Monday, 25 April 2011


Random or chance events happen often in real life. This does not mean that you can easily use them in fiction. If they seem too convenient for the plot, your reader will believe you put them there for convenience, because you couldn't think of anything better, and he will not be convinced. The thing is that it is not enough that a certain thing could happen: the reader must believe that it would and did in this story. There are many extraordinary things that happen in real life about which one says, “If you wrote that in a story, they’d never believe you.” Yep, sadly, it’s true.

It pains me to say that I fell foul of this while writing Wasted. There’s a scene where a pigeon comes smashing through a window. One young reader said she hadn’t believed that bit. It was no excuse that I could truthfully say that this has happened to me twice: the fact is that I’d failed to convince that reader that it would happen. Slapped wrist.

As a writer you have to use your skill to lull the reader into a sense in which he will believe everything you say. Just as there's a body language for lying in real life, there's a body language for writing fiction which casts a spell over readers. You have to sustain it, gently hypnotising them into belief, but any lapse on your part will jerk them back into the world and they will remember that you are only an author making things up. It would be like a hypnotist who suddenly sneezes.

These are the keys to making your reader believe in everything you say:
  • consistency of character
  • consistency of voice
  • no sudden introduction of a new device that has not already been trailed
  • no tricks, no messing around with the reader
  • no "because I say so" - the event must seem as though it was causally determined, not pulled out of the hat as a last desperate attempt by the writer
  • no laziness - no omission of necessary detail to build the context for your device

This, to me, is the whole magic and beauty of telling stories: the mysterious thing that our brains do to fiction, where we will believe the impossible and yet disbelieve the perfectly ordinary. The skill is in getting that right.

And unfortunately for us as writers, sometimes the truth is stranger, more interesting and more convenient than fiction.


rodgriff said...

Dead right. Some novels feel as though the characters are pieces being moved around a chess board by the writer.

Pk Hrezo said...

I agree. That's why I rely on beta readers so much--to pick out anything they just don't believe.

Nicola Morgan said...

Pk - that's possibly that most useful thing you can ask betareaders to do, actually. On the other hand, I do find that if I have a teensy suspicion of my own that something may not be convincing I'm usually right. So we should learn to follow instincts!

Rod - yep.

catdownunder said...

"The willing suspension of disbelief" (Coleridge) is a marvellous explanation though.

HelenMHunt said...

The pigeon thing has happened to me too, so I believed you!

Claire Dawn said...

Yes! It's hard to find the balance between throwing in a twist/surprise and making the novel unbelievable.

JO said...

Wise words. I'm fortunate in having an outspoken daughter who writes rude comments on anything that borders on the unbelievable. But I still find I try to slip things by her sometimes - and even try to argue that my little drift is fine for the story. Then I give in - she loves me enough to stick to her guns if she is right!

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

There’s a scene where a pigeon comes smashing through a window.

I didn't realise Wasted was a horror story! This has happened to me too, hence the fact that I go into meltdown whenever me and a bird are inside at the same time!

Oh and I will try very hard to follow your advice. Very, very hard.

Sara Thompson said...

It's funny that you chose now to talk about this. I recently read a book where I felt this same sort of thing The two characters had so many things happen to them that it felt a little like the author had drawn things out of a hat to do to the characters. It lacked character development that would have happened if she had just focused on the characters and not what she could throw at them.

Sue Purkiss said...

Please, what's a 'beta reader'? Is it a reader who didn't quite make it to be an alpha reader?

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I totally agree. Random 'it really happened' events do not fit in with fictional stories, do they? They disrupt the fictional dream and make people stop and ask - could it really have happened like that?

Dan Holloway said...

absolutely!! I write thrillers and literary fiction, and for some reason I've fallen foul way worse in the latter. I don't know whether this is because when plotting a thriller we pay minute attention to the placing and believability of every single detail?

I do wonder if it might be that writing "literary" fiction (or possibly any other, thinking about it it feels like the most obvious cause of convenient coincidences) we sometimes feel that we've got ourselves bogged down in a bit of the story and we need some kind of winch to get us out, so we concoct something (let's face it, it's usually a letter, or the arrival of a stranger), rather than admitting the truth, which is that the bogged-downness we feel reveals the need for a deep structural edit and a reminder that actions need to flow from the MC's developing feelings about and reaction to their central dilemma (I think that's what the Harper Collins editor meant when he told me some of my characters' actions didn't flow from their motivation sufficiently)

It's funny that for me the author who is the master of the art of never making me go "that wouldn't happen" is Murakami, whose novels are peppered with things that just wouldn't happen (a woman is stuck on a ferris wheel and sees herself through her bedroom window; a man passes through hotel walls; cats start talking), and the key to what he does is all in the voice. He tells his stories with such a disarming simplicity, like a friend at the pub telling us what they got up to in such a charming way that although we know of course they didn't, we are so utterly captivated that we believe every word they say.

Jacqvern said...

Interesting post :) It all comes to the author's voice, it should be "hypnotizing".

Thank you for the tips :)

Nicola Morgan said...

Helen - I don't believe you! (LOL)

Sara - "t lacked character development that would have happened if she had just focused on the characters and not what she could throw at them." Very good point.

Dan - you could well be right about the lit fic thing. I also sometimes let "literary" books get away with it because I secretly fear I've missed something!

Sue - frankly, I hate the word. Sometimes they are just called betas, which I like even less. The alpha reader is the author and the beta-readers are people to whom the author shows the draft before going further. Published authors usually don't use beta-readers because they have editors or agents, but sometimes with something experimental you might.

Everyone else - many thanks for your comments.

The Desert Rocks said...

Sometimes a plot like for example, the fantasy of The Time Traveler's Wife needs a bit of an imaginary stretch. I think when we read we accept the fact that fiction might take us into unbelievable, fantastical places worth going if we allow ourselves to go for the ride.
Audrey Niffenegger wasn't going to convince me that time travel existed no matter what she wrote-but I still love her book.

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Stroppy Author said...

The Desert Rocks, catdownunder - Coleridge meant that we agree to suspend disbelief in some regards, in carefully chosen areas. The things that must remain credible are character, motivation and causation.

Everything must be consistent within the world of the novel or poem, but the practical details of that world can be implausible. So we accept made-up monsters in some genres, but still demand that the characters' emotions in responding to those monsters are realistic.

Too many coincidences breaks the 'suspension of disbelief' contract with the reader.