What makes a reader set a book aside with the comment, “Unbelievable!”? And why should a writer care?
Because an agent or editor might set it side too. An author’s goal is to maintain readers’ attention and interest from the first word to the last.
If a reader wonders about an author’s nonfiction premise but is convinced the supporting logic is sound, the reader will feel compelled to keep reading.
If no supporting defense is offered, or if the pillars upon which the premise is built show their cardboard innards, readers need little more than that to abandon the book.
The same is true with fiction. Fiction depends on believability.
Fiction is truth, even if it is not fact. If you believe only in facts and forget stories, your brain will live, but your heart will die.― Cassandra Clare
A story can only stand if the reader is kept from saying, “That could never happen” or “Everyone knows that would never be possible” or “Where did the author get that information?” No writer can afford to make a reader pause or question believability.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.―
What makes a story unbelievable? What causes a critique partner or contest judge to flag a line or word as a believability glitch?
In the years when students were limited to a trip to the library or encyclopedia research for high school term papers, teachers often warned students to use three sources to undergird their point. In our era of uncountable sources of information at our fingertips–and with artificial intelligence contributing yet another layer of confusion–it can take much more diligence to ensure we’re using accurate information rather than opinion or misinformation.
When did that word come into common usage? Knowing when it was first used isn’t enough. If your diner waitress in the Midwest uses the term in your novel, is that believable? Would that make sense? It usually takes a number of years for a new term to become incorporated in the “language of the people.”
How fast did news travel in the year in which your novel is set? And from what source would the news come? Telegraph? Even if the telegraph had been invented by then, would it likely have been adopted in that relatively remote location?
In your contemporary novel, what are the odds a school-aged child wouldn’t have access to a cell phone–either theirs or a friend’s?
In nonfiction, is your research impeccable? Are you making statements that are theory claimed as fact? Or opinion proposed as truth? Are your quotes triple-checked for accuracy?
Character development mishaps
“Unbelievable! The unscrupulous mayor can’t be suddenly generous without good reason.”
(Cue throw the book against the wall.)
Every key character in a novel will grow or change in some way from the beginning to the story to its end. But even changes should make sense. If a turn-around is abrupt, what’s the reason for that radical shift?
History disconnected from context
Nothing happens in a vacuum in life: every action has a series of consequences, and sometimes it takes a long time to fully understand the consequences of our actions. –Khaled Hosseini
The above Hosseini quote can be applied backward and sideways as well. What’s happening now has been affected by all of history, and what we’re experiencing here is influenced by or influences actions and outcomes around the world.
Writers who don’t take into account what else is happening in the world at the time of their story or their nonfiction, even a memoir, miss an important element of solidifying the believability factor of their work.
Writing instructors have their favorite misquotes as evidence of the importance of an author’s responsibility to ensure accuracy. Mis-attribution of quotes can destroy a reader’s confidence in an author as well.
Unbelievable generalities and stereotypes
Do all southerners say “all y’all”? What might make that expectation suspect? Would a reader question the believability of something as simple as a common expression?
What if the character is a recent transplant from Minneapolis? Or born in Atlanta but has lived in Oregon since the age of four? If the character is hired as a national TV news anchor, natural dialect could have been intentionally edited to reach a broader audience, just as an actor’s natural British accent might be coached-out for a specific role.
We do a disservice to every occupation, every human, and to our stories if we lean on generalities and stereotypes. And we risk the validity and impact of our stories.
The author’s breadth and depth
We don’t know what we don’t know. All of us make assumptions based on our realm of experience, our traditions, regionality, and education. It’s one of the reasons writers are encouraged to read broadly and to leave their desks, if possible.
We can minimize unbelievable details in our writing if we listen deeply, read outside and within our genre, meet people, travel, experience other cultures and customs. It doesn’t disqualify us as writers if we can’t travel, for instance, but in this age of information and technology, we do have the means of free and accessible virtual travel.
Plot points, smells and tastes, where the shadows fall in winter, if the quote is original or misquoted for centuries–all affect the believability factor in our books.
And so does the writer’s character. Can the reader trust we’ve done due diligence? That we’ve sought to guide, not mislead? That we’ve cut no corners in research?
How does a writer know if what they’ve written is believable? Read it as if you hadn’t authored it. What would you question?