Posted by: Kerry Gans | June 23, 2011

The 3 “C”s of Believability

Reality can be strange.

On June 11, within hours of each other, my great-uncle Ed and my great-aunt Clare passed away. Uncle Ed was married to Aunt Clare’s sister, so they were in-laws. One lived in Pennsylvania, the other in Washington state. If an author put something so odd in a book, people would say, “That could never happen in real life.”

This got me thinking about the importance of believability in our writing (rather than something profound, like, say, my own mortality). No matter what world we are writing about, whether it is contemporary or science fiction or fantasy, readers must be able to believe in it—to feel that it is real. I identified three elements that make—or fail to make—that belief happen.

The first is context. You need to situate your readers firmly in your world. You need to lay out what they need to know early on, so their expectations match what you are going to give them. They need to understand the rules of your world and then you must follow the rules you set. The events that occur in a story must be plausible—not merely possible, but probable.

The second element is consistency. By this I mean internal cohesion in both events (see above) and in character actions. Characters must always act in accordance to their personality. If you have them suddenly do something far out of character, it rattles the reader. This doesn’t mean that your characters cannot act in surprising ways. But the characters must act in accordance with the internal logic of the story and of themselves. All of us know that sometimes we act out of character—but there is always a reason, and that reason is always consistent with who we are as a person. As long as you clearly show that reason for your character, the reader will believe in him or her.

The last is confidence—a deft authorial voice. If readers feel that they are in good hands, they will follow you more willingly. They will suspend disbelief just a shade more because they have faith that it will all make sense in the end. A tentative, hesitant, or wavering voice will give readers pause and perhaps even make them more attuned to flaws in believability.

If we lack any one of those three elements, we run the risk of breaking the dream for our readers. The moment we step outside the believability box, the spell breaks and we may not get the chance to recapture the magic.

Are there other elements of writing that you think are essential to creating and maintaining believability in our writing?

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Responses

  1. As a science fiction reader and writer, I’ve always believed in believability (which the spell checker doesn’t accept as a word). I have limited interest in what I call “Twilight Zone” science fiction, in which strange things happen to people for no reason, and the story deals with the personal/social consequences. The opposite is “hard” science fiction, which is much harder to write! On the other hand, there is a huge market for fantasy. Some readers need a lot less believability than others. Even when the rules of the fantasy world are set up, they can be violated, and many readers don’t mind at all. Others do. If your audience is fantasy readers and Twilight Zone fans, you can get away with unbelievability.

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  2. Another important element is that you like your world and want to be writing in it. Some of my biggest disappointments have come from series writers who lost interest in the world they had created, but kept churning out books to fulfill a contract or just to collect the paycheck. If your heart isn’t in it, your readers feel it and you are doing not only them, but yourself a huge disservice because once you have lost their confidence, you may never get them back as readers, even if you move on to a new book or new series that you are actually excited about writing.

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    • That is so true! Passion is contagious (hey, another “C”!) and the readers can feel it. Great addition to the list!

      Kerry

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  3. I’ll add a ‘c’ to avoid — coincidence. While coincide may be frequent in life, readers don’t buy into frequent coincidences in stories. Events need to logically follow one another. A writer needs to set the stage for any event that happens and avoid using coincidences, such as characters who just happen to show up at the right time (unless you’ve laid the background for why they would appear then). Readers consider that a cheap plot trick writers use when they can’t think up a way to get a character out of a dilemma.

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