How many times has something completely random happened to you? A death for which you can see no purpose? A problem that you couldn’t see a way out of that seemed to solve itself? In real life, things happen for no apparent reason.
In fiction, everything needs to happen for a reason.
I love a page-turner. The more trouble and danger you can put your character into, the happier I am. But only if you can believably get him out of it by the end. When you don’t, readers like me are going to feel cheated and we’re not going to buy your second book. In fact, we might never get a chance to read your first book if the events aren’t plausible. Agents and editors want things to happen for a reason too.
Here are the biggest fiction felonies when it comes to plausibility:
Coincidence and Luck
Your character just happens to stumble upon the evidence that solves the stalled case. Money arrives from out of the blue the day before the bank plans to foreclose on your character’s house. Maybe it does sometimes happen in real life. But fiction isn’t real life, and this is one of the major differences between the two.
Rather than letting a coincidence ruin your book, lay a foundation early on for what’s going to happen. This is one thing I like about soft detective shows like Monk and The Closer. In the space of an hour, the writers for these shows manage to give Adrian and Brenda a plausible means for solving their difficult case, often through something in the secondary plotline that the writers have been developing from the start of the show. No accidents. No coincidences. No dumb luck.
Coincidence is boring. Worse, it doesn’t inspire your readers to deal with the problems in their own lives. Why should they bother if the message you’re sending them is that sheer luck will make it all work out in the end?
I might be treading on dangerous ground here because Christians debate whether or not miracles occur today. Some staunchly maintain that miracles continue to happen, while others argue that miracles stopped when the last apostle died. What I’m about to say has absolutely nothing to do with this debate. I’m not even going to tell you what my position is on the issue.
In your fictional world, regardless of what you believe about the real world, miracles should not take place. A miracle by definition is something for which there is no possible natural explanation. The only way it could have happened is through supernatural intervention. Birth isn’t a miracle. A woman’s body was designed to stretch enough to push a baby-sized object out of it. Money arriving just when you needed it isn’t a miracle (though it can be a coincidence if not handled properly). Someone might have found out about your need. The sun stopping in the sky for hours is a miracle. Can you think of anything in the universe that could cause the earth to stop moving so that the sun stands still while life continues as normal on the surface of the planet? Recently I read a historical novel where the main characters suddenly became invisible as the enemy army charged at them. That’s a miracle. And it annoyed me.
Miracles in fiction are lazy. They also ensure that your credibility with any non-Christian who picks up your novel is shot. Put the same amount of work into getting your character out of a tight spot as you did getting him in.
Bringing in the cavalry to rescue your character isn’t always a bad thing. Your plot might hinge around Fred staying alive long enough for Arnold to find and rescue him. But that’s a very different story from one where Fred got into trouble and you don’t know how to get him out, so you decide to just have Arnold arrive in the nick of time. If that’s what’s happening in your story, figure out how to use the strengths you gave Fred to solve his own problem.
By now you may have figured out the common pattern: Lay the foundation for your ending in the beginning. Everything happens for a reason.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Anna is a devoted servant who idolizes her master and would do anything for him. You’ve established that as her personality because of some of the unsavory things you need her to do for her master. Unfortunately, for your plot to work, you also need her to willfully kill her master by the end.
If you simply have Anna do what you need her to do, you’re violating her character. You need to build in solid, believable reasons for Anna to do anything that would normally be out of character for her–from something big like killing a loved one, to something small like talking back to a superior when she’s normally polite.
Real people always have reasons (subconscious or conscious ones) for what they do. Your characters need to as well.
Have you come across any of the above fiction felonies in your reading lately? How did you get around a tight spot in your writing without resorting to one of the above? We’d love to hear about it.