Plausibility in fiction and nonfiction: The Relationship Between the Truth and the Facts in Creative Writing

There’s a trick to twisting a story away from reality.  A world must be acceptable to draw people in. Rather than asking a reader to suspend disbelief, the writer must ask for trust. Plausibility in fiction involves three interacting factors: recognizable grounding, a lack of contrivance, and most important, internal consistency.

Recognizable Grounding

As readers, we bring our own preconceptions to a story. My first job as an author is not to refute those notions. Rather, it is to find something in common with them. I often do this unconsciously, as I did in a story where my main character met an invisible girl. I started with Crystal cold and wet on a motorcycle, annoyed with herself for ignoring her mother’s advice about a jacket. I wasn’t sure why that detail was so important until a reader pointed out that it was a grounding point. Most people can believe in a mother who would tell her daughter to wear her jacket. And most people can believe a daughter thinking, “I should have listened to Mom.”  That small detail gave me common ground with readers, and made them willing to trust me as I led them into impossible territory.

Even if the piece had been nonfiction, I would have needed to establish that bond. Stories often strain credulity even (sometimes especially) when they are completely factual. If I want readers to enjoy a piece, I need their trust. In creative nonfiction, I am asking them to believe something. But in fiction, I’m asking for something more complex. Not belief, but acceptance.

Of course, the grounding need not come from a mother or what people understand about It should come from something fairly universal.  If I was writing about spaceships , I would give the ship an immediate leak or whistle. Why? Because everybody knows vehicles break down. The breakage might not be enough to affect the storyline, but it would play a role, so that my characters, and thus my readers, were constantly aware of it. There are a hundred different things I might do instead, but the point is the same, I want to find something in common with the reader early in the piece.

A lack of contrivance

But all of the grounding in the world won’t help if I have a contrived plot. I just had a story rejected by an editor who argued that the whole thing could have been solved in the second paragraph if the main character had just told her mother what was going on. And she was right. I’m not abandoning the story. I’m going back and having the girl tell her mother what’s going on in the second paragraph and addressing the question of how events would transpire if her mother didn’t believe her.

I lost that editor because I violated my own reality. I created a basically honest kid who nonetheless kept her magical abilities from her Mom because she was afraid of not being believed. It didn’t work. What does work is to have her reveal her abilities and cope with the frustration of her mother doing exactly what she fears. I could have gone back and made her more deceitful, but that would have created problems in other places in the piece.

Murder mysteries are famous for author contrivances. I’m a mystery reader. But I’m picky. I hate it when the main character goes rushing into a scene without calling the cops first. Who does that? Nobody.  Drives me nuts. Similarly, romances often rely on a series of increasingly contrived events to get the main characters together. Barf. I enjoy romances that create plausible conflict and then resolve it without resorting to outrageous schemes.

I’m looking forward to getting my copy of Cameron Garriepy’s Buck’s Landing because she’s an author I trust to make her situations plausible. She’s not afraid to make her characters suffer for their actions, and she’s unlikely to give her would-be romantics any easy outs on the road to happiness.

Internal consistency

Finally, I require my stories to have internal consistency. In the story about the invisible girl, I don’t ever let her be visible.  There are rules about how to see her and how things around her can be seen. She’s trapped halfway between dimensions, and as soon as something touches her living body, it gets absorbed into her between-space. So the only time my character, Crystal, can see her is when the two of them are holding hands.  But if something touches her clothing or hair, things that aren’t living parts of her, it remains visible. If she went out in public wearing two layers of clothing and a couple of facemasks, she could be seen. But I’ve taken away most of her clothes, so that isn’t an option in my piece. When my character rescues the girl at the end of the piece, she drives away on her motorcycle looking like she has a helmet and a backpack floating behind her.

In another story about a girl with wings, I set up a scenario that could cause her to have wings. I gave her a winged father, and I engaged her in a conversation with another character about it. (And, speaking of contrivances, I didn’t make it an ‘as you know Bob’ conversation. It was a borderline argument in which something she never knew was revealed to her.)

In the end, good writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is not about lying to the reader, not about asking them to stop believing in the real world. Rather, it’s about asking for trust.  Readers will accept my expertise as a writer if my story has some bearing on their own realities. I haven’t asked them to suspend anything. Rather, I have invited them on a trip into my imagination, where everything, factual or not, is related to a truth.


