Jul 10 2010

Your Story Doesn’t Have to be Realistic or Plausible, Just Believable

Published by at 10:56 am under Believability,Writing Articles

If we accept the premise of your story, whether that’s heroes getting superpowers from unlikely insect bites or gaining magical powers, does the rest of the story make sense?  For example, you could get readers to buy into a guy getting magical powers and using them to fight a magical mob.  But if the story is mostly realistic, like a cop infiltrating the mob, it’ll really disorient readers if a mobster starts using magic on page 200.  If you’re planning on using unrealistic elements, introduce or foreshadow them early so that readers won’t be surprised when they show up.  (For more on this, please see Holly Lisle and the Case of the Exploding Cat).

Realistic: the premise occurs or could easily occur in real life. Cops infiltrating the mob or students dealing with school, for example.  Most superhero stories don’t have very much realistic stuff going on, and that isn’t a problem.  Many premises give a superhero superpowers/capabilities through supernatural means such as science fiction, magic/occult, religion, etc.  The only thing that matters is whether the reader can maintain the suspension of disbelief.


Plausible: the premise sort of approaches something that could happen at some point. One of the benefits of a plausible origin is that it makes it easier for readers to suspend their disbelief because you’re merely asking them to accept something that has not yet happened, rather than something that could not happen.  For example, scientists aren’t particularly close to making something like an Ironman-style powersuit yet, but most of the elements are viable (such as military-grade exoskeletons, personal jetpacks, and weaponized lasers).  Scientists can’t currently give somebody spider-based superpowers with genetic engineering, but it may be possible at some point to use animal DNA/proteins to greatly enhance human capabilities.  Hell, scientists have already made glowing corn out of jellyfish DNA.

(Glancing at the top-selling superhero comic book series over the past 25 years, I think that implausible origins such as magic/occult/religion probably make it harder for a comic book to gather readers.  There are a few exceptions, though, such as Spawn in the 1990s and more than a few Japanese series.  Happily, it’s much easier to find novel readers receptive to fantasy/implausibility).

Believable: every plot element fits the audience’s expectations about what is possible in the world you have built. Unlike realism and plausibility, this is not optional.  Throwing in a magical mobster on page 200 is poor writing not because magic is unrealistic and implausible but because it doesn’t fit the story and you haven’t prepared readers for it.  Generally, readers will assume that the parameters for the story are the same as in real life unless you specify otherwise.

One unexpected believability problem is that realistic events are not necessarily believable.  If I had a terrorist try to collect a $400 deposit on a van used in a bombing, very few readers would find that plausible even though it actually happened in the WTC bombing.  If something realistic is not inherently believable, help your readers believe it.  For example, I could portray the terrorist as wildly inept and give him some plausible reason to attempt to collect the deposit.  (Maybe he’s desperate for money after the FBI froze a critical bank account).

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Your Story Doesn’t Have to be Realistic or Plausible, Just Believable”

  1. bretton 10 Jul 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Wow! Really great article, b.mac. Sometimes I have trouble figuring out where the line ends between foreshadowing and just blatantly ‘giving it away’ so to speak. Do you have any recommendations?
    Thanks

  2. B. Macon 11 Jul 2010 at 7:32 am

    Foreshadowing vs. giving it away…

    One way to foreshadow without giving away too much is just generally suggesting that something is not right with a character. For example, you don’t explicitly have to say that a character is a werewolf, but maybe animals would act strangely around him, he eats strangely, he has weird excuses for seemingly random days (full moons), his house has some evidence of a rough animal having lived there, but nobody has ever seen him walking one, etc.

    Perhaps more importantly, you also have the backcover blurb. The blurb is an excellent way to lay out your premise, including any unrealistic elements. If you’re uncomfortable going into particulars on the backcover (for fear of spoiling the plot?), you can just refer to the more general state of affairs. (I.E., instead of referring to werewolves or wizards specifically, maybe something about someone having dark and horrible secrets and/or dark magics, etc).

  3. Wingson 11 Jul 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Going off of Brett’s question, one foreshadowing problem that I’ve been having is with Darken’s book. I’m having a lot of trouble trying to make the reveal that Shift is the real mastermind surprising. At this point, I’m worried that readers will see it coming, which is obviously not something I want to happen.

    Any ideas?

    – Wings

  4. B. Macon 11 Jul 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Foreshadowing a villain without giving away too much… Hmm, I have some ideas.

    1. I think we’d be less quick to conclude that the character is villainous if the villainous behavior we see, particularly early on, might plausibly be innocuous. If I offered you $50 for something valuable, it might not be that I’m trying to rip you off… Maybe I don’t know what it’s actually worth. If criminals are threatening to brutally murder a captured character, a hero that calls for an immediate attack might be genuinely convinced that’s the best way to rescue the hostage, or maybe he’s actually HOPING the hostage will get killed in the crossfire. (Maybe the hostage knows too much or otherwise poses some sort of problem–that might explain why he was captured in the first place).

