Monday, March 5, 2012

One Great Tug-o-War for Fiction Writers

I was working on a book today and a truth revealed itself.  This is something that you may have already known (I was even taught it, formally) but still not "learned."

As a writer, if you want to even have a chance of getting discovered in what seems like a sea full of authors, the first thing you have to master is avoiding mistakes.  One of the easiest mistakes to make is to write a story or even just a small part of a story that is not believable.  Ironically, a person writing make-believe stories must keep his or her story even more believable than reality, because the subconscious mind of most readers is always on the hunt for the improbable or impossible.  It can cause a reader to slam a book shut faster than you can say, "Should have edited."

But making a passage believable follows the same, merciless rules as making an entire story believable does.  As an author, you are putting yourself in a very difficult position.  You are writing something that a wide variety of minds that have had experiences you have not had must be able to agree is believable.

 That's asking a lot of yourself.

If you're a trained auto mechanic who knows that a valve cover gasket cannot be made of glass, and you read in my story, "Reynold set the valve cover on top of the battery, unwrapped the valve cover gasket and promptly dropped the gasket as he prepared to put it in, watching it shatter into a million shiny fragments," then I'm busted.  The average reader might let it go, reading on, but you have just lost all respect for me.  You have been jerked out of the story by something you know is impossible using today's automobile standards, and even if you try to read on, you are nagged by the fact that I have tried to squeeze something past you because I didn't want to do my research.  In your mind with your training, you can't shake that nagging thought that this author has fumbled, making you believe that sooner or later, I will have fumbled again and again, and wasted a lot of your reading time.

But wait.

Wouldn't it be rather boring if every book was a product of making certain that every single thing was believable?  That's a technical journal.  That's a news report.  That's not a fiction novel, is it?  At the least, I have to have something like, "Reynold leaned over the engine and placed the gasket onto the steaming steel, adjusted it into perfect positioning, and reached for the valve cover without looking, grabbing, instead, what was the wrist of the only man he had hoped to avoid--the one that had loved to watch him fail so many times before--his stepfather, Jack Muller."  I mean, when I read that, I want to know what's up.  Who is this Jack Muller?  I already get the idea that he is a prick, but I want to know why.  And I want to see him "lose," already, just from what I've read if I like the character named Reynold.  So, now, I've written something believable but intriguing. 

Those are three common states you'll find in fiction; believable but boring, unbelievable and believable but intriguing.  Nobody reads fiction to see what they've seen tens or hundreds of times before which can be a result of an author emulating a well-established writer's style.  A reader wants something new, but it must be believable and intriguing.  You can't just decide that people suddenly have a third and fourth eye on each elbow unless it is fully supported in the background of your story (i.e. you are on an alien planet or in some alternate dimension or you are going, bravely though it be, into the abstract form of our art--intentionally throwing out odd, non-realistic details here and there for effect).

My suggestion to myself and anyone else who wants to be successful in writing fiction, for the purposes of this post, are to perfect "believable but intriguing" in your writing.  I know--there are 10 million tips out there for writers, and this is just one, but it seems to me to be one of the top overlooked guidelines of all.

Keep it believable without being boring (often referred to by readers as the "slow" parts of the book--these boring but believable runs) without having every paragraph be too intriguing as to become unrealistic.

*Quick side-note: Tim O'Brien's book, "The Things they Carried," is an awesome example of how you can have perfectly believable and often boring things happening to characters while maintaining a constant allure to your readers as to what might come next by peppering your story with unexpected surprises as well as making those boring things part of the very plot--making the boring things part of the "problem."  It is the closest dance you'll find around metafiction without actually stepping into it.

Best of luck!


  1. So true about having to have something believable even in a made-up world. Even in a made-up world you have to have certain parameters that can't be budged no matter what.

    Unless, of course, you can come up with a logical explanation for why a certain parameter is being broken. :-)

  2. Entirely true. It kind of jives with what I tell beginning writers, which is to feel free to break the rules creatively after you have learned them :)

  3. Research is so important. Now that every reader can easily google anything that doesn't quite sound right, we have to be on our guard against the implausible.

    Failing that, I suppose you could hang a lantern on it - "I can't believe the gas tank actually blew up!"

    Or make up a wikipedia entry to support your error...

  4. HA! Never considered making up the Wikipedia historical re-write. Brilliant. But who has time? I'll just be lazy and use the established facts :))

  5. I just read The Road by Cormac Mccarthy. It was an amazing novel filled with "believable but intriguing" like you mentioned. In the hands of another writer, many of the things the characters do (eat this meal, travel to this place, etc, etc) would be boring. But he managed to make it intriguing.