Writing Clinic: Possibility Versus Believability

The greatest minds of our age have introduced technologies to us that were unfathomable even a decade ago. It’s an exciting time right now, where almost anything seems possible. But possibility and believability are two very different things. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it is believable for your story. Whether you are writing a political thriller or a science fiction novel, differentiating between the possible and the believable is essential to help your readers are able to suspend belief and engage with your story.

Writers tend to be information junkies. We love learning about cool new things, particularly when they relate to our work. Many of us have wondered out loud if our Google searches might one day get us in trouble with Homeland Security, or have concerns over what the local librarian must think about us based on our reading habits. We spend a great deal of time making sure that the scenarios that play out in our work are factually sound. Yet all of that research often doesn’t help make our stories believable.

This is because the problem is not whether or not a specific task or action is possible. The problem is whether or not the task or action has any business in the story in the first place. There are three questions you can ask to determine if your possibility is passes the Believability Check.

1. Would the character have the skill to perform the task?

I was reading a submission recently where the character made a working gun out of Lego blocks. When I pointed out the believability problem with this, the author responded with a link to various instruction books on how to make functional weapons out of Legos. He didn’t need to provide evidence of the possibility of a Lego gun. I already knew about them (and a host of other geekworthy robots, computers, and more). I already knew about this possibility because I’m a geek. I wasn’t questioning whether or not the gun itself was possible. I was questioning how his character would have known how to make one.

Writers do this a lot. We come across some supremely cool concept and we just HAVE to use it. But we don’t think it through. Because the people who come up with these cool concepts are thinking about the world very differently than our characters. They also have different knowledges and skill sets. Yes, I know it is possible to build your own solar panel (did you know you can build solar panels at home?) But if your protagonist is doing this, you better make damn sure you have explained his skill set to me first. Because while it is possible to do it, there is a reason most people don’t.

2. Would the character have the materials available to perform the task?

OK, you’ve set up your backstory for your character to make sure that I know he is Mr. Fix-It. He’s been tinkering with stuff since he was old enough to play with building blocks. He can totally fix anything with moving parts. So when he comes across that broken down car in your post-apocalyptic story and he rebuilds the engine to run on the homemade bio-fuel he makes in his barn, that’s completely believable.

Except it’s not. Because unless his barn doubled as an automotive plant at some point, he doesn’t have the material necessary to perform the task. Correction: unless his barn doubled as an automotive plant for the make and model of the car he is repairing, he doesn’t have the material necessary to perform the task. You are talking about a piece of machinery with hundreds of parts, few of which are interchangeable between models. And then you are rebuilding it to do something it was not originally designed to do (run on homemade bio-fuel). Requiring even more parts.

Yes, we all know it CAN be done. But not with bubble gum and duct tape, if you get the point.

3. Would the character think to perform the task?

We went and saw Iron Man 3 over the weekend. There is a scene in the movie when Tony is about to give up. His suit is shot. His home is destroyed. Pepper is in danger. This is a man with all of the skill and resources in the world, sitting helpless on the side of a road.

“You’re a mechanic, right?” says Harley Keener, the young boy who befriends Tony and becomes something of an apprentice. “Build something.”

It’s an important scene, because until that moment Tony hadn’t thought to do what he eventually does. It helps smooth things over to make what happens believable for the purpose of the plot. Too often, however, characters just pull stuff out of their asses with no build-up or explanation. But when we are stressed or under duress, we don’t think clearly. All of our knowledge and resources take a back seat to primal instincts. In order for your character’s big super-cool action to be believable, it needs to be clear that it is the character, not the hand of the author, who came up with the idea. You need that “light bulb” moment where things finally click into place.

This will generally require a set-up earlier in the story so the final click doesn’t feel like it comes out of left field. You need to plant the seeds early in the story so that when your important scene comes into play, readers experience an “Ah Ha!” moment and not a “Huh?”