    2. The circumstances surrounding his objectionable behaviors are ambiguous and/or encourage us to sympathize or relate with him. For example, Peter Parker could have stopped the thief that robbed the wrestling boss but instead let him go. It was a petty, bitchy act of revenge against the wrestling boss that had ripped him off. Nonetheless, I think most readers could relate to that. Hell, I think we could even feel some sympathy for serious acts like killing, if the character’s act has some moral depth to it or looks hard to avoid. For example, if a superhero kills a villain in the course of a fight. I think it’d be harder to sympathize with a premeditated execution of an incapacitated villain, but even then I think it’d depend on mitigating factors. For example, if the villain were especially heinous, if the hero put any thought into his decision to kill the villain, if the hero treated the act seriously, etc. (In contrast, Casual Psychopaths like Wolverine and Lobo frequently kill over pathetically small problems, ignore sensible alternatives, and may even crack jokes while killing the victims. They treat killing with all of the seriousness of ordering a pizza). If the readers can predict that someone actually is a villain rather than just an antihero, he’s probably too two-dimensionally evil.

    3. The character’s nonheroic traits might actually make him seem more valuable as a hero. For example, protagonists might treat (respect) him as a Batman (a mostly sensible but occasionally brutal problem-solver) rather than a Lobo (usually more a part of the problem than the solution). Maybe his rough style makes him more competent. For example, maybe the protagonists are generally gullible and naïve, but he is suspicious and cunning.

    Hope that helps!

  5. joel wyatton 12 Jul 2010 at 6:21 am

    I’m having the opposite issue with “foreshadowing” right now. I’ve had a beginning / middle / end to my story for so long, that I’m amazed by which plot points are a surprise for readers. I keep getting asked about when my main character will get his superpowers – when *I* think its clear that the answer is “never”! (um… “Spoiler Alert!”, I guess…)

    HOPEFULLY, the readers I’ve attracted so far are invested enough in what I’m doing that they won’t feel cheated by not getting what they expected!

  6. B. Macon 12 Jul 2010 at 8:47 am

    Hmm. Joel, maybe they’re picking up clues that point in that direction. For example, I notice that the synopsis on your website says “Flyover City is a work of kick-ass SUPERHERO FICTION… a Post Modern Nerd Novel, if you will. Sorta like Catcher in the Rye meets Watchmen.” Given this description (particularly “kick-ass SUPERHERO FICTION”), I too would expect the protagonists would eventually gain superpowers or at least some capabilities that are so impressive that Tom Clancy or Dan Brown would blush.

    If one of the striking features of the story is that the main character is pretty much the only protagonist without superpowers, I would recommend rewriting the summary above to reflect that one of his obstacles is that he doesn’t have any powers.

    Like Flyover City, “The Taxman Must Die” has a protagonist without any superpowers. Or even any ridiculous capabilities, unless you include IRS-grade spreadsheet skills. If I had to do a brief summary of my work, I’d probably say something like “It’s a wacky mix of an office comedy and a national security thriller. Two unlikely secret agents– an accountant and a mutant alligator– have to save the world. From themselves, mostly.” Based on this description, is it clear that that the accountant does not get superpowers?

  7. joel wyatton 12 Jul 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Yeah, you’ve got a point there.

    That particular description of mine has / had more to do w/ trying to optimize the chances of my blog turning up in a google search for “superhero fiction” (yeah, I’ll be the FIRST to admit my SEO skills are lackin’!) — a more apt. description used elsewhere emphazises the comedy aspects of a “regular guy trying to get by in a super-powered world”…

    Your description doesn’t scream “superpowers”, but there’s no direct mention of superHEROES, either (which is probably by design!)

  8. B. Macon 12 Jul 2010 at 7:14 pm

    You could add a subtitle/colon phrase to your title to improve your search engine rankings and quickly show prospective readers what your site offers. I think it’s especially helpful if the website’s title (like “Superhero Nation” or “Flyover City”) don’t make it 100% clear at a glance what the site’s focus is.

    For example…



    Bearing in mind I’m not 100% familiar with your site, some subtitles that jump to mind include “a superpowered comedy” or “a postmodern superhero novel” or “a postmodern superhero comedy about a [PROTAGONIST DESCRIPTOR]” or “why [PROTAGONIST DESCRIPTOR]s should not be superheroes.” It’d probably help to check out Google Analytics to see what searches people are using to get to your website. Adwords’ Keyword Tool can also help you find out which search terms are most popular/important.

    “Your description doesn’t scream “superpowers”, but there’s no direct mention of superHEROES, either (which is probably by design!)” I was thinking about describing them as “two unlikely superheroes,” but I think “two unlikely secret agents” fits the mood/style a bit better. None of the characters wear stereotypical superhero costumes and secret identities are not a particularly important plot element. If I were writing a novel rather than a comic book, I’d probably play up the superhero element (because it’s far more like a superhero story than 99% of the novels on the market), but it’s less like a superhero story than at least 50% of the comic books on the market.

  9. Loysquaredon 14 Jul 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Somehow, I get the feeling this article is meant for me (lol). Thanks anyway 😉

  10. B. Macon 14 Jul 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Heh heh. To the extent I had any discernible goal for this article, I think it was to remind the people that read “Plausible Origin Stories” that a plausible origin story is not required.

    Also, the original name for that article (as its current URL indicates) was Realistic Origin Stories, which feels like the wrong term. So this article sort of clarifies the difference in my mind between realism and plausibility.

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