How Novelists Can Make “Unbelievable” Stories Feel Real

I’m honored to have Michael Hauge share a guest post with Live Write Thrive today. Michael has been a top Hollywood script consultant, story expert, and author for more than thirty years, and he is personally one of the greatest influences in both my fiction writing and my method of teaching novel structure. I asked Michael to speak specifically on this topic of credibility in story, so here are his gems of wisdom:

I recently consulted with a screenwriter who complained when I told him his screenplay lacked credibility. “Movies aren’t ever real,” he argued. “Is it believable that zombies could take over the world in World War Z, or that a princess could make everything freeze in Frozen? Is it even believable that Denzel Washington could kill all those bad guys in The Equalizer?!”

My answer to him was “Yes, it is.” 

Why do audiences and readers “believe” these fictional stories, and just what does credibility really mean in the make-believe world of movies and fiction?

Understanding the answer can help storytellers—novelists and screenwriters alike—tell stories that feel wholly credible, despite fantastical components.

The Truth That Lies Beneath

Infusing an “ordinary story” with a fantasy element is very common in successful movies and novels, and it’s that fantasy element that draws the audience into the theater or keeps the reader turning pages long into the night. No one really wants to see a movie or read a novel that is truly realistic and simply mimics the life he lives every day.

Here’s the secret: fictional stories are make-believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. Here’s what I mean:

If I said it had taken me a long time to write this post because I had been abducted by aliens and was trapped in their spaceship for a month, you’d probably assume that I was nuts, or that you had subscribed to the newsletter for by mistake.

But if I told you I just read a novel about a guy who claimed he was abducted by aliens and had to convince the world that an attack was imminent, you’d simply wonder about the title and author. In other words, you would readily accept that a fictional story wouldn’t happen in real life.

On the other hand, if I said I had just learned that a man had entered a supermarket and for no apparent reason pulled out an automatic weapon and began shooting at everyone before finally killing himself, you might be shocked, but you wouldn’t find it impossible to believe.

Yet if I said I had just read a novel or a screenplay in which the hero does this, and in the end we still don’t know what his motive was, you’d correctly conclude that the writer would probably have an impossible time selling his story.

In movies, screenplays, and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified, and believable. 

Only One Fantasy to a Customer

Now comes the principle that gives every successful story its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic, or funny. It’s the reaction of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

Big, for example, is a fantasy about Josh, a twelve-year-old boy who makes a wish and wakes up with the body of a thirty-year-old man. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by telling you this couldn’t happen in real life.

But think about everything that happens to Josh after he’s transformed. He runs away from home, finds a job and a place to stay, falls in love with a woman who thinks he really is thirty years old, and must eventually decide whether or not to go back to his old life.

In other words, every single conflict he faces is logical, believable, and grounded in reality. The movie explores what might really happen after the fantasy situation occurred.

Now imagine the same movie if, when he got big, Josh entered a world where his best friend had the power to disappear, his girlfriend could travel through time, and everyone could read minds as they battled the dinosaurs that roamed the earth. Such a movie would hold little interest (except for some dazzling special effects) because the story would lack any reality or believability at all.

The Need for Believable Conflict

Your story must always be driven by your hero’s compelling desire. But it’s the conflict your hero faces that will elicit maximum emotion in your reader or audience. When the powers of your hero or the other characters become limitless, there’s nothing difficult to overcome, and the audience feels no real tension, worry, or fear. They simply observe the action rather than become a part of it.

Now you may be asking, “What about movies like The Avengers or the X-Men films? Don’t they just pile on the contrivances to create a whole lot of unbelievable plot lines?

Yes, in a way. And they definitely stretch the boundaries of what we can believe. But they don’t break the “one fantasy to a story” rule because both franchises create worlds in which extraordinary creatures exist within our normal world, and where the actions of the superhuman villains have real-world consequences.

Once the rules of those alternate realities are established, they can’t be broken. Tony Stark can’t do anything extraordinary without his Iron Man suit, and Magneto can’t shrink to the size of an ant.

Introducing more than one unbelievable situation or action into your story also eliminates the possibility of any real depth to the characters or a compelling theme. Great stories allow us to look at ourselves by putting our desires, beliefs, and feelings within bigger-than-life situations, in order to reveal the deeper aspects of our human nature.

If the characters you portray do not behave in any recognizable way, your readers will feel no emotional connection to them, and they will have no opportunity for self-examination, enlightenment, or catharsis.

The Key Methods for Maintaining Credibility

So how you can ensure that your own stories—no matter how imaginative or fantastical—remain believable to your readers?

  1. Ask yourself, “Do my characters behave the way people with their backgrounds would normally behave in this situation? Is this their most logical response to the danger they’re in, to the desire they’re pursuing, or to the actions of the other characters?”

If you’re in doubt, ask yourself, “Is this what I would do if I were in this situation?”

If you were in danger, wouldn’t you try to escape or get help? Would you continue in a relationship if you realized the person might be a liar, an impostor, or a killer? Would you be likely to forget about an object, a message, or a clue that was obviously vitally important to the conflict you’re facing? Would you go on about your daily life as if nothing unusual was occurring, even though you’ve been plunged into an overwhelming crisis?

