The Implausibility Factor

Another way–besides gotchas and inconsistent characterization–an unwary writer can break a reader’s suspension of disbelief is through plot events that are simply unbelievable.

Sometimes I deal with students that defend their highly improbable storyline by saying, “But it really happened!”

While real-life events or news stories can spark ideas in a writer’s mind, that doesn’t mean you can chronicle them exactly as they occurred.

The old adage of truth being stranger than fiction means that fiction is a conservative art medium. It brings more order and organization and purpose to a dramatized event than a real event will have. That’s because it must fit into a story. It must serve to advance a plot that’s focused on the protagonist’s goal and is actually helping move the protagonist toward a climax and resolution.

Real life doesn’t necessarily work that way. And therefore real events have to be reshaped and reconfigured in order to be dramatized.

Sometimes, a writer will be too heavily influenced by the spate of what thriller writer David Morrell calls “idiot plots” that have dominated major motion pictures in Hollywood since the 1980s. While action-packed, fast-paced, stunt-laden movies can be exciting to watch, a novelist trying to emulate them can push a high-concept storyline into absurdity.

Granted, no one expects a James Bond film, for example, to be realistic, much less offer character depth or development. Audiences go to Bond flicks expecting a high degree of implausibility. As long as the people running the Bond franchise can keep topping themselves, the exotic locales, hot babes, and wild stunts will continue to make audiences say, “Wow.”

However, an over-the-top movie that spits rapid-fire visual eye-candy at its audience should not be a template for a novelist trying to plot a story. In prose, we have our words, not cinematography or CGI. We can aim for a fast-paced story, of course, but it will never move as rapidly as a film. Therefore, our readers have more time to think, Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a hunch-backed dwarf following the heroine down that Paris street? Where did he go? Why did he stop tracking her? Wasn’t there a reason for that? If he’s not going to show up again, why was he mentioned in the first place? Also, movies keep going so even if someone in the cinema thinks, hold on, an action stunt or locale change onscreen will distract or obscure audience doubt. However, in a book a dubious reader can stop and flip back a few pages to check some authorial misstep.


It takes a lot more effort and disgust for an audience to walk out of a film than it does for a disgruntled reader to toss a story aside.

Staying plausible involves keeping up with your hooks, threats, plants, questions, and details. Playing fair with readers means you must not mention or include or feature anything that isn’t in the story for a valid dramatic reason.

Declaring, “Oh, I just thought I’d describe that girl in the clown costume, holding a red parasol while trying to flag a taxi because I wanted some vivid imagery. She doesn’t have any bearing on what’s happening between Gertrude and her mother,” is akin to announcing you plan to go sky-diving for the first time at noon but don’t expect your family to take any notice of it because you’ll be home in time for dinner.

Implausibility can also occur when you fail to plot through your protagonist’s sequels. In other words, if you simply push your character from one event or scene to the next as you would check off items on your errands list, the character’s actions resemble those of a contrived puppet.

Instead, follow up each scene with its immediate sequel–or the aftermath where your protagonist processes what just went wrong, reacts to it, analyzes it, weighs options for what to do next, and chooses a new course of action.

Inexperienced writers can be impatient with sequels, but these dramatic building blocks make an enormous difference in your story’s logic and your protagonist’s motivations. Sequels are key components to a believable plot no matter whether it’s a family drama set in a Virginia suburb or a military thriller set in the Adriatic Sea.

And, finally, your story can become implausible if you neglect the consequences of your characters’ actions. Your story people aren’t confronting each other, arguing with each other, betraying each other, or pursuing each other without result. Every character action worth depicting in a scene should create a later effect on someone or something in the story. If you overlook this, your plot becomes a random montage of character actions that lack an evident purpose and don’t seem to connect.

Such errors and omissions result in readers pushing the story away in disbelief, no longer willing to pretend with you.

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