The Art of Plausibility

In Business of Writing, Craft on August 10, 2009 at 5:35 pm

I’ve had the good fortune to professionally edit writers’ manuscripts (as a freelance editor) for the last seven years, and have judged several writing contests, sifting through on the order of hundreds of essays or book-length manuscripts (so please don’t begrudge me such a long first sentence). Though I’d never deign to suggest I see as many ms’s as an agent’s slush pile, I’ve gotten quite an education in the school of “implausibility”—or topics/ideas that every writer should seek to omit or reconsider before pursuing an agent. Yes, fiction is a license to make things up, but there’s a line!

Violence and Gore (not Al). Recently I edited a manuscript that involved obscene, gory sex between unfeeling “clones.” Though the author eventually made an elegant point about humanity, the imagery was so grotesque that it felt as though the author’s only purpose was to gross out his reader. It was so difficult to read that I had to play incredibly cheerful music at the same time just to make it through. Violence, murder, and death all have their place in fiction—but remember you want to entice readers first. Shock ‘em a little bit later. Talking Animals. Disney cornered the market on talking animals about seventy years ago. Unless you’re writing children’s fiction (and even then, be selective), opinionated penguins and babbling beavers “young down” your writing and can appear silly.

Beautiful People. Except in Romance, literature is the place where flawed people get to be flawed. Therefore every character need not be “Five foot ten, with a stunning mane of blonde hair and killer blue eyes” or the male equivalent (You can decide for yourselves what else is wrong with a description like that). Beauty is fine—but let it be real beauty. Scars, off-kilter noses, chipped teeth and moles can add up to a composition that is still attractive. And sometimes, frankly, beauty is boring (no offense to the beauties among you). Let your characters be interesting over beautiful if you can.

Meetings of Convenience. There’s nothing that stretches credibility more in a novel than when you put your characters in places where they conveniently interact with, or “know” each other because you haven’t thought out your plot. For instance: A girlfriend flies to another state to be with her new boyfriend, only to walk in at the precise moment he’s trysting with her best friend—didn’t they figure this might happen? Or your protagonist “bumps into” the very person crucial to taking your plot to the next step somewhere he always goes. Meetings must be organized and timed to be surprising and dramatic. I’m not saying that there is never a place for coincidence or convenience, but look for it in your work and see if it’s merely a shortcut to a tighter plot.

On Cue. Okay, I’ll admit that this one’s just a pet peeve. Please, please, please do not let your characters do anything “as if on cue” or a variation on those words. You are the magician playing sleight of hand with your audience. You never want your reader thinking (or worse: reading the words), “Well she did that as if on cue.” You want the machinery and devices of your novel to be hidden so that all readers see is the elegant action that your complex characters engage in. If your readers see the wizard behind the curtain (you), it’s known as “authorial intrusion” and it breaks the spell you’ve tried to cast.

Agony. The two most common kinds of agony I see rendered utterly implausible in fiction are childbirth and homicide. Do your research, people! While there are five women on the planet who have had a relatively painless birth, I promise you that childbirth involves a lot more than a little breaking water and screaming obscenities at their husbands. Also steer clear of TV renditions of the act. Rent some real videos or attend a birth—it’s a powerful, animal, otherworldly event that often goes on for days. Similarly, when a person is murdered in my clients’ work I see lots of dramatic clutching of the heart, staggering about in pain, and shaking of fists at the heavens as one’s lifeblood runs out onto the floor. I’m fortunate to have never seen a person shot or stabbed—but my brothers-in-law are Sheriff’s deputies—and they vouch that a great deal of deaths are pretty simple. Bang, pow, person falls over dead. Stab, stab, scream, dead. If you want a dramatic death, research what means cause one to writhe and clutch at one’s chest, or slowly asphyxiate to death. Redux: don’t take your deaths from TV or movies!

About Faces. I’ll leave you with another pet peeve of mine: when a character makes a sudden, dramatic, and unjustified change of heart. Your character hates the terrible nun who beat her as a child and then, whammo, has great sex one night and wakes up the next day totally forgiving. Character changes must be earned, slow, and justified. There must be actions that precede these changes, and logical reasons for why your character changes. Changes work best when they happen toward the end of the novel, unless a change in the middle is only one of several changes your character will undergo.

  1. Clap, clap, clap!
    This is a lovely, adorable, collectionable article.

  2. Thanks, Patricia 🙂 I’m sure you relate!

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