Despite readers’ presumed desires to suspend disbelief, try to keep some rational sense of reality cohering your storyline
by Marie Valentine, editor
Not true! No way that could happen. Sorry, I’m not buying it.
If these phrases cannot be squelched in your mind when revising your manuscript, take note.
Readers might forgive an author if something incredulous happens only once, or if they really like the characters. But, more often than not, “That’s whack!” attacks inspire the reader to put the book down (or more violently dispose of it: e.g., yelling, “Complete bullsh*t!” accompanied with a hard toss across the room, or worse, out the window).
Even in imaginative genres like fantasy, horror, sci fi, and supernatural fiction, the story has to have a realistic ring for readers to get into it. Without some honest reliance on a shared human reality, readers cannot be expected to invest in the work’s interpretation. A world needs to be able to gel with known factors.
Do the Research
Any time you venture into historical fiction or science fiction, a door opens for error in detail. There will likely always be a World War II history buff who is more studied in the era or a master of computational processes who may expose your misuse of techy robotic lingo. Don’t give them the satisfaction of calling you out.
Besides avoiding factual inaccuracies, when you research your era or area of specialization, you may find some rich, relevant historical details or technological wow-factors that will give your story a pleasant oomph. It can even create a theme or plot thread that you hadn’t considered.
Make the Main Character Make Sense
A writerly crime worse than an unlikeable narrator is an unreliable narrator. While we might expect some foibles from or even a touch of evil in a protagonist, save lying characters for the courtroom in your legal thriller. If we can’t trust what the narrator is telling us, why should we care?
Don’t withhold key information (oh, his stepdad’s actually a felon!) just for the sake of a bomb-drop reveal. Readers will see that you set them up. The trick is to make readers feel complicit or sleuthy by satisfying their suspicions triggered by foreshadowing. Steadily time your reveals with the pace of the plot’s unfolding.
Avoid Too Much Coincidence
Oh really? Isn’t that convenient! We might get vibes of being cheated when reading serial mysteries and the like. Don’t be like a TV show that need to end after an hour and wrap up conveniently. A reader won’t tolerate these lazy endings.
Some messiness can remain in literature. A plotline doesn’t always need to tie up nicely. Allowing for some ambiguity in your finale can help avoid the inevitable eyeroll when relying on obvious endings of crimes tidily solved and all characters living happily ever after (or resting in peace, depending on your genre).
It Doesn’t Hurt (Much) to Ask
Sometimes we are too close to the stories we love to understand that they basically don’t make sense. Your main character has grown up in the house but never opened the back cellar door, which always made weird noises, to discover a secret portal to an interstellar world? Wow, that is totally bizarre and unlikely. Fill in gaps of comprehension by finding them through second opinions.
Since you might not realize if your premise is inherently flawed, ask a trusted friend. Better yet, get a beta reader. If it is too outlandish, you probably won’t need to ask—they will tell you. You can also hire a professional editor to point out the overly evident and help you rephrase, restructure, or rewrite. Through revision, your book will shine with its own unique trajectory, one no reader could ever predict.