[Again, COVID, that uninvited guest has thwarted my visit to Carol’s. This time although she’s well, she’s a close contact and must isolate for 7 days. Meanwhile, I have been working on my writing and have been reflecting on what I have learnt makes for a good story.]
Unbelievable to Believable
Unbelievable, that’s what they said about my novel. Unbelievable. Is that why my first novel, Mission of the Unwilling has failed to thrive? Why there’s no feedback? Or is it a case of someone who’s not a Young Adult, and just not into Sci-Fi?
Whatever, I consider this feedback valid and believable. Over the next few months, I plan to revisit Minna’s world and her adventures at the mercy of Boris and learn from my venture into self-publishing. Nothing is wasted. The take-away from the most recent honest feedback—make my stories believable.
What does this mean for me as I refine the craft of story-telling?
- My characters are real to the reader.
- The setting is authentic, so that the reader can step into my constructed “world” suspending all disbelief.
- The audience buy into the journey they take into that world.
But, what does “suspending disbelief” mean. I mean, really? I mean, when I revisit my stories, to me, the characters are alive, the setting an on-site movie set, and I gladly invest in the tale told. Not so for some of my readers, apparently. In truth, I’m too close to my work to view it objectively. I need and appreciate feedback from others. I’d go as far as to say that most writers benefit from a second, third, fourth or umpteenth pair of eyes to make their work the best it possibly can be.
So, from the perspective as a reader, that extra pair of eyes on other works, here’s what I’ve learnt that suspends disbelief and do some unpacking of techniques that make characters, setting and journey more believable.
- Believable characters: Someone with whom you connect. You know that person. You’ve met them. You’ve had lunch them. You’ve admired them. They’ve annoyed you with their quirky habits. They’re those people you see across a crowded coffee shop and already you’ve constructed a whole story around them, by observing their posture, expressions and gestures. You invest time following what they’ll do, what will happen to them. Believable characters don’t have to be human, but they do need human qualities and personality for readers to relate to them.
- Believable setting: Best woven into the forward-moving action of the story. The writer describes the setting with the five senses, what you: 1) see, 2) hear, 3) touch, 4) smell, and 5) taste. And for the world to be memorable, the author picks up something unique or odd about the place. For example, I may write of Palm Valley in Central Australia, ‘Ghost gums jut out of the tangerine rock-face, and a soft wind rustles through the prehistoric palms.’
- Believable Story: You need to convince your readers that such a sequence of events can happen. A skilful writer uses the technique of cause and effect. The character makes a choice, and their actions result in consequences often leading to dilemma that must be resolved. Readers are more likely to engage with proactive characters who influence their environment and others, and who make active choices to change and grow, rather than the passive characters who have every disaster happen to them, and their problems magically solved.
Yes, pile on the misery, pile on the challenges, don’t be afraid to get your characters into strife; that’s what the reader’s looking for. But remember, the chain of events must be believable. An article by Laurence Block, Keeping Your Fiction Shipshape*, describes the relationship between storyteller and audience is like enticing readers onto a cruise ship, keeping them there, and delivering them back to port with a good satisfying end.
It’s the skill of the storyteller to convince the audience. If the characters are believable, the setting is believable, and the action believable, your readers will enjoy the ride and complete the journey you, as the storyteller, takes them on.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016; updated 2022
Feature Photo: Line up for Notre dame Cathedral © Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2014
[Why Notre dame? Victor Hugo, the author of Hunchback of Notre-Dame, spent the first three-quarters of the book describing the setting. Useful if you visit Paris, but does nothing for moving the story forward.
Also tourists willing to invest in the journey to climb Notre-Dame by waiting several hours in the long line that stretched the length of the Cathedral. What will they see? The gargoyles (characters), a view of Paris (setting) and a climb and walk through the Cathedral (the journey).]
*Reference: Laurance Block, “Keeping Your Fiction Shipshape”, article in The Writers Project Handbook of Novel Writing © 1992