I’m afraid I’ll have to start my discussion of plausibility with a student story that remains vivid to me after some five years.
I should preface my thoughts by noting how generally awesome my students are. The notion that a 21-year-old would even attempt to write a short story, let alone subject such work to the unpredictable blandishments of a workshop, strikes me as ridiculously courageous. I didn’t work up the nerve to write fiction until I was nearly 30.
There’s very little a student can do in a story that would actually make me angry. But I do get, uh, frustrated when I feel a student is failing to take his characters seriously on some level. The chief symptom being that I just stop believing them. They, and their world, become implausible.
This brings me to the story in question (I’ve forgotten the title), which was about a teenager named John who tries—and fails—to commit suicide. He wakes up in a hospital with his brother by his side.
The following things then happen:
1. John begins wisecracking with his brother.
2. His brother describes John’s suicide note as “funny.”
3. A nurse appears and treats John with blistering scorn.
4. His brother jokingly threatens to “tell mom and dad” about the suicide attempt.
5. John and his brother sneak out of the hospital.
6. John commits suicide.
I’m not sure where to start.
There are technical implausibilities (the story is told from John’s perspective, and yet he winds up dead) and practical ones (the authorities would be legally bound to inform the parents, and John would be placed on suicide watch). But more disturbing are the emotional issues. Would John and his brother actually crack wise in the wake of a suicide attempt serious enough to require hospitalization? Would a nurse verbally abuse him?
Of course, John and his brother might engage in sardonic banter as a way of keeping their true feelings at bay. But the story contains no trace of those true feelings. The story is a tragedy posing as a farce.
COMMON PLAUSIBILITY FLAWS
The question of plausibility is central when it comes to fiction. Can you induce the reader to believe? More precisely, to suspend her disbelief?
All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction. We know Elizabeth Bennet isn’t a real person. But because Jane Austen describes her world (both internal and external) with such fidelity and elegance, Ms. Bennet comes to feel real.
If the reader stops believing, even for an instant, you’ve broken the spell. As I suggested earlier, there are several common types of plausibility flaws that can cause this.
FACTUAL: Simply put, you don’t do your research. You place the Grand Canyon in Nevada. Or you write a story about an indigenous Amazonian culture based on “a cool article” you read a decade ago that’s now hopelessly outdated. These are mistakes born of laziness (my favorite attribute!) that are relatively easy to correct.
LOGISTICAL: Here, the problem isn’t research, but an insufficient immersion in the fictional world. If your hero is a poverty-stricken dreamer, that kindly bank officer simply isn’t going to lend him money—no matter how much you’d like him to.
TECHNICAL: These flaws are the result of basic misunderstandings about craft. If your story is written from the point of view of a sexually frustrated mailman—as so many of mine are—your narrator can’t suddenly leap into the mind of his ex-wife without losing the reader.
EMOTIONAL/PSYCHOLOGICAL: This is by far the most serious breach of plausibility, and the most common. The question here is motivation: why your characters do the things they do. The essential failure of the story about suicidal John is that the author never provided us any sense of why the kid wanted to take his life. John acted not because he had a complex, tortured internal life, but because the author made him act. He wasn’t a person. He was a puppet.
And it’s not enough to tell the reader about a character’s feelings. We must be made to share in those feelings. The key to ensuring a reader’s undying devotion is to implicate him in the fears and desires of your characters. The unnerving power of a novel such as Lolita is that we conspire in Humbert Humbert’s illicit (and illegal) passion for his pubescent paramour.
SECRETS TO SUSPENDING DISBELIEF
This is all fine and well, but isn’t there a risk to fretting over plausibility—namely that you inhibit your imagination? What about magical realism or science fiction? What about those stories that joyously throw conventional reality out the window?
I say more power to them, actually.
One of my favorite books on Earth is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s a book about the horrors of war, specifically the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. But it’s predicated on the premise that our hero, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck in time” after being abducted by space aliens.
Clearly, Vonnegut didn’t give a damn about “plausibility” in his books, right?
Wrong. Vonnegut goes to great pains to ensure that the alternate world he’s constructed is believable. We learn about the aliens, their physiology and moral philosophy, why they’ve come to Earth and why they’ve chosen to abduct Billy. Billy’s life on Earth is portrayed in meticulous and convincing detail.
The same is true of the remarkable Gabriel García Márquez short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The triggering event is the appearance of a very old man with enormous wings who falls from the sky and lands in a small village. Márquez provides no final explanation for this event. But what’s most important is that the villagers treat the event as real, a source of genuine bafflement and wonder.
The lesson is this: Readers will happily suspend their disbelief (even in the face of space aliens and angels) if they feel their emotional and logistical questions have been addressed, and if the world they encounter feels internally consistent. In the end, plausibility in fiction isn’t about adhering to the facts of the known world, but the imagined world.
This should be taken as a cause for liberation, but not a license to indulge in feckless motivations, absurd plot twists and too-convenient coincidences. We get enough of those from Hollywood. Writers of literary fiction have a sworn duty to pursue the truth, even (and especially) when it involves lying through their teeth.