Tuesday, April 17, 2012

She Did What?


You’re happily reading along and BLAM, you stop dead because something does not ring true. Maybe there is a coincidence that isn’t feasible. Or a situation makes no sense. Or a character

does something bonkers and out of the range of expectations. Someone or something is not believable. Hitting something unbelievable while reading is like running into a brick wall.

If you’re a writer, you want everything about your story to be believable, right? Writers are on the lookout for anyone or anything that seems improbable. Yet, creating believable characters, situations, scenarios, and so on can be easier said (or typed) than accomplished. I know. Not so long ago, a valued reader questioned the believability of the actions of one of the characters in my work in progress. Yup, this reader face-planted against a wall.


What to do? Here are a few tips:


1. If there is a believability problem, try pointing it out. When characters note that something seems improbable,that situation may be defused. It may no longer be the great ape in the room.


2. Nix any coincidences. If something seems too convenient or easy, it probably is. Try foreshadowing the scene or coincidental element. Set ups usually erase coincidences.


3. Use back-story to legitimize a character’s behavior. A past experience or experiences might justify or provide an understandable reason for a character’s actions.


Have you ever come upon something unbelievable while reading? Did this feel like hitting a wall?


Writers, have you had a brilliant reader pick out something that he or she couldn’t buy into? If so, how’d you fix the believability issue?


photo by mconnors, www.morguefile.com

61 comments:

  1. When you hit a wall while reading character's actions or behavior, it pulls you "out" of the story if it seem unbelievable. Once you're out, it's sometimes hard to get back. We must be careful not to over do it. Great subject! Lots to think about here.

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    1. that would be "seems" - sorry tricky fingers tonight...lol.

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    2. It is hard to get back into a story once that wall has been hit. At least I think so. Thanks, Loree!

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  2. I think creating a backstory to back up why your characters are the way they are really helps! Take care
    x

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  3. Yep, it pulls you right out of the story. Had an agent reject a novel because she didn't think my character would have taken a bath when she did. She thought she wouldn't have minded staying dirty at that point. Seriously. She didn't believe it. It's an easy thing to fix in the story, but it just goes to show how even small things like that can knock a reader off course.

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    1. Wow, L.G., that is a great illustration of how the smallest elements can shake believability. Thanks!

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  4. Thanks for another great tip, Cynthia. I like the idea of foreshadowing to help the reader "buy" an otherwise farfetched scenario.

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    1. I tried this one, Victoria, and I believe it worked. ; )

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  5. As a reader I hate when something is just too convenient. Ha, however as a writer I can understand it because we just want that story element to be over. This is why #2 and even #3 is so great for this!

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    1. Karen, I can, at times, be a more sympathetic reader since I know how hard some of the writing hurdles can be to overcome.

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  6. I recently finished a book in a series I love and an author I adore, and she had a scene that did just that. It was a gratuitous sex scene that didn't advance the story at all--I kept waiting for it to have some meaning because the author always makes them integral to the story--but it didn't happen. I was so disappointed and thought it diminished the main characters. Their behavior in the situation was out of character. I wish someone had challenged the author on this.

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    1. This sort of thing really is disappointing, especially from a series and author that you already adore. I guess this goes to show that all writers need to be on the lookout for believability issues.

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  7. Good tips. I usually try not to do anything way out of character or have coincidences as a convenient way out. It does pull the reader out of the story.

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    1. It sure does, J.L. And that's never a good thing. ; )

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  8. You hit on several really good points here! First - coincidence is a major no-no. Second, characters can do something out of their scope, and I love it when they surprise me, but it has to be believable and understandable. We have to go "Yeah! You go, MC!" Not, "Huh? Where the bejeebers did that come from??" LOL!

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    1. Where the bejeebers? LOL! Lisa you're too funny! And thanks! : )

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  9. This is why critiques are so important! Often times having a wise CP ask the simple question, "Why is your character reacting this way?" helps the writer see the discrepancy and steer the reader (and character) in the proper direction.

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  10. Hey Cynthia, thanks for stopping by my blog. It drives me nuts when an easy fix pops into a story that goes against character or becomes an almost "magical" solution. Thanks for the tips to avoid this trap.

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    1. Wonderful to find your blog, Leslie. And yes, It is so frustrating to hit those snags in stories. Especially when they could be fixed.

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  11. Yes, yes, and yes. I have this problem a lot. I end up having to make sure my story line will work and fixing backstory to support new stuff.

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    1. Me, too, Lydia. Sometimes I wonder how I miss the obvious. ; )

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  12. I have come up against unbelievable things. Even if the story is a fantasy or scifi, the characters need to act/react in certain ways.

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    1. It is so frustrating when this happens, Bish. Even in fantasy.

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  13. It's always back to the old drawing board for me when that happens. I have to really go into the characters again to find out where that quirkiness or non-believable stuff came from. Usually it's writer's indigestion and that's easy to fix. :-)

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    1. "Writer's indigestion"--that's hilarious and a great way to describe why so much not-so-great writerly stuff happens. : )

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  14. Yep, I've run into a few brick walls while reading--critique partner manuscripts as well as published books. I've had those "duh" things pointed out to me, too, and usually can find a way to either foreshadow or change an event or character to make it more plausible. :)

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    1. And there's no doubt when you hit a wall, is there, Carol? Thanks for the great comment.

