Tag Archives: writing advice

The 8th Question Expanded–Believability

The exceptionally observant reader may have noticed that last week, in my big post, 8 Reader Questions – 8 Parts of Speech, the question of “Really?” is set apart and above the others.

That’s because if there’s one cardinal rule for storytellers, it probably has something to do with this–make sure it’s believable.

And while there are several key elements to focus on for that, all of them taken as a whole are what make the story work, and convince the reader this could have–or really did–happen.

A lot of beginning writers don’t seem to want to go to all that trouble. Ensuring every element–character, plot, and description–are working to answer the readers’ question, “Really?” It’s hard work! And yet, isn’t this one of the most important, if not the most important, part of telling any story? Who can deny? This deserves some care and time.

Bestselling novelist of over 100 books, Dean Koontz, says even the wildest plots can be made believable through good character motivation. Love, jealousy, self-preservation, revenge, etc. Most of us sense this is true. I can’t think of one thing we nutty humans wouldn’t do for the right reason, and many times for even the wrong one.

But characterization is the key to believable motivation, and that’s why believability really comes down to your first reader question: who? Character. If I believe the reasons this character feels as he does, I’ll go to hecktown and back to see him get what he wants.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than believing he has reasons to feel as he does. But this is arguably the most important place to start. Listen to your reader asking “Really?” and try to answer that doubt with as much proof of this hero’s reasons for feeling that way. And as you already know, you’ll want to show it, not just tell it.

The thing I see most frequently with new writers, and the thing I’ve even done myself as an inexperienced novelist, is trying to get readers to believe our characters really, really want something just because we told readers he does. That’s not good enough. That’s not believable proof. Like I did, I think most writers sense something isn’t working, but they aren’t sure what it is. Typically, it’s this. We know characters have to want something badly. But we forget to show the reasons for that wanting.

And this is the reason for the prolog or the flashback after getting to know the character and see them being heroic or compassionate in the opening scene. After convincing readers they’re likable, it’s important to see and experience why their motivation is believable. Readers need to feel it and experience it themselves, so we’ll flashback to the car accident that stole his wife, or we’ll find out that’s what the crazy prolog was about–someone had stolen her whatever, so she’d given up until now.

Some will say do not do prologs. Others will say never do flashbacks. I say, if you can figure out how to show readers your characters’ motivation not using those, then go for it. Most beginning writers are going to need to use one or the other. Just keep them short, dramatic, and to the point.

Major believability issues can arise from characters who aren’t flawed in some way or who don’t show reasonable fear or doubt. We’ve got to believe they’re like us, but they push through it. So show us. Too convenient plot points, and inaccurate details are other obvious biggies. Don’t protect your characters with too many convenient necessities, and don’t neglect your research. I’ll never forget my roommate in college watching Dances with Wolves and being incensed: “There are no mountains in Oklahoma!”

Sometimes you’re going to take creative license and knowingly strain that famous “suspension of disbelief.” But plenty of authors, including Koontz, have made all sorts of crazy seem believable. And if you believe millions of sales of their stories, people have found their characters believable.

I know you want to share this–please feel free. Also, the ebook “The Best Monday Motivations for Writers” is coming soon. If you have questions or comments, I’m always happy to hear–email me through the form below. And meanwhile, remember your motivation, and write… 

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Editor to Author: Letter to a Memoir Writer

Dearest Author,

I've been thinking about worth lately.

What's your story worth?

At a recent writers conference I taught a workshop on how I saw publishing changing. Modern publishing, the only time in history when we've had separate "markets" for books, has begun to fracture and redistribute. I've shared several times about how The Shack has shifted things. It isn't just a book, of course, it's a bridge. And those bridges are inevitable because it isn't only spiritual people or Christians who recognize God as creator.  

Blue Like Jazz came well before it and created connections between the Christian and secular markets. Lauren Winner's memoir Girl Meets God made some connection points before that, similar to how Eat, Pray, Love did more recently, from the other side of the spiritual divide. Several spiritual/worldly, secular/sacred books have become best-sellers as bridges in the long history of such books since the beginning of print, and some people have traced this line back to the best-selling book of all time: The Bible.

The Secret. The Purpose-Driven Life. The Alchemist. The Celestine Prophesy. The Late Great Planet Earth. Pilgrim's Progress. Books you've never heard of have sold over 30 million copies: Steps to Christ by Ellen White, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon, late-19th century Congregational minister and advocate of the ever-intriguing idea of "Christian socialism." Even Nikolai Tesla wrote about his life a true spiritual man and world-renouned scientist in My Inventions. The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and The Divine Comedy by Dante, written in 1304, has "sold" more than anyone knows and we have no idea how it or any of these books have changed readers and the history of spiritual thought, becoming seeds for the trees of countless theologies.

But of course, we know this is what books are–seeds. And this is what they do: define life and defy death.

"So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

So this story that's a part of you, that is you, that defines your work and all of your effort and sacrifices to share it completely (or as completely as possible) for others to use–what's it really worth?

Don't answer. You can't. Simply try to see the fullness of the question clearly. Continue on…

Do you know where your worth is really found?

Yes, in God's ownership of the life and love he's created you to embody (1 John 4:7-12). His ownership, creating, protecting, guiding and infusing of his great, unchanging spirit into us. He dies that we might live (parents always understand this principle). And we die that others might live through our sacrifices. This is the daily work of writing.

Do you know what that is really worth?

Intimately known and held, seen and heard and helped in every way, this knowledge is invaluable, isn't it? We can talk of worth and value, and shift our understanding of that from copies sold to readers influenced, but it's the knowledge a reader will have by the end of your story that makes what you're doing truly valuable. And this understanding of how God fills us and dies for us is the greatest wisdom, the most valuable in the world. And if you are practicing that, that makes what you're doing invaluable.

I want to give you, as a witness of your discovery of that unchanging love, my invaluable opinion on it, my affirmation that you've been seen and heard and that what you've written down is completely worthy. And with your assurance that it's been well established and others will see it and respond, you can continue, knowing it's incredible and invaluable. 

So do you see what your story is really worth?

Because there's no true price tag you can put on it. There's no proper estimating the value of my work, my seeing it, or others' receiving it either. It's in-valuable. We have to simply trust together that whatever comes of it is just a small piece of its fullest value as a seed for God to use, and not at all connected to the worth of what you've written, or what I've done to help. I know you've sacrificed and given for your story, and I've been brought into the processing of it, but regardless of how it will be published and the realities of our modern marketplace, you must know:

What's your story really worth?

I remain your solid co-laborer in the process of delivering these invaluable words. Never assign its worth to money, public perception, publication, or anything else. Your heart is here, and that's established and it's something you have written definitively, and just as we have agreed together at the outset here, others will when they read it.

We don't know how it will all play out. But I'm on your side and not looking for specific outcomes big or small. Don't think in terms of what's "fair," but decide you will pay with your life what's necessary to give to this project. What you give is directly proportional to what that seed will be able to produce in readers. And in terms of return and profit, I believe Cohelo is right: the universe will conspire in our favor.

So what's your story really worth?

 

Your Loving Editor,

Mick