Implausibility and the “Point of Improbability”
I’ve been revising my (endless) novel, and wringing my hands over some plot twists in it that may seem implausible.
I began the novel as a challenge to myself. I had written so much autobiographical stuff that I wanted to try “pure” fiction: characters and situations that were not based on me in any way.
The novel, called The Answer to Your Question, is about the unlikely relationship* between the mother of a serial killer a la Ted Bundy and the young, pregnant, Southern waif who is kidnapped by the son. See what I mean about not-me?
The idea originated when we were living in Tacoma during the Ted Bundy era. Bundy was from Tacoma, and briefly attended the same law school as my husband Jeff, though not at the same time. At first no one could believe the killer could be Bundy—handsome, personable, bright Ted. But fascinating as he was, I was more fascinated by what it would be like to be the mother of such a man. As for Jean, the girl who “imprints” on Rose, the mother, all I can say is she was just always a part of the story.
I did have a goal in mind, not lofty at all. It was simply to keep people reading, keep them turning the pages. And as it turned out that involved plot and plot, at least in my case, required a few leaps of faith. Completely plausible events didn’t seem to offer enough to keep the reader wanting to know WHAT WILL HAPPEN. To be clear, the novel isn’t a mystery or a thriller, though it has some of those elements. But tension, suspense even, seemed important to keep those pages turning.
Coincidence, where things happen that don’t seem to be accidental but are, occurs all the time in “real” life. I recently heard a story (third party, so I may bungle it a bit) about two young men who both worked at a company that manufactures bicycles. Tragically, both died of brain tumors. The company designed a shirt in their honor, with their names on it (let’s call them Tim and Rob). One day Tim’s mother decided to take a different way home from work, and drove out in the country, a route she never took. She came upon a woman on a bike wearing a Tim/Rob tee-shirt. She pulled over next to the rider and said, “I’m Tim’s mother.” The woman on the bike said “I’m Rob’s mother.” How implausible…but true. If you put it in a novel, readers would roll their eyes and accuse you of pulling strings.
I first heard the expression “suspension of disbelief” in graduate school. I loved it from the get-go. I didn’t quite understand it, it seemed such a sophisticated turn of phrase, tricky even, but eventually I understood it to be what reading fiction actually is: the suspension of disbelief. We let go of our disbelief that we’re only reading and give it up to a whole fictional world that shelves our real world temporarily. It’s implausible that words on a page can so transport us, and yet they do.
In mulling over my plot twists, I remembered reading something that I thought might shore up my confidence. A search of my bookshelf turned up the helpful volume, John Braine’s How to Write a Novel (appropriately enough). I’ll quote him at length here:
“However appropriate the actions of your characters are, however solid their background, you’re telling a story. You’re planting the hooks to pull the reader on; you’re directing the narrative to its culmination. You’re presenting real human beings. But the story is still an artificial creation. Nothing in real life is every neat and ordered, there are no real endings, the threads are left untied.
“What you’re trying to do, in fact, is the equivalent of what is done when the world, which is a sphere, is projected on a flat surface. The two entities are completely different. There must always be inaccuracy somewhere, some part of the world incorrectly represented in area and shape. And with the novel what one has to accept is what I term the ‘Point of Improbability.’ If there is to be a well-constructed story, then somewhere, because of the needs of the story, something will happen which couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Get rid of it, substitute a credible happening, and the Point of Improbability will pop up somewhere else.
“There isn’t any way of getting rid of it; to attempt to sneak quietly past it by means of a brief summary makes the incredible even more incredible. The best way of dealing with it is with the maximum of brio; make sure that no one misses it.”
“Brio” doesn’t get used enough, as a word or an action. To do something with brio! We could use more of that.
So it’s the “needs of the story” that lead us into “Points of Improbability.” That seemed true in my case. I was determined to tell a good story, to keep people turning those pages. We accept some pretty implausible plot turns in fiction if we’re engaged enough in the story, because–we crave story. It helps if the writer supports the inplausibilities by being authoritative enough, by convincing us with spot on detail, by exploiting the possibility that it could happen, by distracting our skepticism with such momentum that what the heck, we don’t care if there are coincidences and unlikely happenings. Just give us the STORY! The writer has succeeded in suspending our disbelief.
Now I’m paying more attention to plot turns in things I read, to see how much authors are getting away with. And it seems to me that most good stories do have some improbabilities here and there. They have to, to keep things going. If readers didn’t accept some degree of implausibility, there would be a lot less fiction around.
So I’m going to go with my plot twists as “points of improbability” and treat them with brio. I can’t quite tell if my depiction of a round world projected onto a flat surface works. Readers will tell me that, I’m sure.
Has anyone else struggled with “points of improbability” in their own writing or have stories about implausible plot twists in their reading? Inquiring minds want to know.
*It occurred to me when I read this over that “unlikely” is a synonym for “improbable.” So my whole novel is prefaced on a relationship that is improbable! That was the very thing that made it interesting to me and a challenge! How to make believable something that was surprising, unexpected or inexplicable. Real life is so often like that. People are so often implausible, or do improbable things. Think of a Ted Bundy, for example…