The Plausible Impossible in Fiction Writing

Good fiction writing means crafting a good story. It doesn’t mean that the story should be grounded in reality, only that it be internally consistent. A good plot with believable characters who have conversations that make sense are elements of a good story, even if the story is located on a planet light years from earth.

Internal consistency is essential to a good story. The story may be a fantasy, a horror tale including monsters and wild scenes, or a time travelling journey to strange lands. But the reader expects that the tale should unfold in a way that is, well, believable.

“The Plausible Impossible” was Walt Disney’s way of putting it. There was even an episode of the DisneylandTV series devoted to the subject. Something may be impossible, as when the Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons walks off the edge of a cliff, stands there, and then looks down to realize there’s nothing under him. But that’s okay, he eventually falls. If, instead of falling down the character fell up, that would be implausible. We know that nobody, including the Coyote, can stand in space. That’s impossible. But we suspend our belief and are entertained by the story because he plausibly falls down. The Coyote and the Road Runner weren’t Disney characters, but the Coyote did have a way of walking off cliffs. Another example of this plausibly impossible action was the famous scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where Bob Hoskins steps off a cliff, and, Coyote-like, he is suspended there. As he falls, he reaches up and grabs a tire, which had hung there. He is saved because he lands in the hands of a cartoon character. Impossible, yes, but entirely plausible.Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great fun story. It’s about people who rub elbows with cartoon characters known as “Toons.” Completely impossible. Completely plausible.

Some of the greatest novels – look no further than those penned by Stephen King – involve impossible plots, scenes and dialog. No angry girl named Carrie can really heap mayhem on her enemies by telekinesis. That’s impossible. But King makes it entirely plausible because he, the author, gives his character this amazing power. Once he’s done that he honors his readers by making all of the scenes plausible, once the basic premise – telekinesis – is in the book.

Possible But Implausible

A writer can also let down the reader with a scene that may be possible, but lacks plausibility. And this isn’t only for science fiction genres. Suppose the heroine of a novel is very much in love with her handsome husband. We know this because of the scenes and dialog, and a bit of backstory worked in. Now suppose that our heroine runs off with a scruffy poor elderly man. We are given no reason, she just does. It’s never set up or explained, it just happens. Of course it’s possible for the heroine to run off with the old guy, but it’s entirely implausible.

A recent movie, Battleship, was a fun story but let’s you down at the end because of an implausible event. The movie is all about a bunch of alien invaders who land gigantic machines in the ocean and raise havoc with their terrible weapons. So far so good – hey, it’s science fiction. But at the end of the movie, the good guys take a battleship, which had been turned into a museum, and attack the evil aliens with it. The ship is run by a bunch of patriotic old geezers who once served on the ship. Excuse me. You can’t just fire up a mothballed museum and take it to sea. And why was the ship armed with live weapons? An implausible letdown.

It’s All About Treating the Reader with Respect

Fantasy, horror, weirdness and mayhem are the stuff of great stories. The stories may be completely impossible, but that’s fine. They have to be plausible, and keep to the logic of the story itself. I’m not suggesting that fiction should hone to reality. That’s no fun. But the writer has an obligation to be consistent with the plot and not to treat the reader like a jerk.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran


About Russ

Russ Moran is an author, lawyer, and blogger. He writes on a wide variety of topics, including recreational themes such as boating, how-to articles, law and business. He is the author of Justice in America: How it Works - How it Fails, published in 2011. Kirkus Reviews calls the book: "A lively,brash,illuminating insider look at the law,by a compelling expert." Russ has recently finished The APT Principle: The Business Plan that you Carry in Your Head, It was published in June 2012. His blog is The Moran Report at Russ lives on Long Island with his wife Lynda. They have a five year old shih tzu that they are still trying to house train.
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