You’re writing fiction. You want to make it believable, so that readers are completely engrossed in your story. How do you do that? It’s a challenge, and it can be a dangerous one. Fictional reality, and “real” reality are different.
A few weeks ago, one of my writer friends complained to me about feedback from her editor. “My editor said that the story is unbelievable. That’s ridiculous. It’s real, it happened to me — not that I’m telling her that.”
I had to laugh, because she sounded so outraged. It took a while for her to see the funny side, however.
How to make a story believable when you’re writing fiction
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All fiction is completely made up, so “unbelievability” is a given — our stories are complete lies. But what makes a story unbelievable? It’s often hard to pin down, and it’s always a matter of perception. One reader may scoff at a story which another reader adores.
However, there are three things which will help to make your stories seem real: the motivations of your characters; the emotional throughline of your story; and simplicity.
Let’s look at these elements.
1. Motivation: give your characters reasons for acting the way they do
If you read reviews on Amazon, you’ll often find readers complaining about characters’ motivations. “Then suddenly, for no reason…” “Just because it had to happen for the story…” etc.
In real life, people do weird things. Your story people can do weird things too, but you (and readers) must be clear on why your characters do what they do. This means that if you know that something is going to happen at the mid-point, you need to plant the seeds of that earlier.
You won’t always be able to do this in your first draft of course. However, it must be done. Every character needs clear motivation for acting the way he does.
2. Track your characters’ emotions: be clear on when and why they change
Fast emotional shifts are another thing about which reviewers complain. Readers complain about “insta love” in romances, for example.
Emotions are tied to motivation, and events. In revision, keep an eye on your scenes’ sequels. Do your characters’ emotions make sense? Ask your beta readers to let you know when they don’t understand what a character is feeling, and why.
3. Keep it simple: prune your plot so that your readers understand what’s happening, and why
Generally speaking, the more convoluted your plot, the less believable it is. Your plot starts with your story question, which is tied to your genre. In a romance, the story question is simple — will boy get girl? Similarly, in a mystery: will the private detective track down the killer?
Write your story question on a sticky note, and keep it in mind in every scene. If a scene doesn’t relate directly to your story question, it’s probably not needed.
When my friend cleared the undergrowth of her plot, and made the story simpler, it also become more believable. She’s had several conversations with her editor, and her novel is back on track.