Real Stories


I always want my stories to be believable. Even when I was writing fantasy novels with magic swords and ancient witches and hungry trolls, I wanted the reader to believe the sword could grant wishes and the witches had lived for centuries and the trolls found children delicious. Now that I write different sorts of stories, I want the reader to believe they don’t have to care what people think of what they’ve written, or that their imagination can provide everything they need to write the book they want to write.

It doesn’t matter that the stories are different, the challenge is the same. If my readers don’t find my characters’ motivations or choices believable, or if they find my premise absurd and impractical, they will close my book. They will close it because there is nothing as unstable and unsatisfying as the unreal. I have looked for my confidence where it wasn’t, looked for love where it wasn’t, looked for happiness where it wasn’t. Each search ended abruptly and without drama, as if the lights were suddenly turned on and I found myself standing in a sound stage that I had mistaken for a castle or a city. My first thought at that moment is always, “What a waste of time.” I don’t want my readers thinking this as they toss my book aside.

There are many techniques a skilled writer can employ to make his or her stories more believable. Not letting your characters say exactly what they mean, making sure your protagonist has a weakness, researching eras and settings. It’s also helpful for me to remember why a reader might resist the perspectives I’m offering, to sympathize with their fear and doubt before I try to alleviate those concerns. These are all useful, and the more you write, the more you will learn the tools and approaches that works best for you.

But no technique, no strategy, no command of craft can ever replace the author’s belief in his or her story. The moment I stopped believing in the value of my witches and trolls and magic swords, I had to stop telling that story. Everything in that world had become cardboard houses and chess pieces, un-living props I hoped to disguise with clever writing. And if I don’t believe everyone has what it takes, or that no one is broken, or that life wants me to succeed, I will sound to my reader like a man trying to convince himself of something he’d heard someone else say with conviction.

Belief is not complicated or difficult. It is the act of accepting what you already value. The only challenge comes when we understand we get no evidence that what we believe is valuable other than the fact that we value it. If that is enough for you, you’ll be able to make any story believable. But if you need more, if you need proof from some reader or expert, your story will remain suspended in unreality, until you return home to what you have always loved, and remember that the story is as real as you are.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual coaching and group workshops.