Believe It or Not: Writing and Reading Short Fiction
Believable Story, Authentic Characters
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
Six Elements That Will Make a Story Believable
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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