CREDIBILITY Part 2: Making Your Story Believable
In my previous article, “Story Reality vs Real Reality,” I talked about how every story is on some level a fantasy, and what constitutes fictional “reality.”
Now I want to reveal how you can ensure that your own stories – no matter how imaginative or fantastical – remain believable to your readers, your audiences and your customers.
The Key Methods for Maintaining Credibility
1. In every sequence of your story, ask yourself, “Do my characters behave the way people with their backgrounds would normally behave in this situation? Is this their most logical response to the danger they’re in, to the desire they’re pursuing, or to the actions of the other characters?”
If you’re in doubt, ask yourself, “Is this what I would do if I were in this situation?”
If you were in danger, wouldn’t you try to escape or get help? Would you continue in a relationship if you realized the person might be a liar, an impostor or a killer? Would you be likely to forget about an object, a message or a clue that was obviously vitally important to the conflict you’re facing? Would you go on about your daily life as if nothing unusual was occurring, even though you’ve been plunged into an overwhelming crisis?
Incredible reactions like these can be seen in far too many movies, novels and TV episodes. Emulating those is likely to destine your script or manuscript to the rejection pile.
2. Don’t confuse credibility with documented reality. One of the weakest arguments you can make in support of your characters’ actions is, “But that really happened.”
Lots of unusual things happen in real life, and people often behave in strange ways. But in your fictional story, even if you’re adapting a true story, the characters’ actions must seem logical, and the events believable, within the context of the story.
3. Foreshadow the characters’ actions and abilities. If you want your hero to use karate in a fight with the villain, reveal her martial arts talents before it’s important to the plot. Show her practicing in the dojo early in the movie, when it doesn’t seem important, or open the novel with her beating down a mugger with her martial arts skills. That way, when it counts, your audience will subconsciously say, “Oh, that’s right. This everyday school teacher has been learning karate.”
Foreshadowing persuades your reader and audience to accept an action that in normal life might seem unbelievable. For example, in The Net, we are asked to believe that a woman would be unable to find anyone who could verify her identity, including her own mother. So early in the film, we see that she is a reclusive, self-employed computer hacker who never leaves her home, and whose mother has Alzheimer’s.
4. Openly admit the incredibility of a scene. If, against all logic, your hero pursues a lover who might be a hit man, have her best friend say to her, “Are you nuts? This guy could be a cold-blooded killer!” Then your hero can explain her actions in a way that is consistent with the personality and background you’ve given her. Subconsciously you’re telling the audience, “Look, I know this seems unbelievable, but let me tell you why it isn’t.”
5. Dazzle the audience with pyrotechnics. This is definitely the last resort solution to the problem of credibility. But if you keep the action moving fast enough, or if the setting is big and spectacular enough, the audience might not notice some lapses in logic.
I don’t really recommend this approach, but I can’t deny that there are hugely successful films – most based on comic books – which are way over the top in terms of reality, logic, and limits to the characters’ abilities, yet still make a bundle of money.
People go to the movies, watch TV and read fiction to have emotional experiences, and if the visuals are captivating enough, if the action moves fast enough, or if the humor is hilarious enough, audiences and readers will sometimes forego the pleasure of a tightly written plot with identifiable characters.
But if you’re a screenwriter, you’re treading on dangerous ground here, because such movies and TV episodes often require a huge budget. More important, even if you’re a novelist, in order to sell your story you’ve got to get past a multitude of readers who don’t have the benefit of seeing all your intended or imagined fireworks.
The best movies, the best TV shows and the best novels plunge everyday characters into extraordinary situations without ever losing the reality of their characters’ underlying humanity.