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The Plausible Impossible in Fiction Writing

Updated on October 10, 2014

Good fiction writing means crafting a good story. It doesn't mean that the story should be grounded in reality, only that it be internally consistent. A good plot with believable characters who have conversations that make sense are elements of a good story, even if the story is located on a planet light years from earth.

Internal consistency is essential to a good story. The story may be a fantasy, a horror tale including monsters and wild scenes, or a time travelling journey to strange lands. But the reader expects that the tale should unfold in a way that is, well, believable.

"The Plausible Impossible" was Walt Disney's way of putting it. There was even an episode of the Disneyland TV series devoted to the subject. Something may be impossible, as when the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons walks off the edge of a cliff, stands there, and then looks down to realize there's nothing under him. But that's okay, he eventually falls. If, instead of falling down the character fell up, that would be implausible. We know that nobody, including the Coyote, can stand in space. That's impossible. But we suspend our belief and are entertained by the story because he plausibly falls down. The Coyote and the Road Runner weren't Disney characters, but the Coyote did have a way of walking off cliffs. Another example of this plausibly impossible action was the famous scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where Bob Hoskins steps off a cliff, and, Coyote-like, he is suspended there. As he falls, he reaches up and grabs a tire, which had hung there. He is saved because he lands in the hands of a cartoon character. Impossible, yes, but entirely plausible.Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great fun story. It's about people who rub elbows with cartoon characters known as "Toons." Completely impossible. Completely plausible.

Some of the greatest novels - look no further than those penned by Stephen King - involve impossible plots, scenes and dialog. No angry girl named Carrie can really heap mayhem on her enemies by telekinesis. That's impossible. But King makes it entirely plausible because he, the author, gives his character this amazing power. Once he's done that he honors his readers by making all of the scenes plausible, once the basic premise - telekinesis - is in the book.

Possible But Implausible

A writer can also let down the reader with a scene that may be possible, but lacks plausibility. And this isn't only for science fiction genres. Suppose the heroine of a novel is very much in love with her handsome husband. We know this because of the scenes and dialog, and a bit of backstory worked in. Now suppose that our heroine runs off with a scruffy poor elderly man. We are given no reason, she just does. It's never set up or explained, it just happens. Of course it's possible for the heroine to run off with the old guy, but it's entirely implausible.

A recent movie, Battleship, was a fun story but let's you down at the end because of an implausible event. The movie is all about a bunch of alien invaders who land gigantic machines in the ocean and raise havoc with their terrible weapons. So far so good - hey, it's science fiction. But at the end of the movie, the good guys take a battleship, which had been turned into a museum, and attack the evil aliens with it. The ship is run by a bunch of patriotic old geezers who once served on the ship. Excuse me. You can't just fire up a mothballed museum and take it to sea. And why was the ship armed with live weapons? An implausible letdown.

It's All About Treating the Reader with Respect

Fantasy, horror, weirdness and mayhem are the stuff of great stories. The stories may be completely impossible, but that's fine. They have to be plausible, and keep to the logic of the story itself. I'm not suggesting that fiction should hone to reality. That's no fun. But the writer has an obligation to be consistent with the plot and not to treat the reader like a jerk.

Russ Moran, the writer of this article, is the author of three novels, The Gray Ship, The Thanksgiving Gang,, and A Time of Fear. They're all time travel novels, impossible, but plausible.

Copyright © 2014 by Russell F. Moran - All Rights Reserved

© 2013 Russ Moran


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    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for your comment, Will.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I like the plausible impossible and make good use of it in my short stories. All that's required is the reader's willingness to be deceived.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Marie. Yes, a reader or viewer should be taken seriously.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks Bill. Hope you like the rest of it!

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      I found this very interesting Russ, thanks for this information. The Battleship movie highlights the 'plausible but impossible' scenarios that let down many movies and books of this genre. Voted up.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Very interesting, Russ! I happen to know that you live what you write...judging from the first third of your novel, you understand this concept quite well.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. Yes, with vampires, zombies etc. there's a lot of plausible impossible stuff out there.

    • Wr1t3r profile image

      Melanie Mason 4 years ago from Oregon

      Interesting. I heartily agree with your premise. It's the same way that we believed, for a moment, that there were actually vampires or that there is a whole magical community hidden from our view. Great hub.