Someone who read Finding Claire Fletcher once told me that it was simply not believable that my protagonist would not leave her abductor given the first opportunity, even after years of abuse and failed escape attempts resulting in some pretty hefty consequences. Never mind that it is widely reported that real-life abduction victims like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard did not escape in spite of multiple opportunities to do so. I'm not going to get into the psychology behind that--if you can't understand the kind of fear underlying their decisions not to make a break for it, then you must be having a really nice life. Why do soldiers have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after spending a year in a war zone? Hmmm . . . Why do battered women keep going back? Hmmm . . . There's a lot going on there and I don't think it's fair to victims of violent crimes--especially when those victims are children--to say "Oh she should have done this or that." At any rate, I tried to explore answers to the question "why don't they just leave?" in my novel. Did I pull it off? Well I guess we'll find out if it ever gets published. But the issue of leaving v. not leaving a bad situation is one for another day. Today what I really want to talk about is believability. Writers, agents, editors, readers all clamor about how things in novels MUST be believable. Okay, sure, but try putting something in your book that actually happens in real life and you'll be told it's not believable!

Although in my experience, truth is often stranger than fiction as the saying goes. I've seen and experienced things that I wouldn't find believable if I had read about them in a novel. Several years back my family and I found ourselves mired in some bizarre and tragic circumstances. I'll never forget one day my uncle said to me, "If I wasn't living it, I wouldn't believe it." That summed things up perfectly. Going back to Jaycee Dugard, is it really believable that parole officers visited her abductor's home over 60 times and never discovered her? That one of these parole officers actually spoke to her, saw her small children and didn't ask any questions? Well it sure as hell doesn't sound believable but it happened. Although it is fact, if you tried putting that into a novel, I don't think it would go over well with readers. I doubt it would ever get past agents or editors.

Still, people love to read fiction. For me, when I pick up a novel, I expect there to be some degree of unbelievability. I mean really. Why else would I want to read it? I want to be entertained. I expect that the author will take liberties and test the limits of believability just a little to make the novel entertaining. I read things all the time that I don't really find believable but it doesn't bother me because I'm reading a novel, not a memoir. When I purchase a novel, after reading the product description and possibly some reviews, I make an agreement with the author that basically says "I am going to go on this journey with you, through this story that came from your imagination and I'm going to trust you to guide me through it. I'm not going to give you a hard time. I'm going to sit back, relax and let you do most of the work. I understand you may tweak certain elements for the sake of moving the story forward and I'm okay with that."

So where is the line between believable and not believable? I mean we are writing fiction, after all. What happened to that whole thing about "the willing suspension of disbelief"?What do you think--as a reader and as a writer?


  1. Well, personally, I want to be taken away from the ordinary. What fun is it to read about ordinary everyday things?

    I want to read something and say, "No way! That didn't just happen!" That's not to say that it CAN'T happen, but just that it's outlandish that it DID.

    I know there is a fine line between what's believable and what is not. As writers, we have to present our story in such a way that makes our readers think that what happens in the story is amazing and incredible and they just can't believe it did happen, not that it can't happen, that it's not possible.

    What wouldn't or can't happen is what makes a story unbelievable.

    What shouldn't happen is what makes it amazing that it did.

  2. Donald Maass talks about this in one of his writing books...probably Writing The Breakout Nove. He says what matters most is plausibility. As long as people can get behind the idea that it COULD happen then they will be willing to go along for the ride. I think that's how I function as a reader. I'm usually willing to suspend disbelief if the story is plausible.

    I agree, some things are just so strange you can't consider putting them in a novel, even though they really happened. Crazy.

  3. Nancy: I am right there with you! That's the reading experience I want too!

    L.G.: You make such an excellent point about plausibility! So true. I will have to read that Maass book too.

  4. When I was workshopping my novel, a fellow writer told me that my protagonist was totally not believable because no way could a psychologist ever be a sex addict. Well, I bit my tongue, but having known a few psychologists in my time, I can say with certainty that they're just as flawed as the rest of us.

    Like L.G. said, it boils down to plausibility. But no matter what you do, there's always going to be *someone* who doesn't quite buy it. And you know what, I think that's okay, so long as most everybody else does.

  5. To me, I'll go along with almost anything as long as it fits w/in the rules you've set up in your world. Other than that, it has to be pretty far fetched to get me to put the book down.

  6. Someone actually told you that? I read somewhere that the abductee is either to afraid to leave or they create a bond. I think for battered women it's more a fear of the future. They don't think they can survive on their own, without the beast that's hurting them. When I read a thriller I want to be kept at the edge of my seat. You're right. Readers want to entertain. If we wanted everything to be believable we'd be reading non-fiction, yet even the lives of serial killers hold such attrocities that they could be comparable to fiction.

  7. Jennifer: that's just B.S. Psychologists are still people and people have all kinds of problems! Also I thought it made it way more interesting that Sheila was a psychologist AND a sex addict. It just goes to show you can't please everyone and ultimately you should go with what what you feel is right in your gut.

    Libby: Me too!

    Laila: Yes, someone really said that. I only took exception to it since it actually parallels real life. Again, you can't please everyone. Subjectivity abounds!

  8. I think the believability factor is different in character-driven stories rather than plot-driven.

    To me, the bar is set higher in the character-driven story. Each character must have a motivation behind their actions. BUT, how does one get "in-the-head" of a madman or serial killer? It is difficult to get a reader to empathize (that's not the word I 'm looking for; it'll come to me after I post this comment...sigh) with a psychopath. I suppose that's the mark of a good storyteller.

    The plot-driven story? Heck, it's true. Truth is stranger than fiction. All one needs to do is pick up a newspaper or fire up their laptop.

    My two cents. (Adjusted for inflation)

  9. I'm perfectly happy believing something that is far fetched or 'unbelievable' as long as the writer gives some sort of explanation as to WHY it's happening. The reasoning doesn't have to be long and/or drawn out (though I do like those detailed scientific explanations for things like vampirism, etc...they make me giggle a little - I think I prefer mysticism over science in that aspect), but it has to make sense.

  10. I think it's entirely possible. In fact, it could always be a borderline case of Stockholm Syndrome. Thought provoking post, Lisa. Great work! :)


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