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Hi there! I hope you are enjoying your day so far. It’s been chilly here, but I love to bundle up with a cozy sweater and a book. I hope you’ve been practicing some fall self-care.
Something a lot of new writers struggle with is believability in their story.
Either you know you struggle with it, or this is news to you, and you should go check your manuscript!
Whether this is tough for you, or you think you have the hang of it, I thought I’d share 5 tips that I have found useful to make my stories more believable.
Your readers are smart, and they have high standards!
Give your book the best chance it’s got at being a success!
Quick note: Keep in mind that these rules are here to guide you. But rules are meant to be broken, and you’ll find that a lot of good writers out there do! Just make sure that any rule you break, you have a good reason for doing so.
Keep It Simple
I can’t stress this enough.
Simplify, simplify, SIMPLIFY!
You do not need to come up with an alternative unit of measure. The metric system is fine, unless there’s a really good reason you can’t use it… Like you’re an American and you just feel this desperate need to measure things differently and call football soccer.
You do not need to talk about lands and nations that have nothing to do with your plot, that your characters never come from or travel to.
You do not need to list every species of make-believe animal if your character never encounters them.
You don’t need to give me the life story of every character in the story, just give me relevant details. Drop hints here and there.
Like getting to know someone in real life, the beauty is in taking it slow, finding hidden gems along the way. I don’t need to know everything all at once.
You’re writing a book: Annie Saves The World.
Annie’s a superhero. She kicks butt. She looks good doing it. She makes friends and saves the world in the way only a super cool heroine can.
I don’t care that Annie went to Harvard and took a pottery class in her second semester and has a cousin named Joe… Unless of course Joe becomes a prominent figure in the story and Annie saves the world with her homemade fruit bowl.
Let’s cut to the chase: the only scenes you should include in your novel are ones that further your plot!
Not only does this tighten up your writing and assist with pacing, but it keeps your readers engaged, and prevents confusion later on.
If you tell me Annie took a pottery class in her second semester at Harvard, I’m going to spend the entire book wondering when she saves the world with her homemade fruitbowl, and how Joe helped her do it. And when this doesn’t happen, I’m going to be annoyed! Because my precious time was wasted on useless information. Now I’m questioning everything!
Add depth. Develop your characters. Know Annie took a pottery class in her second semester of Harvard, write out her entire class schedule if you feel like it! But for goodness sake, don’t tell me unless I need to know.
Little tid-bits of information are so much more juicy than an info-dump.
Give me the information I need to understand the story. No more. No less.
What is it people always say about creating a good lie? Too many details shows your hand. Keep it simple. Don’t give me anything to question.
If you don’t know how something works in your novel, DON’T TALK ABOUT IT.
If you have to explain it, but you still have no idea (you should probably work on your world building), show your character being confused about it.
“Why is it like that?”
“I have no clue, it’s just always been that way.”
That makes sense to a reader. They had the same question! Now they relate to your character.
If you don’t know every detail about how the government works in your novel, and you don’t need to talk about it, DON’T! No one will ask “but is it a democracy? Aristocracy?” if you’re not writing anything about government or the running of this world!
Don’t make your reader ask irrelevant questions.
Stick to your story. Stick to the facts of your world.
Keep your reader on a need-to-know basis.
Motivate Your Characters
Have you ever read a story where half way through you just think, “Why is this character doing this?”
That’s a sign you aren’t believing the story!
In real life, every person has independent thoughts, feelings, and goals.
You need to show that in your novel!
Even your side characters want something, and it’s not always just to help the MC.
You should have an idea of what every character’s overarching goal is in the story, and also give them little wants and needs along the way. Make them want a friend. A glass of water. Make them want to save their family. Make them want a cookie.
Annie wants to save the world. Great… but why?
Let’s just assume for a second that Annie is an imperfect sentient being. We’re selfish. We do stupid things. We don’t want to save the world, we want to save the world because this is where our family is! Or because this is where donuts are! Or because saving the world would make us look good…
Now Annie’s friend Dante is helping her save the world. He’s handsome as heck. Abs you could bake cookies on. Does that hair flip thing. But why is he helping? Does he just want to look good? Or maybe he’s just a genuinely good person, and feels it’s the right thing to do.
Even your villain needs a motivation! No one is evil for the sake of being evil. They believe they are doing something right, or at least something with purpose.
