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.
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.
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.