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Monday, November 21, 2011

Believability or Bust


What is one of the best ways to kick a reader out of your story? Write a story that pole vaults over the bar of believability and lands in the mud of “I don’t think so.”
This summer, I took my kids to see the newest Winnie the Pooh movie. At one point in the movie *spoiler alert*, all of the friends (minus Piglet and Tigger) fell into a deep pit. Their only hope of escape was Piglet. At one point my seven year old asked (loudly), “Why doesn’t Owl fly out?” This echoed what everyone else in the theatre was thinking. A few minutes later, Owl did exactly that. He flew up and gave Piglet a motivational speech, so that Piglet would brave the scary woods, looking for Christopher Robin. Owl then flew back into the pit to face the shocked expressions of his friends. Only they weren’t shocked that Owl flew out of the pit. They were shocked at what he had said to Piglet. The friends applauded and the audience laughed.
I recently read a story in which a character had a football hurled at his face. What happened next threw me out of the story because it defied the laws of physics. After the ball hit the guy’s nose, hard, the ball fell to the ground. The nose didn’t break or bleed, but a large zit on it exploded like a volcano and shot pus across a distance of several feet before it landed on someone’s face. Impossible. If pus had come out of the zit, more than likely it would have come off on the ball when it made contact. It certainly wouldn’t have waited a few seconds then spontaneously flew out of the zit, and it certainly wouldn’t have been able to travel that far, not at the trajectory it would have had to travel. As a result of the lack of credibility, I quit reading the story.
So why didn’t I have a problem with the scene in the Winnie the Pooh movie, but I did with the football story? Because as early as the opening scene in the movie, it was made clear that the animal friends lacked for intelligence. Due to the sequence of events that happened between the opening and Owl flying out of the pit, we could easily believe that none of the friends would have questioned why Owl didn’t just fly out and get help. If the football story had taken place in world filled with magic and humor, and this was established in the first chapter, then I would have found it believable. But since it was set in our world, a world where the laws of physics rule, it didn’t work for me.
To avoid the issue of lack of believability, always ask yourself: “Have I given enough set up to the story so my readers are able to believe this event can happen this way?” If you’re not sure if it is feasible, ask someone who knows the answer. For example, if your protagonist is caught with drugs in his school locker, ask a police officer what would really happen to the character. Don’t make things up and hope for the best.
Has lack of believability thrown you out of a story? What do you do to make sure all aspects of your story (and characterization) are believable?

Stina Lindenblatt writes young adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog, Seeing Creative.


Scott Bryan said...

True points! That scene in the movie affected us, too. We laughed at how silly it was and that was Disney’s plan. Like you say, they established the rules for their world back in the first scene as (SPOILERS) Pooh dances on the text and talks with the narrator.
I’ve found many an unbelievable scene or situation in the stories I’ve critiqued but when I think how long it took me to see my own unbelievable moments in my novel and what it took to rewrite them, I’m a lot more understanding to others.
Great article. As authors we need to keep it real, which means stick to the rules and logic of the story. My big bad guy could’ve marched right in and slaughtered everyone if my editor hadn’t shown me how unbelievable it was to leave the heroes unprotected for long enough to be ready for him. We need to really watch our stories for this.
Thanks for the great article!

Jane Lebak said...

Thank you so much for this! I've found so often that things are happening because the author said they should happen, and therefore the characters don't act in accord with the laws of the universe, either physical or emotional.