13 Responses to Plausibility in fiction and nonfiction: The Relationship Between the Truth and the Facts in Creative Writing
  1. Lance
    November 1, 2012 | 6:26 am

    I’m going through this now with my editor for The Ballad of Helene troy. One of the reasons we keep getting delayed is in rewrites I’m arguing for mher to forget genre or gender or style and pay attention to how the characters I’ve written would react to a certain situation. Helene is tired of drugs ravaged her sister and former best friend. She’s just fed up. So when she drops them or walks away from them, she’s not being heartless, she’s being real.

    I think editors, readers, and other writers need to give the benefit of the doubt to THE AUTHOR for what their character should do and how they should act and react. On the flip side, the author should congratulate the intelligence of the reader by making their characters deep, meaningful, and understandable.

    Good post

    • Jessie
      November 1, 2012 | 8:39 am

      Character is SO important to plot. On the flip side, it’s a mistake to think that an editor’s expertise is without basis. Publishable writing is a collaborative effort and can require you to go against your own gut and with someone else’s. (Which is why trust between editors and authors is essential. You both have to know when to trust each other’s guts!)

  2. @bluenotebacker
    November 1, 2012 | 6:38 am

    Thanks for sharing this, I’m still (after more than 30 years!) learning what it takes to be a good writer and articles like this are immensely helpful.

    • Jessie
      November 1, 2012 | 8:36 am

      So glad it helped :)

  3. Kiran@Masalachica
    November 1, 2012 | 9:23 am

    As I venture into fictional writing for the first time, I can really see the value of the points you are making. And it also makes me recognize why it is that sometimes a book that I have read seems so implausible to me – not because I can’t suspend disbelief but the groundwork wasn’t there. The credibility had not yet been created.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Jessie
      November 1, 2012 | 10:03 am

      I’m glad this gave you insight not just to your writing, but also to your reading! The whole concept of suspension of disbelief gripes me. It puts the burden on the reader when the burden should (and is) really on the writer.

  4. angela
    November 1, 2012 | 9:52 am

    It can be difficult as a writer to find a balance between “reality” and “stereotypes”, but I think you hit such an important point in that some experiences and emotions are universal, and if an author is consistent and honest with his reader, trust can be built throughout the story.

    (Also, I think you’ll find Buck’s Landing to be a lovely example of a story that firmly rests in the romance genre while treating the reader to a realistic experience of adults at a turning point in their lives.)

    • Jessie
      November 1, 2012 | 10:05 am

      The line between archetype, stereotype, and common ground can be so narrow. That’s an excellent point. And a good love story is ALWAYS welcome. It’s when the romance becomes completely laden with hopeless coincidence and improbable character actions (which is so bloody often) that I get all bent out of shape. I KNOW Cam is rocking this.

  5. barbara @ de rebus
    November 1, 2012 | 12:06 pm

    Awesome topic, Jessie and so true! I love a great fantasy novel, but have never made the leap myself. Perhaps I should!

    The ideas you lay out here are straightforward and compelling… it really makes me think how I connect my readers to my characters!

  6. Cameron
    November 1, 2012 | 12:16 pm

    Jessie, thanks for the shout out, and I hope so sincerely that you’re sold on my characters’ motivations and actions – when your copy finally arrives (oh, Sandy!).

    I think it’s crucial not only to allow your characters to be true to your vision, but also true to the actual way the world works. Whatever world you’ve built.

    In life, we bend to suit our environment all the time, we hide feelings to spare others, we adapt to survive – sometimes despite our convictions and principles. Everyone loves an iconoclast, but to believe in them, for me, you’ve got to see the price they pay for bucking the rules.

    • Jessie
      November 1, 2012 | 8:35 pm

      I’ll love it. I know I will. I can already see that I loathe Silas at the outset, if the lucky statue comment stays, but that by the end, he may actually have quite a lot of sympathy. That’s a good thing, in my mind!

  7. beebeesworld
    November 1, 2012 | 5:30 pm

    Great points to inspire a writer. It is nice to learn a bit as I read and write. Thanks!

    • Jessie
      November 1, 2012 | 8:36 pm

      Yay! That’s an awesome avatar pic, by the way. Deliciously black and white.