Posted on 10-01-2012
Filed Under (Articles, Writing) by admin

As an editor who specializes in fiction, I quite often have clients lament about my criticism of a plot element that I find implausible. The general response is, “It’s fiction, so why should it matter?” First, just because a narrative is fictional, this doesn’t mean the story elements should not be factual. Second, all fiction is grounded on fact to some degree, and even the wildest fantasy has to contain characterizations the reader can relate to with respect to their legitimacy.

Once Again, to the Planet Zegrebnon

I wrote an article not long ago in which I stated that even the most outlandish science fiction requires accurate physics to make scenes work for readers, since the scientific community understands the various disciplines. For example, a space alien couldn’t be in multiple places at the same instant. Even traveling many times the speed of light, if that were possible, would entail nanoseconds (or whatever) to differentiate location. An extraterrestrial entity might appear to be in several places at one time, but the author couldn’t tell the reader that the being was indeed in more than one spot at an identical moment.

Let’s Get Back to Earth

If a person is tossed into the Bering Strait, I know from “Deadliest Catch,” and a tour guide of mine while on a fishing trip in Alaska, that a person has about 4 1/2 minutes before hypothermia can occur. And while a human might make it for a half-hour, the person would have substantial health issues if still alive after being in the water for that period of time.

However, there is a documented case of a man who survived for more than 6 hours in 45-degree-or-colder water after his ship wrecked in 1984. Studied by scientists from all over the world, he was overweight and his body fat was two to three times thicker than the norm and solid like that of a seal. I think it’s fair to imply that this fellow was unique. And that’s the point. Can a writer expect readers to accept that a character could negate insurmountable odds when only one person in recorded history is purported to have done so?

This has nothing to do with hypothermia. It could mean rowing a heavy boat on a lake against a gale wind and in two hours making it ten miles. Or incapacitating a burglar in the dark (I know the movie, too, but you get my point). Or never having fired a gun and hitting multiple people with single shots in a speeding boat on rolling seas. Then there’s tossing a bullet in a fire so it will go off at just the right angle and hit the bad guy. While this list is of course endless, readers’ attention spans aren’t.

All Writers Must Understand and Respect Their Audiences

If it’s a police procedural, the person buying a book in this genre will likely be hip to the way law enforcement operates. When the bust takes place, the writer had better understand what cops say and do. And what they can’t say and don’t do! Also, a reader’s acceptance factor is not like what occurs when watching “Nikita” on TV, a show that has all sorts of female assassins with martial arts skills enabling them to take down men three times their size. Only one woman in the entirety of our Armed Forces is rated at the highest level for hand-to-hand combat. This means she also possess jujitsu skills that allow her to effectively fight a man on the ground. Again, only one female in the whole of our military!

Fully Grasp the Limitations of Every Character

Even Superman and Wonder Woman have limitations. Since we create our characters from our imaginations, it’s important not to get carried away and want to live vicariously through their actions. Make chase scenes realistic, love scenes acceptable, physical characteristics identifiable for the average person, etc. The more accurately fiction is written, the better it is.

The Feasibility/Plausibility Test

Even though the words “feasible” and “plausible” are often considered interchangeable, someone whose name I’ve sadly forgotten wrote something along these lines: “If it’s feasible, this means it can be done under normal circumstances; if it’s plausible, this means it could be done, but only under the most unlikely of situations.” To keep the reader engaged, I suggest staying with feasible scenarios and avoiding scenes that are unlikely to occur except by sheer luck. Think of the man from Iceland who swam for six hours in 45-degree-or-below water and survived. Would you believe it?

Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write®

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