Tuesday, June 11, 2013

An Original Way to Make Any Story Plausible

To enjoy a story, we need to feel that the author's world is - within its own logic - plausible; and for a story, howsoever fantastical, to be plausible it must be grounded in the reader's world. Does that sound provocative? Let me explain.


A sci-fi tale may consist improbably of a dialogue between sentient sunbeams. But at least we're familiar with dialogue and sunbeams.

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is plausible (within its own logic), not solely because it's built on familiar epic myths, but because its weird characters are - arguably - human beings endowed with the properties of household pets. We know what they are.

Within a story, we have to detect aspects of our own world. We know what that is. Otherwise, we just won't understand the story.

Plausibility in fiction is the detection of familiarity.

How can we give our stories that reader-engaging tenor of plausibility - or familiarity - even if our plots or characters are very weird indeed?

Here are two proven ways:

1. Create a Big Lie - and be proud of it.

Almost every story hinges upon an implausibility. Confront it - and get it over with.

At the start of Frederick Forsyth's thriller The Cobra the protagonist Paul Devereux, a discredited secret agent, is given $2 billion by the U.S. President to destroy the world's cocaine traffic. He takes the job on one condition: that he won't tell anyone what he's doing, not even the President.

Ridiculous!

Yet the novel works. Why? Because once the reader has swallowed the Big Lie, it proceeds with a meticulous - and plausible - logic.

One way to do this is to surround the event with such a wealth of authentic minutiae that they appear, by association, to verify the Big Lie. For example:

Suppose your story depends on the implausible thesis that Queen Elizabeth II is a lizard, the head of an alien conspiracy that secretly rules the world. As everyone knows, she is very fond of corgi dogs. Why? Because she eats them! (Not many people know that.)

To make that fatuous theme credible, even in farce, we should present the Queen's curious identity as a lizard as a 'given'. It's obvious. It needs no further discussion.

Instead, the tale might focus on the plight of a kennel owner who has an exclusive contract to furnish the royal kitchen with corgis. But a rival is poisoning his dogs. Worse, his last delivery to the palace made the queen quite ill...

What can he do? His poignant drama is the story.

Populate that tale with authentic kennel lore. Reveal the tricks of top breeders, the chicanery of dog shows, the technology of breeding programs. Pack in so many true details that even a corgi expert will acknowledge: this man's world is real.

The Big Lie, that Queen Elizabeth II is a lizard, will then pass on the nod. (Well, maybe...)

2. Supply the Missing Link.

Many a story, otherwise effective, will ‘sound’ implausible because a key step in its logic has been neglected or obscured. For example, in C J Sansom’s historical novel Dissolution a young servant girl cuts off a man’s head with one stroke of a sword.

Ridiculous.

Henry VIII had to send to France for a swordsman who could decapitate Anne Boleyn with one stroke. No English axe man was deemed capable of it, still less a girl.

Result: the reader feels bemused.

Just a few lines of explanation - ‘the girl’s father was a master swordsman and had taught her all he knew’, etc - might have supplied that missing link and fixed the implausibility.

Moral: find your gross implausibilities or loose ends. Every story has at least one. Make those absurdities or missing links appear rational. Just a line or two may do it. Then, by the doctrine of the Big Lie, your reader may go on to believe every word in your story. And buy its sequel!


 Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro

12 comments :

  1. So that's where all the corgis went ... great post!

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  2. Thanks, Fiona. In fact, a few million people do believe that Queen Elizabeth II is a lizard - and probably eats her corgis too. See David Icke's extraordinary website where he makes such claims:
    http://www.davidicke.com/

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  3. I was thinking about this when I woke up this morning. You have to ask your reader to suspend disbelief, but not strain credulity. Once the reader has accepted the premise, the logic must track. If a rule of your world is true, then you must explore what would naturally follow.

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  4. I'm probably picking nits here ... because, I think, in essence, we may be saying the same thing ... but, the reason readers 'swallow the big lie' is because they fall in love with characters, not plots. That said, QEII as a lizard ... hmmmmm.

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  5. This whole bit about the Queen and the corgis is too funny. Thanks for this, John.

    I am shocked, totally shocked, that Christopher made a serious point. LOL But I do agree that characters we can love do help us accept plot elements that stretch credibility. I think that goes hand-in-hand with what John said. If we have the plausibility covered both ways, we win.

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  6. When I read fantasy or sci-fi, I accept the world there. I've never seen it, visited it, read about it before. But I accept the parameters the author has created, and let myself get lost in the book and world.

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  7. Great tips, John! To support Christopher's and Maryann's beloved characters in their outlandish circumstances, I like the technique of expressing the reader's disbelief through the other characters. Before my novel's opening page my character survives a 14-story fall. But enough people question this—including the orthopedist who studies her x-rays—that the reader feels justified in accepting that this happened by fluke or miracle.

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  8. Quite an interesting concept, something to think about in our writing. Lizards and corgis...hmm indeed! LOL

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  9. These are great ideas! Along the same lines, I like what the great Sid Fleischmann said: "If there's a hole in your story, point it out and the hole will disappear."

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  10. Ah -- I would call this a kind of foreshadowing. When a character has to perform some "out of character" act, it's wise to show he has the skill earlier on, in a different context. How many men can braid a Barbie doll's hair? Yet if you establish that this man, as a boy, showed his ponies in the county fair and had to braid manes and tails, you've given him the skill, and not in a context where the reader is simply waiting to see when it will be used.
    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  11. Making it plausible. I used this approach in my novel, retitled The Swindle. Not only did the odd person believe I’d invented a new form of technology in it, and which I didn’t, but I packed in so many true details they took the bait; hook, line, and sinker. And when I supported the novel’s happenings with real news stories from major newspapers, out of conscience I put in a disclaimer in the edited version of the novel saying the story wasn’t true in its entirety.

    Thanks for the post, John. I look forward to your next one.

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  12. Your post on plausibility reminds me of how we played as kids. If you didn't properly set the groundwork for the story you wanted others to play out with you, you definitely would be called on it.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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