Is your villain trying to blow up the world because someone hurt them, and now they want to inflict pain on others? Or are they a researcher who’s science went to their head and they believe the only way to save the planet is to rid it of it’s greatest threat: humans.
I don’t care what the reason is, but everyone has to have one.
You don’t have to relate to it to make it believable. There just needs to be some kind of logic behind it. Some way that the character can believe in it completely.
Because if your character doesn’t believe in something, why would your reader?
It’s also important to give your reader an urgent feeling. You can do this by motivating your character to keep moving forward.
Every decision your character makes needs to be driven by something, and your reader shouldn’t be able to ask “why wouldn’t they just do this?”
Make sure that when presenting your character with an option: fight or don’t, the alternative is not a viable option. They must fight, because they will die if they do not.
They must eat, because they like waffles!
They must go get something from a far-off land, despite the fact that it will take them longer to reach their overarching goal, because without this item they can’t win the war!
Always give your character a logical reason to need things. This way, your reader won’t question their decisions.
Outline Your Plot
I don’t care if you’re a Pantser, you have to have a plan!
You cannot write a story without some idea of the end goal.
You need to know where you’re going. You need an inciting incident. You need a midpoint.
Just like your character needs goals, so does your plot!
When you are planning your novel, even if you’re a Pantser and do the bare minimum here, you need to create some structure for your story.
A general idea of the events that will take place, and in what order.
This way, you have a direction.
This adds to believability because it keeps your reader engaged. An engaged reader doesn’t have time to let their mind wander.
It also lends support to your arguments, to your plot as a whole.
Annie wants to save the world. We have her motivation: she thinks it will make her look good. But what is the inciting incident, the point of no return where she must make this choice? When does she have a change of perspective? When does she learn a lesson, and come to the realization that maybe she should save the world because she loves people, not just because she loves looking good?
I suggest you look into the Save The Cat Method. I used it and it made a huge difference in my outlining! I love to create an outline, but when it comes to writing, I’m more of a Pantser. This method helped me create an idea, a ladder to climb, but didn’t stifle the creativity of figuring it out as I go.
An outline also helps you stay on track with your story.
I have read (and beta-read) so many books where it seemed like the author got distracted and wandered off in a different direction for a while before coming back.
This gave me time to wonder “Why is this happening?” and “Why is that like this?” but it also made me question the story as a whole.
Once the reader is not engaged, once you wake them from the dream, they begin to question everything.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
I do this all the time while writing!
As I’m typing, I close my eyes and I picture myself in the situation I’m describing.
What does it smell like? What do I hear? What am I touching? Tasting?
Using all the senses immerses the reader and helps them believe that, yes, this is happening!
You’re reading a scene where Annie is fighting for her life. Close your eyes and picture yourself as Annie. Someone swings a sword at you (and you have butt-kickery training) what do you do? Do you duck? Do you parry? Do you hear the zing of steel cutting through the air? Do feel your heart pounding in your chest? Does fear shoot through you like lightning?
Dive in. You can always trim back during your edits!
What’s important here is that you’re making sure what the character is doing is believable.
If I have butt-kickery training and someone swings a sword at my head, I would probably parry. My training would kick in and my muscles would spring into action. Really, duck OR parry would be believable in this situation.
What wouldn’t be believable is if you screamed and ran away.
You have butt-kickery training. You’d have to have a dang good reason to scream and run.
You’re probably thinking, “MK, that’s ridiculous. I would never write that into a scene.” But you’d be surprised!
This is a betrayal of character, when you have developed a personality for your character and you go against it in words or actions, and it happens ALL THE TIME. Especially with newer writers!
If your character is soft spoken and kind, they’re not going to just walk up and punch another character in the face. That wouldn’t be believable.
Now if said soft spoken and kind character sees someone being abused, and they have a protective streak, they’d totally punch someone in the face! But you have to set up that protective streak ahead of time. Put it in their back story, or show hints of it in small, casual ways.
If you’re pushing your character outside their usual pattern of behavior, you just need a good reason!
It’s all about perspective. Make sure that whatever you’re writing into your scene, it makes sense for the character! There needs to be a logical build up.
Literally imagine yourself as that character, with that character’s personality and goals. What would you do in their shoes?
Backstory & Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing and backstory have some similarities, but for the purposes of your plot they are very different.
Backstory is a character’s history.
Foreshadowing is pieces of a character’s experience that hints at their future.