Incredible reactions like these can be seen in far too many movies, novels, and TV episodes. Emulating those is likely to destine your script or manuscript to the rejection pile.

  1. Don’t confuse credibility with documented reality. One of the weakest arguments you can make in support of your characters’ actions is, “But that really happened.”

Lots of unusual things happen in real life, and people often behave in strange ways. But in your fictional story, even if you’re adapting a true story, the characters’ actions must seem logical, and the events believable, within the context of the story.

  1. Foreshadow the characters’ actions and abilities. If you want your hero to use karate in a fight with the villain, reveal her martial arts talents before it’s important to the plot. That way, when it counts, your readers will subconsciously say, “Oh, that’s right. This everyday schoolteacher has been learning karate.”

Foreshadowing persuades your reader to accept an action that in normal life might seem unbelievable. For example, in The Net, we are asked to believe that a woman would be unable to find anyone who could verify her identity, including her own mother. So, early in the film, we see that she is a reclusive self-employed computer hacker who never leaves her home and whose mother has Alzheimer’s.

  1. Openly admit the incredibility of a scene. If, against all logic, your hero pursues a lover who might be a hit man, have her best friend say to her, “Are you nuts? This guy could be a cold-blooded killer!” Then your hero can explain her actions in a way that is consistent with the personality and background you’ve given her. Subconsciously you’re telling your reader, “Look, I know this seems unbelievable, but let me tell you why it isn’t.”

The best movies, the best TV shows, and the best novels plunge everyday characters into extraordinary situations without ever losing the reality of their characters’ underlying humanity.

So, as you work on your fantastical plot idea, remember what matters: believable character motivation and reaction. Make your characters wholly believable and that one unbelievable plot or premise element won’t cause a ripple in your reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief and enjoy your story.

Michael Hauge has presented seminars, lectures and keynotes in person and online to more than 70,000 participants worldwide. He coaches screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, professional speakers, internet marketers and corporate leaders, helping transform their stories using the principles and methods of Hollywood’s most successful movies. According to Will Smith, “No one is better than Michael Hauge at finding what is most authentic in every moment of a story.”

Michael Hauge headshotMichael is the best-selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the new 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell. A number of Michael’s seminars, including The Hero’s 2 Journeys with Christopher Vogler, are available on DVD, CD, and streaming video. For information on all his products and his consultation service, visit his website here.

NOTE: I’ll be attending his workshop this November in Las Vegas, NV. Come join me, or check out his other events here.

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  1. Hauge is one of my heroes…bought WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL years ago, and since I loaned my copy to someone who never returned it, I’ll buy it again.

    I particularly liked the analytical tool he recommends for figuring out what your themes are.

    His advice is great for novelists, not only screenwriters.

    Thank you.

  2. I agree – the emotional, inner dialogue of the characters is crucial to creating a believable story even when the setting is fantastic. I always try to find an emotional basis for my characters and try to draw upon inner dialogue I may have had in a similar situation. For example, if I have a character who is outcast because of her position in a magical society, I draw upon times when I have felt alienated.

  3. Thanks, Michael.

    H. G. Wells said the same thing about a hundred years ago in his preface to “The Seven Famous Novels.” Start with a normal, ordinary world, add ONE improbability, and show the characters reacting to it.

  4. I found this article very informative. I especially liked the part about a character behaving in a believable manner, in accord with his/her personality.
    I’ve read novels where characters, though their lives have been threatened and (in the dialogue) they well realize the danger, yet they never bother to lock the door. And of course the enemy comes walking in when they’re in the shower or something like that.
    I don’t mind stretching the line of credibility a bit, but my faith in the protagonist won’t excuse pure stupidity for the sake of building drama.

  5. Thanks for the great article, Michael.

    This is something I like to remind sci-fi writers about. Yes, readers want “awesome science”, but no matter how unreal the technology in a story may be, how the characters react should tell us something true about humanity. The way we use technology says something about who we are.

  6. The articles on this site are always the best, but this one was so awesome it compelled me to comment.

    My main problem with story telling today (novels, TV shows, Movies) is that it’s not authentic. I find story breaks and plot holes everywhere.

    I’ve been making this a major focus as I work on my first novel. After reading this, I feel like I’m headed down the right track. This was a great reality check and reminder.

    Thanks Michael! @DarrellWolfe

  7. Thank you so much – your words are going to help me take my NaNo novel to a whole new level. This article is a keeper – I shall want to read it again and keep it as a handy reference as I finish and edit my novel. 🙂 x

  8. Susanne –
    Thanks for sharing this with your followers. And thanks to all of you for these very kind and generous comments. I’m glad the article struck a chord – and that so many of you share my frustration with characters who behave in ways that are impossible to believe. I honestly did not know that H.G. Wells said the same thing I did a century ago. But if you’re going to plagiarize, then steal from the best is my motto. My only issue now is that I can’t for the life of me figure out what a NaNo novel is. But I still wish Linda the best with hers.
    Keep writing –

  9. That’s something I always strive for in my writing. Sometimes I find the characters personalities aren’t’ true to the story. When that happens, the story needs to change, not my characters.

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