Plausibility in Fiction: Is it a Sacred Requirement or an Oppressive Sacrilege?

This is an essay by T. Lloyd Reilly.

Pursuing a career at writing fiction has many obstacles and impediments.  There is the exhaustive grind of formatting for submission, the obligatory query where the writer must, for all intents and purposes, sell the idea to some secretary or intern at a publishing office.  The editor or whoever makes the decision to accept a story rarely reads anything that hasn’t been vetted by whoever is charged with the duty of culling the proverbial herd into chattel, maybes, and definitely pass on categories.

Having experienced the joy of acceptance and the misery of defeat as a writer, I have discovered that much of it is ruled not by reason, but by structure.  Most of what is shared (if shared at all) about a rejection concerns the mechanics of the piece as opposed to the actual story and what it might convey.

One reoccurring theme on the structure side of any attempt at a publishing endeavor is that the story is not plausible.  It does not translate into real life and the facts are not believable.  Certainly there are stories that should or could use a level of believability, but fiction is, in my opinion, must not to be restrained by structure.  Fiction, as the dictionary states is “something feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story, the class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form, the act of feigning, inventing, or imagining.”

Given the parameters of this delineation, the question that begs to be asked is – what is wrong with just making it up?  Granted, there is a larger amount of people in the world that count themselves as writers today than in years past.  It is a noble profession and one of seeming prestige.  But what if the need to publish overshadows the wonder of an active imagination?  Does the story mean anything, or is it just an avenue to remuneration?

For me the magic is, and always has, been in the story.  My college educated mind rejects the idea of a human being raised as an ape, but that rejection never got in the way of my obsessive belief in the possibility of Edgar Rice Burroughs uncivilized hero.

The ideal of Might for Right certainly has little place in the modern world given the reality that mankind has never seen a time when there were no wars, or where violence wasn’t just business as usual.  Regardless, Camelot was a world I became an active participant in when I read of it.  It never stopped being another world for me as I discovered and read a different telling by T.H. White’s and his tome on the legend of Arthur.  It did not leave when, in college, it was presented to me that there most probably was never a knight named Lancelot.  Little did it matter when, at the same university that tried to dispel a belief in the might/right ideal, I rediscovered it in an English Lit Class where we read Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.”

The list goes on from there.  Much of the great fiction in the world was, as I am wont to champion, just made up.  Is that a plausible modus in which to discern the meaning behind such wonders as Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” and its blatant message that mankind is the most adaptable species ever invented while being, at the same time, helpless prisoners to ignorance and bigotry?

Where is the value of Les Misérables? Is it in the forgiveness given Jean Valjean by the Bishop Myriel?  Could it be Javert’s fanatical and obsessive quest to bring Valjean to justice?  Or might it be the depiction of life in the form of a made up story?

Hugo did not have to go outside himself to make the story up having lived through the time period as a child growing into manhood.  All he had to do was make it up.  The fact that it paralleled actual events might be considered serendipitous, and proof that plausibility was vital does not negate the imagination of the writer telling the story.  He wrote the book to tell a story, certainly, but he also believed in the message that brought him to make up that story.  In his own words from the Preface:

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

Lofty words which ring true to this day.  For me, the story blatantly speaks of forgiveness, redemption, compassion, duty, honor, and unconditional love.  That he wrote it and made it seem so real is emphatically evident.  Fiction, in many cases, brings us values and principles that are not found in the New York Times or any college textbook which attempts to research the implications that near burst off the page if just read with a desire for the story without regard for the structure.

This is not to say that structure does not have its place.  Irritations such as typos and misused or dangling participles, split infinitives, or my most misspelled words recieve (!?!?!?!?.) can and do occur frequently. Most of those can be avoided and most word processors will automatically correct it (receive) and ignore whatever is artistic license used in dialogue or storyline.

Plausibility, while definitely important in many areas such as non-fiction commentary, historical fiction, and term papers for college, it should not get in the way of the story.  At least, that is, in my opinion….

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T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Jan Tik.

4 Replies to “Plausibility in Fiction: Is it a Sacred Requirement or an Oppressive Sacrilege?”

  1. This was interesting. In my opinion, it’s the suspension of disbelief that matters in fiction, not plausibility. And more often than not, the use of details and internal logic, no matter how implausible the main premise, is what makes readers let go. I too loved the world of Camelot, but much preferred it in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series.

    1. Thank you Chris(ty). I agree with you on the suspension of disbelief. I believe it is essential to a good story. Taking the reader to another place. Unfortunately, too many in the publishing field have the “P” (plausibility) word on their mind. I believe that limits what a writer can do in the face of continued rejection. My true favorite was and is Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga. This group of books woke up my love for Arthur and helped kept it going to today.

  2. When I hear “implausible” applied as a critique, it often connotes one or more of: 1. plot holes esp large unanswered questions (how did Luthor know the meteroite would be harmful to Superman?), 2. gross character insconsistency (the wallflower suddenly becomes brave with no previous setup), 3. the “rules” of that universe change for plot convenience (the transporter in Star Trek works only to the degree that the author desires). No one says, “going faster than light” is implausible in Star Trek. Why? Because it is OK within the “rules” of that world. It’s part of world building not a critical out-of-the-blue plot development. No one complains about recreating dinosaurs if that’s part of the world creation. If Travis Bickle made dinosaurs in the last act of Taxi Driver (assuming inadequate setup), then that would be implausible *in that world.* Plausible can overlap with imaginative. Contrived can overlap with imaginative. When writing your story, a helpful question for “plausibility” is: does now follow from before? “Follow from before” doesn’t imply predictability. Finding that sweet spot between implausible and predictable is a master skill of writing. Think unpredictable yet inevitable.

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