How do you make your story believable through these tools?
Develop a thorough backstory. A well-rounded character is a believable character.
As I said before, you don’t have to mention every detail. In fact, you shouldn’t! But knowing these details makes you believe in the character, and that will show through in your writing.
Annie has a brother named Paul and a cousin named Joe. Her parents live in Pasadena and are both lawyers. She grew up in boarding schools and her best friend’s name was Maria, but they don’t speak anymore.
That’s a lot of info!
Her parents were lawyers, so that might influence her personality. You can show that without explicitly saying they were lawyers, then reveal it later. It will give your reader that ah-hah! moment they want. This is all back story.
Now if you were to tell the reader her parents were lawyers who worked cases to do with high-body-count criminals, and you had heard them talking about one in particular as a child, then it later comes out that criminal is the big bad villain, that’s foreshadowing!
Maria shows up later in the novel, and has the key to saving the world.
Joe turns out to be on the bad side.
These scenes all make these random facts worth mentioning. If these scenes didn’t happen, you really wouldn’t have needed to mention them.
Just let these unspoken pieces of a character’s history influence who they are in the present day.
How does a girl with an older brother typically act when compared with a girl with a younger brother?
How does having lawyers for parents affect her personality?
What scars did living in a boarding school leave on Annie’s psyche? What strengths?
A well-developed back story lends believability to your character. Foreshadowing (when done well) adds believability to your plot.
When your reader has that ah-hah! moment, they believe this story is going somewhere. “Ah hah! This is all making sense now.”
Dots are connecting.
Synapses are firing.
Your reader is squeeing.
You are creating a dream for your reader. Backstory and foreshadowing are just more layers you add to it.
Dive into some psychology! How does your character’s history affect their present state of mind? Their goals? Their fears?
Drop hints like two chickadees dropping breadcrumbs through the forest.
Create a logical path for your reader to follow.
You’d be amazed about how many happy coincidences happen simply because you created a well-developed character and world.
If you know your character well enough, you will weave their history into their present and create believability for your reader without even trying!
This is a big one! Last but certainly not least.
Make sure that whatever “facts” you’re putting into your novel, they’re either real, or real enough to be explained.
Do you research.
Look into personality.
Look into the affects of the childhood trauma you want your character to go through.
Read stories from real people who identify as your character identifies.
You can’t really over-research (unless you’re just using it as procrastination).
All these little factoids will swim around in your brain as you write, and the surety you have from them will shine through, building confidence with your reader.
Everything in your novel should either be real, or explainable.
Are vampires real in your novel? Great! But you need to be able to tell me how they came to be. Or at the very least, tell me no one knows how they came to be, they’ve just always been.
Did you make up some animals for your novel? Cool! But if you just made random animals and didn’t pull them from mythology or other stories, you’re going to have to explain them to your reader somehow.
Do humans have powers? Excellent! How did they get them, and what are their limitations?
Fact checking also comes into play here.
I can’t stress this enough.
Check. Your. FACTS!
If you don’t know how something works, research it!
Writing about mermaids?
You need to know how breathing works.
You need to know how behavior works in aquatic species.
You need to know how wound treatment is different below the water.
You need to know how reproduction works.
I don’t care if you mention it in your novel or not, but you have to know these things.
If there’s anything you are questioning, but you decide to just glaze over it, your reader will find it. They are bloodhounds. They will scent weakness and they will root it out.
They will mention it on Goodreads.
You will cry.
Research your story, your plot, your people. Have everything squared away before you start writing.
Then just write your story. You don’t need to drop facts. If you researched well enough, they will shine through.
Make sure that when one of your characters is hurt or injured, you are consistent with it throughout your story.
Your character cannot get shot in the arm, then climb a tree ten minutes later.
Maybe this is a fantasy novel. Maybe you’re writing a super tough character. They will power through a lot, you say. They can handle it, you say.
But bloodloss is a real thing.
Having an arrow in your leg hurts like heck.
Slicing open your skin leaves a scar.
Make sure it hinders your character in a realistic way.
I’d suggest doing research on whatever injury you want your character to endure. Both from a medical and patient’s perspective.
What is the treatment plan and healing process?
How does it feel to have an injury like this?
I hope you found these tips useful!
If you have any suggestions that helped you write a believable story, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
As always, take care of yourself! You are your top priority.
Writing can wait if your mental health demands it.