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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Third A--from Me Again

I don't mean, ME as in Josi, but Me Again as in that's her blogger name.  Here's her question:

 How do you feel about LDS fiction stories that not only stray from the probable, but take a summer vacation into the not even possible? 

I think that, regardless of the market (LDS, national, etc) believability is an essential characteristic of plot. That's the whole point of fiction--creating a world that feels 'real' enough that the reader can put aside their own life long enough to immerse themselves in this fictional realm. And yet, there is also a necessary element of the reader suspending their own beliefs enough to follow along. So there are two parties at play, the author and the reader.

Author: It's a tricky line; balancing the necessary elements of plot (characters, conflict and climax) against it 'feeling' real. In real life, people do things with very complex motives, they act out of character, they don't always make sense. In fiction, that doesn't work. Everything must have a reason; characters must have motives, the actions must be 'in' character, they must make sense on some level, and everything they do must lead somewhere. It's at times hard to do, and often takes another person to point out when something needs clarification. Too often, an author is seeing where they want to go and lose sight of the steps that are taking them there, often resulting in contrived or unbelievable scenes. They do the job of getting the character where they need to be, but their 'method of transportation' works against the integrity of the story. This is a shame since there was likely a better way to get from point A to point B; a mode the author would have discovered on their own if they would have questioned themselves about it. One of the best questions an author can ask themselves, and one I put into many manuscripts I edit is "Would he really?" meaning, would the character really do or say this; or are you the author taking advantage of your role as fiction-God and taking too many liberties?

Also, on the author side, it is sometimes impossible to be objective enough about your own work to see the breakdown of believability in our own stories which is why I am such a big proponent of having other 'writers' or editors read your book; someone who will tell you the truth so that your story makes sense. 

I'm a big believer that a writer can write about anything; new worlds, weird people, incredible circumstances--but it has to be written right and it has to feel real.

Reader: Different types of readers have different levels of ability when it comes to suspending belief. For instance, I have a difficult time with Science Fiction and Fantasy because I find so many elements of the genres hard to picture in my mind. My ability to suspend belief is rather low when it comes to new worlds. Whether that's because I lack imagination, or simply practice, I don't know, but it results in the fact that because it's difficult for me to 'believe' those types of stories, I don't enjoy them very much. Now, there are some I absolutely love, but overall I dislike more than I enjoy. Same with a lot of mystery novels, which is ironic since I write them, but many of them just annoy me because I can't clearly see the process of discovery--the detective too often just 'knows' something that leads to the conclusion (I'm guilty of this as well--as a few readers have pointed out but I'm really, really working on it). Some people have a difficult time with LDS fiction because there is a lot of inspiration, feeling the spirit, and intuition that often makes the plot work. Some people are very open to that--likely people that acknowledge those same workings in their lives, but others of us (myself included) struggle with the way this is portrayed at times and that makes it seem contrived in order to make the plot work or to make their character appear spiritual. A reader that struggles with certain genres ought to be very selective in the books they read within that genre which is why The Whitney Awards are so very cool--look for past winners to get a feel for the best out there; these are books that have literally been read by hundreds of people that cast votes that put these books in the positions they are in. A valuable tool, especially for those of us that are selective within genres.

On the reader's side there is also the factor of becoming a more discerning reader. I've gone back and read books I loved fifteen years ago, only to find myself rolling my eyes now. As I've matured and become more well read, I've learned what I like and what I don't like. I've developed a much more critical eye and my taste in reading has become more sophisticated. If a reader finds themselves displeased with several books within a shared reading level or genre, it might be that they have reached a 'reading' level beyond their comfort zone and need to move on to something with a bit more 'meat' to it.

It's always frustrating to me when a book makes it into print without having the unbelievable factors ironed out. I'm not sure why it happens. Are there other parts of the story that were so strong to the editors of the book that they didn't notice? Am I hyper sensitive? Regardless, it's a frustration. I find that in regard to believability and other elements of writing, I give books a 100 page rule (it used to be 50 but I've taken a gracious turn) if by page 100 I'm not dying to finish the book, I don't. There are excellent books out there which means I don't have to waste my time on ones that were almost excellent.

So, dear readers, where do you fall on the believability scale? Are there genres you find harder than others?


Daron D. Fraley said...

This is a great post. I particularly liked your comments about inspirational/spiritual moments in a book needing to not feel contrived. Thanks!

Don said...

Believability is crucial for my enjoyment of a book or movie. If something feels contrived or inaccurate, I'll get pulled right out of the story.

I've always been a big fan of SciFi and Fantasy, but find it increasingly difficult to find well-done stories that can maintain believability.

L.T. Elliot said...

I guess I've never had a hard time suspending my disbelief because I cross genres all the time. However, I've become more discerning since I started writing and when I feel like a story is weak, I no longer have the patience to finish it. (I used to force myself to. Now, I'd rather not waste my time.)
I have a genre I prefer to read but that's just because I love it so much.

I'm totally with you on the "Would he really?" because without my crit group, my characters might be all over the place. I'm getting better about asking myself first but I believe it's essential to have another set of eyes.

Excellent answer, Josi!

Tigersue said...

I enjoyed your comments there. I also like a story I can personally relate to in some way. There is an LDS author that I read sometimes, but what drives me crazy is the use of money to avoid the day to day stress that can come up. No matter what horrible stressful things happen, cars and washing machines break down, and not everyone has money or is related to someone that has money so it is easily taken care of so we can focus on the main stress. (If that makes sense)

I also hate poor research. I remembered reading one that talked about characters from Paris had never seen snow, and that Utah snow is perfect for snow balls. (Sorry but I have rarely been able to build snowmen or throw snowballs in Utah because the majority of snow fall is powder not moist to hold and pack well. Great for skiing, but not so great for snow balls, (my Canadian blood coming out.)

She also did not research the use of breast milk after the AIDS break out so she had a NICU/nursery sharing breast milk when the practice ended in the mid 1980's to have breast milk banks.

I think research is important or the believability goes way down.

Mary Gray said...

I particularly love stories with a HINT of the fantastical but still keep close to home.

As for believability, my editor hacked away at my manuscript telling me all the wrong things I did with my protagonist--she said she didn't make sense. (I think you would love her!) After a stupendous pity party I rolled up my sleeves and am currently waiting for her response to my latest attempts.

Must make character's actions make sense!!

Melanie Jacobson said...

I have the same rule for sticking with books. It's got to be good within 100 pages or I drop it. And if the first 50 are really bad, then sayonara. I even had to create an "abandoned" shelf on Goodreads. I'm not willing to waste time on lame books and miss out on the big ones.

Me again said...

Thank you for the answer. Its nice to know I'm not alone in losing patience with unbelievable stories or plot lines.

Also nice to hear an authors perspective.