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The probable and the plausible

I watched a film on TV the other night. The film was Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a thriller dealing with the drugs trade on both sides of the US-Mexican border. The film was released in 2015, but drew its inspiration from a period a few years earlier, when drugs-related violence was at its height.

And –

The film is essentially a lie. It treats the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez much as you might deal with Baghdad or Kabul: a territory where every street corner threatens to conceal a sniper or an IED.

The film also implies that the American war on drugs has become almost entirely extra-legal. That there is no longer any meaningful attempt to arrest, prosecute and convict drug-barons. It implies also that the state-level US police in those border territories are so riven with corruption, you can’t safely trust any of them.

None of this is really true. Yes, Mexico has had a serious problem with gang-violence. At the same time, Juarez is a major industrial city that does massive legitimate trade with the US. And Mexico, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, is the kind of place that a reasonable person might choose to visit for vacation. And if I lost my wallet in Tucson, I’d hardly be worried about asking a police officer for help.

In short, the film has its roots in facts, but it has its trunk, leaves and branches where they should be:

On Planet Fiction. The world of make-believe.

It’s a combination I know well myself. My last full-length book was a modern-day police procedural about the quest for Arthur. Arthur as in King Arthur, a man whose very existence is uncertain.

Yes, I took care to make sure that my lower-level facts were all true. I took care with things like my description of hillforts, ancient manuscript references to Arthur, some science on the dating – and faking – of artefacts, and so on. But I only took care with these things, because I wanted to use them as a springboard into the delights of sheer invention.

When I published that book, I was a little worried at the reaction of my audience. My readers are crime readers after all and that genre, above all, is a realistic one.

But –

They didn’t care. No one did. My reader reviews for that book averaged a full 5.0 on Amazon.com for a long time and have since dipped to 4.8. No book of mine has done better.

The simple fact is that you do need to write fiction that feels plausible. You do not need to write fiction that feels remotely probable, or even possible.

How do you achieve that plausibility? Well, the full answer would probably be a rather long one, so let me offer these three thoughts:

Thought the first

Deploy those ‘lower level’ facts, as I’ve called them, as diligently as you can. Where your fiction touches ordinary life, make sure that you are as precise as you can be. In my case, I didn’t just invent a South Welsh hillfort. I searched around till I found one that fit the bill. Then I got in a car and visited it. The facts that I reported in the book – about evidence of jewellery making, a large number of animal bones, and so on – are all spot on.

It’s not even that readers will know whether your facts are right or not. It’s that those facts will give your imagination enough security to leap without fear. The gap between truth and fiction will be invisible to the reader.

Thought the second

I keep coming back to this and it surprises me. But honestly, I think great descriptive writing has a huge role to play here. A rootedness in place will gives everything else you write a kind of plausibility.

In Sicario, there are quite long bits of film that are just shots of landscape. That sounds dull, in a way, but add some moody music and a tense story situation, and those shots just deepen your involvement in everything else. But also, they act as a kind of guarantor of reality. “Look, these are real places. There’s nothing tricksy or staged about this filming. The story must be real, because these places clearly are.”

That’s nonsense logic, of course, but humans aren’t especially logical. And by the way, this approach works no matter what kind of book you’re writing.

In my case (and that of Sicario), those places are real. They’re contemporary. You can go and visit them. But the same basic point applies to any book, whether you’re dealing with the court of Catherine the Great, or some planet in a far-flung galaxy. If you can get the reader, as it were, feeling the wind on their face and the sand between their toes, you are at least halfway to convincing them of everything else.

Thought the third

This is the big one. The ultimate plausibility trick.

In Sicario, the central character is Kate Macer, an FBI agent played by Emily Blunt. And she doesn’t really do anything. You could take her out of the film and the plot could (just about) unroll the same way. Her role is that of observer and interpreter. She witnesses the same things as we witness, but by interpreting those things through her own (pained, horrified) emotions, she explains to us what we should be feeling too.

Now, I don’t really recommend turning your protagonist into an observer only. That’s not an impossible technique (the Sherlock Holmes stories are narrated by Dr Watson, after all), but it’s a tricky one. On the other hand, films are films and books are books, and that’s a bone we don’t need to worry at now.

The point is simply this:

In Sicario, we see and believe in Emily Blunt’s emotional journey. And she wouldn’t react that way if she wasn’t seeing real things. Ergo, the story she witnesses must be real. Boom! Case closed. Job done. Game, set and match.

The way to get your stories feeling plausible, no matter how implausible they actually are, is to plant a real-feeling character in a real-feeling landscape, then watch like a hawk as his or her emotions unfold.

That’s all from me for now. Now I'm off to enjoy the beautiful English summer.

Till soon


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Comments (10)
  • This really strikes a chord with me. I’ve got a character who is largely a witness. He has some agency but his role is to react to what he sees and I want readers to empathise with or question the choices he makes as a result. My worry is how to make him feel compelling and someone who the reader invests in emotionally. Any advice? In the meantime, I’m digging out my  Sherlock Holmes stories to find out how Watson is developed. Thanks for another thought-provoking email.

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    • Um - hard to advise without reading the book. As a rough guide, the more literary your novel is, the easier it is to get away with hero-as-observer/witness. As you creep closer to genre fiction, the more important it is for your MC to be a doer. And, either way, great writing always helps ...

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      • That helps. It’s a Neo-Victorian historical piece - so set in nineteenth century but actively engaging with tropes of novels written in that time period and commenting on them in some way. Similar sort of vein as Jack Maggs by Peter Carey but my comp title is a A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale, so genre but at the more literary end. Almost finished my first draft so depending on how it goes I may well be in touch for manuscript support. Thanks, Harry. 

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      • Might I be so bold as to suggest a fourth thought? We are often exhorted to "write about what you know." So, if you are lucky(?) enough to have a past, it seems that using real-life experiences (places/employment/names/loves/fights) provide excellent 'low-level facts" or "roots." I'm not talking about straight autobiography, but taking the world as we lived it, the things that happened to us, etc., and allowing a story to grow out of them.

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        • Yes, for sure. It just depends what you want to write about. I know naff all about policing, but I still write about it 😀 

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          • But I'm sure you ensure, by either personal research or seeking guidance, that you don't make stupid errors.

            BTW, I know it's a bit unreasonable of me, but could I have a response on my admittedly belated comment on the Titles post?

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          • Of course, Harry, you are overlooking a massive point of this example.  That this film and/or book has done a huge amount to "inform" the audience, especially the American public, that Mexico is not safe and their authorities cannot be trusted.  That's quite important.  Travelling in Mexico not long after the US election the hotels and B&Bs where I was staying were constantly fielding cancellations.  These are real people affected by our work.  Working as a publishing consultant now, one thing I often have to go over with my clients is the huge amount of power they wield as an author.  Our words have a huge impact and we do have a responsibility to get certain facts right, even in fiction.  If we know that our work is going to be controversial or deal with sensitive subjects I think we have to think through the potential impact and decide if we want to use our power in this way.

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            • Absolutely. Films even more so. Just think of the harm caused by the false histories of Mel Gibson's movies. Braveheart especially, leading to the current cultural behaviour north of the border.

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              • I do think that writers need to be mindful of their moral duty, yes. At the same time, I think you can rely on readers/viewers mostly understanding that fiction is fiction. It's a delicate balance though. (I doubt if anyone has yet been put off travelling to Wales because my books seem to contain a lot of murders ...)

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                • True, but sadly extreme examples, like Ml Gibson's distortion of history in Braveheart, has certainly done considerable harm. But of course you cover that point with your dictate that the "roots" should be accurately esearched. Thanks. 😃

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