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.
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.
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