Believable Fiction

If you decided to write a novel about a world-class sprinter—say the world record holder in the 100 and 200 meter dashes—and decided to give this fictional sprinter the last name of Bolt, your editor would likely send you back to your laptop to come up with something a little less obvious. So too if you were creating the world’s greatest golfer and named him Woods, as opposed to Driver or Irons.

Life, it turns out, can be more literal than most fiction will allow. My son’s kindergarten music teacher was named Ms. Clapper, his principal, Ms. Smart. Life it is said, can imitate art, but sometimes art cannot imitate life. This is why, no matter whether you’re writing science fiction or historical romance, you are told to make your stories believable.

Strange, of course, for how often have you watched the news and thought, “Unbelievable”? Anything that you can imagine can happen and probably already has. But that is not what we mean by believable fiction. Stories are the trace of emotional truth, not physical truth. As readers we are willing to accept incredible coincidence, physics-defying teleportation, even magic, but not emotional dishonesty.

Our lives are not led in the physical—that is, we are not pinballs bouncing from event to event. We are not a collection of limbs and organs generating a series of thoughts, but rather a series of thoughts compelling a collection of limbs and organs. What readers always seek in fiction is what it feels like to be alive, not what it looks like to be alive, because the feeling is in the end the only reality we ever know, because the feeling reality, which exists within the invisible self, is all we have that is ours and ours alone.

Just as it should be. Emotionally honest stories are written because we understand we are compelled forward through life not by what is or what has happened, but only by what we desire. That is the arrow-shot of your life, your vision for what you most want to see in the world, and the next time you wish yourself forward and then think, “Impossible,” remember that there is a sprinter named Bolt, a golfer named Woods, and a music teacher named Clapper.

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