy the show too. Andy played a criminal defense lawyer who went above and beyond the call of duty to prove his clients were not guilty. In one episode, the scene depicted a businessman who had just received a plate of homemade cookies. He was delighted and decided to try one immediately. Five seconds later he was on the floor dead.

I remember writing a story once in which I needed a quick-acting poison. I searched hard and long for that pill or powder or liquid. I did find one thing—arsenic. But arsenic doesn’t kill in five seconds. Possibly it will in a couple of hours if the dose is high enough, but not five seconds. I decided that was a blunder by whoever was directing that particular episode of Matlock. I finished watching for my mother’s sake.

Indiana Jones, Pushing the Envelope of Believability

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Six Elements That Will Make a Story Believable

  1. Research is required regarding every detail of a story if it is to be unquestionably believable. The topics could be science, history, culture, geography, and anytime something is presented as factual. As a reader, you may have expertise in something the author is writing about. How does he handle that topic? Are you satisfied?
  2. Dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue reveals the inner person as they converse with someone else. Motivations surface as well as the nature of the relationship between the people involved. While dialect and vocabulary might be used to give a character something that sets them apart from others, the author can get even more mileage by giving them a certain mindset or attitude. This can come out every time the character speaks so that the reader knows who said it without being told.
  3. Something that happened in real life still has to be presented in fiction in a believable way. In other words, factual does not equal believable. All the elements that make a completely fictional account believable apply to something that happened in reality. As a reader, before you read that next historical fiction story, read up on the real history first. This will place you in a much better position to evaluate the story.
  4. Characters should always remain in character with few if any surprise reveals. The story is moving along nicely when suddenly the character or characters run into a situation that requires specific knowledge and skills. How will you feel as a reader if one of the characters suddenly reveals that they have all the requirements to handle the situation? If this is going to happen, the writer must reveal the fact that this character has such knowledge and skills long before the need for them arises. Otherwise, this place in the story will be the dropping out point for many disappointed readers.
  5. Worldbuilding is a key element in making science fiction and fantasy stories work for the reader. But stories with fictional towns or other settings also need to do some worldbuilding. The writer needs to strike a balance between moving the story along and presenting a believable world in which the story occurs. Researching situations in the real world that might be used in the sci-fi or fantasy world is an effective method for achieving authenticity. Readers should watch for any lapse in the sense of reality.
  6. Characters participate in many aspects of real life, and their motivations should be crystal clear. Is a character pursuing another character with hopes of romance? Is the motivation merely sexual or does it go deeper? Being motivated purely for sex is fine if it fits the story and the character. Otherwise, more should be revealed regarding the character’s attraction to the other character. As a reader, you should expect to find characters whose actions arise out of clear motivations. A hero who places their life on the line will do so only if they perceive that the potential payoff is greater than the risk. In the Indiana Jones series, Harrison Ford continually pushes this particular envelope as he pursues archeological items that may or may not exist.

Fantasy Worldbuilding

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As a reader, how would you respond if you encountered a glaring contradiction in the way a key character had been presented up to that point? For example, the character had been described as physically weak and emotionally/psychologically fearful. Without warning or preparation, this person rises to an extreme challenge and performs impeccably.

  • Do you forgive, forget, and continue reading?

  • Do you return the book to the library?

  • Do you write to the publishing company?

  • Do you report to your book club?

  • Do you simply put the book on the bookshelf and find something else to read?

As a Writer, do you think about the believability of what you are writing? If you encountered an inconsistency in a character or the plot, what would you do?

  • Rewrite as much as is necessary to resolve the inconsistency.

  • Pick up the pace of the story hoping the reader would skim over the issue.

  • Introduce a new situation or person who could resolve the problem.

  • Nothing. Readers aren’t paying that much attention.

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Believability is the Lifeblood of a Story

Believability is the lifeblood of a story. As a writer, if you drain that blood out of a character or the setting or the plot, the story will suffer. If it is a small thing, maybe the story can survive. If it is big and glaring, be prepared for a literary code blue emergency.

