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Oh yeah?


A few days ago a zebra came up to me and bit me. Just bit me. I live in Northern Vermont. We didn’t happen to get a picture.

Now, you probably don’t believe that, so let me shift gears for a moment and explain what this post is about.

Orson Scott Card, who is that rare combination of a person who can both write exceptionally well and teach writing exceptionally well, describes three key questions that are good to look out for in a reader’s response to a story. I won’t attempt to summarize or paraphrase the great information he gives on the subject, but do highly recommend his books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy to you. The short version is that these three key issues are understanding what’s going on, believing it, and caring about it. (“Huh?”, “Oh yeah?”, and “So what?”, respectively.)

This post is about believing. Just because something really happened doesn’t make it believable, and just because it’s believable to readers who don’t know better doesn’t make it realistic.

Back to the zebra: I really did get bit by a zebra this past Sunday. My son and I drove up from our home in Burlington, Vermont to Parc Safari, just across the border in Quebec. They have a drive-through safari where animals come up to you to be fed the food they sell at the entrance. They tell you not to feed the zebras, because they bite. Prudently heeding their advice, when a zebra came up to my window, I refused to feed it. I think that’s why it bit me.

My son points out that I was trying to pet the zebra, but I hardly see how that has anything to do with anything.

Now do you believe that I was bit by a zebra? Because I actually was. I don’t know if you believed it after that additional information or not, or if perhaps you have so much faith in me that you believed me at the beginning without any details (in which case bless you, kind soul!), but the fact of the matter is that the more detailed version was more believable than the less detailed version. Four of the main underpinnings of believability in fiction are confidence, inherent plausibility, willingness, and detail.

Confidence: If you are reading a new work by a writer whose previous works you know and love, you are much more likely to give that writer any kind of slack necessary to tell the story. If Stephen King opens a story with beetles crawling out someone’s ears, most readers will accept that there are beetles crawling out of that person’s ears without concern and read on. If an amateur writer whose writing is full of grammatical mistakes starts a story with beetles coming out of someone’s ears, we’re much more likely to say “Wait, how can beetles come out of somebody’s ears? That just doesn’t make any sense!” If you build up a good body of well-appreciated work, you may have to work less hard to get your readers to swallow the stories you’re telling them.

Inherent plausibility: If someone writes about an accountant standing on a sidewalk, that’s fairly easy to accept. If that same person writes about a living blob of intelligent pond scum standing on a sidewalk, that’s a little harder to get past.

Willingness: Of course, if the reader just wants a good story and isn’t in a critical mood, you can get a lot more by that reader with less work. Unfortunately, this is in the individual reader’s hands rather than the writer’s, so it’s best to write for the skeptical and unwilling reader, since the willing reader won’t be overly bothered by the detail.

However, there is one element of willingness over which you have control, which is how compelling your story is. If you introduce your pond scum creature in the midst of a tense scene in which it immediately becomes clear that the pond scum creature may be able to give your main character the name of his birth mother, the reader may care so much about the story that they will accept whatever they need to in order to continue seeing it unfold.

Detail: Detail is the thing over which you arguably have the most immediate control. If you really want to write a story about that pond scum, you can describe it as moving sluggishly, stretching and contracting like a cautious leech, a smell rising from it like dead fish and mowed grass, a thin layer of translucent bluish membrane holding all of it together. As it passes over a discarded cigarette, the cigarette hisses out. It makes a sound like a soaking wet towel being dragged over rock.

Those details aren’t going to make everyone believe in the pond scum creature, but they’ll up your numbers.

Remember that just because something really happened in your experience, unless it has also happened in the reader’s experience, it’s not necessarily believable to them. If I write a story about a man being bitten by a zebra and don’t give some details to shore up plausibility and add detail, readers who have actually been bitten by zebras may have no trouble with that part of things, but readers who haven’t have a good chance of objecting to it.

And there’s the flip side: just because something’s believable to many readers doesn’t mean that it’s actually plausible. Take for example making someone go unconscious by hitting them over the head. According to friends of mine with medical backgrounds, you cannot hit someone over the head hard enough to make them pass out without the possibility of doing significant permanent damage. We’ve all seen people knocked out hundreds of times, but for the great majority of us, only in fiction, TV, and movies.

“So?” you may say. “If the reader believes it, who cares?”

But of course we’re not writing for just one reader, and any reader who knows that people can’t be casually knocked out without the risk of serious damage are going to either think your character is a psychopath who doesn’t care who dies just so long as he gets his caper finished, or think you the writer are kind of ignorant.

Therefore I strongly recommend never using fiction as a source of research about how things work in the world if you can help it. If you want to know about knocking people out, talk to a doctor or someone with a lot of training in personal combat. You’ll win more readers and gain more confidence from the readers you already have … believe me.

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