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  15. Awesome suggestions. Those are great ways to avoid something sounding too convenient.

    Donald Maass recommends your characters do something that you would never expect them to do. That's tricky because if you don't to it right, you hit the believability issue.

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    1. It is tricky, Stina. But if Donald Maass recommends that characters do something unexpected, I'm making my characters do something unexpected. : )

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  16. I am going to sound bonkers, but I don't like it when authors have errors in nature, like plants blooming in the wrong season. It's a small thing, but since I'm very aware of when things actually bloom, it takes me out of the story. I won't give up on the book or refuse to recommend it if I like the overall story, but it's like having a little tear in the wallpaper: the paper looks better when it's whole.

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    1. Not bonkers at all, Jenn. I agree. And I love the wallpaper analogy.

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  17. A hint I was given for character continuity is to pick all the minor characters who have character arcs, then go through the manuscript, reading each scene involving each minor character to see if the character development makes sense.

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  18. It's amazing how often I come across believability issues...and not just in books! Movies and tv are notorious for it.
    Fantastic tips!

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  19. That's so true, Lynda. Movies and television shows are notorious for this. I hadn't considered this when writing this post. Great point!

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  20. Great tips for dealing with these situations in a manuscript. It's so easy for us as writers to let our story agenda's push the characters into doing things that don't make sense. But that's the beauty of being writers. We can get deeper into our characters and dig deeper in our toolbox and find ways for things to happen more organically.

    Thanks for this lovely post!

    Martina

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    1. Thanks, Martina. So true about digging deeper. Thank goodness for the toolboxes.

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  21. Yes, I hate finding those things when I read. And yes, critique partners have pointed out those things in my own work. Sigh. Learning how to fix them is part of growing as a writer.

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    1. We never stop learning, do we, Carol? : ) It's part of the fun.

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  22. Another stumbling block to look out for. Thanks for this, and for the tips on remedying the situation.

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    1. So many stumbling blocks, right? You're most welcome. ; )

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  23. Sometimes my critique group points out when a character sounds older (my adult voice creeping in) or doesn't have a proper emotion based on a situation.

    Thank you for the tips.

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  24. Oh my, I just posted on something eerily similar. :) I've found that I'm more easily pulled out of the story if I don't believe the EVENTS. If I don't believe the EMOTIONS, I'm a little more apt to say, "Well, people are different." Of course, sometimes an implausible element is both event and emotion.

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  25. Great comment, Marcia. So true. I''m on my way over to read your latest post.

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  26. Actually my problem is that I am so hyperalert to this that I don't foreshadow ENOUGH and then everything seems disconnected. I've had a few believability issues which I find can always be worked out by careful thought and extensive revisions and if not, cut, cut, cut! Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa! Revising and cutting seem to take care of almost all writing woes, I think. ; )

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  27. One of my CP's pointed out something about a piece of dialogue, that it didn't sound true. I try to keep a track of everything, so that there are no jarring elements in my story.

    Great suggestions, Cynthia.

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    1. Ah yes, sometimes I run into problems with dialogue, too, Rachna. It can be tricky.

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  28. When reading ... I found one recently towards the end of a book... And it was a struggle to finish :(
    When writing and a cp or beta reader points something out genally it's fixed by added a though, a comment or a phrase usually less than 20 words can fix it.

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    1. Yes, stumbling over a believability issue when you're into a story can be so jarring and frustrating. Thanks, Michelle.

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  29. I notice things like that all the time - in books, movies, tv. It definitely pulls me out of the story. I have noticed before that if the characters at least mention it, it goes a long way towards making me buy it.

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  30. I agree, Susan. And this works in books, movies, and in television shows, I think.

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  31. Great pointers and I love the way you've presented the post. I read a novel by a fav author that had me reaching for my sharpened pencil. I hate it when things jump out of a novel that are so improbable like a character driving along a narrow road then turning to face a passenger while negotiating a sharp bend Aaaagh!
    Or using old cliches to describe an outsized clothes store that is now so stylish even I wander in there without realising. I'd like my novels to be better than that. I sincerely hope I never make such gaffs. I'd hope that my CP's would point out stuff like that when the time came.

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    1. Love this example you gave, Madeleine: ". . .a character driving along a narrow road then turning to face a passenger while negotiating a sharp bend." It is absolutely maddening when these sorts of things show up.

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  32. Ooo! I like your tips! And I agree-- coincidences can be used, but only to cause more problems for the characters. Never to fix problems, and never to make things easier.

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    1. Thanks, Peggy! Coincidences to cause more problems--great point.

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  33. Yes, I was reading WE ARE ALL WELCOME HERE by Elizabeth Berg. I enjoyed the book very much until the ending. The book is historical fiction about a young girl's whose mother had polio and lives in an iron lung. I won't ruin the plot in case anybody wants to read it, but the ending seemed so improbable to me that it ruined the story. If you were to ask me what I remember most about this book, it wouldn't be the attention to historical detail, the beautiful way setting is evoked, the relationship between the mother and daughter, or how heartbreaking it must have been to be trapped in an iron lung. What I remember most is the sucky ending. As a reader I felt cheated.

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    1. Ugh, Shannon. And to get all the way to the end and have that happen. That's unfortunate and disappointing.

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