Writing Believable Fiction

Don't believe everything you eat.

Don’t believe everything you eat.

Ever read a novel and think, “I don’t buy that?” As a writer you must not only create a world for the reader but also be sure that world and its characters and events ring true.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways writers can make their fiction more believable to readers?

Clarity

An important element in fiction believability has to be that what you describe must be clear to the reader. The world you imagine has far too many details to write about. Therefore, you as manager must choose the important details and allow readers to fill in the lesser ones. For instance, if you allow a scene to bog down with minutiae, readers will lose the importance of the scene. If you follow real life too closely (eg breaking actions down into too many steps: he put the key in the lock, he turned the key, he grasped the doorknob, turned it etc) your readers will be swept out to sea by the riptide of details. The more you describe anything, the slower the readers will perceive the pace. Choose the correct details by treating them as you would if you entered a room or met someone for the first time: one to three details will stand out while the rest recede.

Voice

If your character is ten years old but speaks in stilted formal English, readers won’t buy it (unless it’s a prodigy kid). If your characters speak or narrate in a way that doesn’t jibe with the way you project the character, the believable factor goes way down. If you aren’t writing about formal, stilted people, don’t write their dialogue that way. Use contractions and everyday words as they tell the story. Sift for “vague swamp” words: generalized words which don’t give much info, such as very, really, little, stuff, situation, thing, problem. Replace with a specific noun or modifier. But use caution: in real life we don’t walk around measuring things. We compare sizes with known objects (Is it bigger than a bread box?) instead of measuring in inches or centimeters.

Emotions

The most important indicator for believability is accurately portraying emotion. It’s up to you as writer to plot events and then give your characters appropriate reactions through dialogue, action, emotion and inner thoughts. Hemingway said, “Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so that the reader will see it too and have the same feeling you had.” This is a bit more advanced as a fiction technique, but you can work on creating emotion in the reader by writing what the character experienced. In doing so, you’ll be showing not telling what the character is feeling.

Take a look at your work-in-progress. Are there places where you could up the believability factor?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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