Readers who show understanding and forgiveness to a writer who has seriously let them down should be appreciated and never let down again. Readers who walk away from a favorite author because of repeated gaffes have the right, possibly even the responsibility to do so. Writing is a serious profession and should be respected when respect is earned by readers and taken seriously by writers.

© 2019 Chris Mills

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    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Thank you, Ruby. It is my goal with every story, to make it believable so that the reader is never distracted by my writing. The writer and the writing process should be invisible.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      5 weeks ago from Southern Illinois

      I think it takes practice to make fiction believable. I love to try. Your stories are always great and I enjoy reading them all.. Thanks for the info you included in this piece...

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      A disclaimer is good, Eric. Also, let just enough time pass before publishing. you want anyone mentioned to wonder if they should file a suit for defamation of character or liability.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Pamela, your opinion here is very valuable. I believe what you have said is very important for any writer of fiction to read. You would put a story down if a new writer (to you) didn't make it believable. We need to have standards, and you have made yours clear. Thank you.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Sean, I want to be a gate, a portal to as many people as I can be so they can experience adventures that would otherwise be impossible. Thank you for opening this possibility up to me.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Chris this made me giggle again. My lawyer buddy read a piece I sent him and he demanded that I start with a disclaimer that it was fiction. Fine!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      I enjoyed your article, and it really made me think about making writing believable. I think it is important to make any character meet that standard if you want the reader to find the story believable.

      If I have a favorite author I might read on hoping the story improves, but with an author I haven't read before, I might just put the book down.

    • Sean Dragon profile image

      Ioannis Arvanitis 

      5 weeks ago from Greece, Almyros

      A good storyteller becomes a gate! Anyone of the audience can travel, through this portal, to a different world and live the story on his way! Same story, thousands of adventures! Isn't that magic?

      I wish you always to be a High Gate for your readers!

      Sean

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Thank you, Sean. Your cheerful presence always makes my day. Tell me more about "A storyteller is a 'Gate'".

    • Sean Dragon profile image

      Ioannis Arvanitis 

      5 weeks ago from Greece, Almyros

      I always like to see people caring for others, sharing their experience and knowledge. It is one of the reasons I love you, brother! Thank you for this article, it's a gift from a master of fiction! It is really a great help about things I continuously try to improve beside my "foreign" English! Gratitude!

      A storyteller is a "Gate"!

      Sean

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      I'll see what the fall and winter traveling and work opportunities offer. I want to get back out west for sure.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I did hear life gets better Chris. We just built a zip line from chimney to a hard post. My butt still hurts. When I tell his kids this tall tale they will look at dad and when he confirms Moms and Grandmas will roll eyes.

      Get out here and climb the Grand Canyon with me. You can throw your trout meat at me.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Eric, I would love to sit at a campfire and hear you tell stories while I throw things at you. That sounds like my kind of evening.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Lorna, I"m glad you liked the article. A little work goes a long way.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      Liz, I appreciate those thoughts. Thanks for coming to read my article.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      5 weeks ago from Dallas, Texas through August 23, 2019.

      John, I love doing the research for short stories. I learn a lot in a short period of time that way. I like knowing that someone who is knowledgable about a subject is going to see that I've dealt with it adequately. Thanks for stopping.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Wonderful and excellently done. I learned a great deal. I do more story telling than writing I guess. On road trips now my kids google and call aunties and uncles. Rather disconcerting. My life has been so strange that fact is stranger than fiction, though I love to embellish.

      Campfires are the best. And having things thrown at you in Disbelief is great.Older buddies like to say things like "yes he really did fall off that cliff". hihihihi.

    • Lorna Lamon profile image

      Lorna Lamon 

      5 weeks ago

      This is a thought provoking article which gives great insight into the importance of believability in order to get the audience to connect. Great tips.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      In the age of fake news or more accurately at a time when fake news is being called out more frequently, I have read your article with interest. You make some very good and helpful points.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a wonderful article Chris and you point out some very relevant elements to making a story successful. It has to be believable or possible to the reader even if it is fantasy or science fiction. Research is so important.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 weeks ago from Queensland Australia

      This is a wonderful article Chris and you point out some very relevant elements to making a story successful. It has to be believable or possible to the reader even if it is fantasy or science fiction. Research is so important.

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