Stretching Credibility

The Arts

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A comment from Robin yesterday prompts this consideration; when does a book stretch credibility too far for you? On TV that moment is known as Jumping the Shark, after the Fonz in ‘Happy Days’. On film it’s called Nuking the Fridge, after the fourth Indiana Jones film. What is it in books?

Personally, I find it in two places on the page; first when a story’s hero/ine does something implausible or against their character to justify a plot twist that the author wants to execute, and second when a story turns away from its organic outcome to follow a different route.

I had great trouble with ‘The Girl on the Train’, because there are several plot holes that render it implausible. But thrillers are tricky to pull off because ultimately they rely on psychological honesty. Lee Child, Laura Wilson, Ann Cleeves, Mark Billingham and Val McDermid all negotiate this tricky path with real insight in their thrillers, because they understand that they must keep the reader on board. Their heroes Jack Reacher, Jimmy Perez, Tom Thorne and Tony Hill all have characteristics we either recognise in ourselves or wish we had.

I recently read Ted Chiang’s short stories, mainly because I liked the film version of ‘Arrival’, and found that they caused a different problem for me. So concerned is he with the veracity of the science in the stories that the human characters were lost from view. He has different concerns (he clearly loves the S more than the F) – nothing wrong with that, but when I found myself staring at graphs instead of reading about people, I turned off.

Michael Crichton made the unbelievable brilliantly believable. We bought the idea that mosquitos could resurrect dinosaurs, didn’t we? Even Dan Brown managed to get a rise out of the Vatican with his preposterous Da Vinci Code.

But believability affects more personal stories too, and we have Ruth Rendell and Kate Atkinson (and, I would argue, Lissa Evans) creating enthralling worlds where everything just feels right. From these we get a sense of satisfaction that tells us the novelist pulled it off. Think of the way you felt at the end of ‘The Lives of Others’ – that there could only be this one fatal outcome to the story (the German director subsequently moved to Hollywood, where his career died – hopefully he’ll return).

Believability starts in character. If there is a silver thread of truth running through your protagonist’s personality, you can get away with murder.

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8 comments on “Stretching Credibility”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    If the story is good, I’m quite happy to believe in it. I don’t believe in ghosts, but am quite happy to when watching Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” as the concept of the ghost of a man’s 1st wife coming from the dead to destroy his second marriage is so funny.

    “Goodnight Sweetheart” – the TV series in which the hero can lead a double life by travelling back to the 2nd World War is another example. And, of course Harry Potter, as the whole idea of magic is very satisfying as a story background.

  2. Roger says:

    I am perfectly happy to accept the impossible, but I reject the preposterous.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    One of my favourite authors is Martin Cruz Smith; Gorky Park is one of my top 50 novels and he has written other stories about the same character, Arkady Renkin, set in the Arctic circle, Cuba or Chernobyl that are equally entertaining and seem to have a ring of authenticity to them.

    However he wrote a book set in 19th century northern England called, I think, ‘Rose’ which was the most abysmal piece of tosh since Catherine Cookson begat Robson Green. The research was just enough to be risible yet not sufficient to be authentic.

    The problem for me is not that an admired author wrote a howler ( we can all make justified mistakes), but that I immediately questioned the veracity of his other books. Are there readers in Moscow laughing at every word he’s written?

  4. David says:

    The American author Reggie Nadelson wrote a book a few years back, Londongrad I think it was called, where her hero comes to London to solve a case, however from his first step in town it was clear the author did not have a clue as to the geographical layout of London, neither did she know that we have not had pea soupers for at least 50 years. Strange, I’d loved her books based in New York, but I was left wondering if that was all made up as well. I do like a book that has a map in the front piece because then we all know where we stand.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Questioning an author’s other research when you catch him/her out is only natural. We do it with people all the time. Is this person generally truthful? If so, then I will trust them until proven wrong. If I know they’ve made things up before I won’t trust them and will check everything before acting on it. Same thing with authors. When I was in my teens I trusted all the historical fiction because the author would have checked, right? It took doing research myself to realise how easy it is to get it wrong.

  6. admin says:

    Lack or research really does kick you out of a book. I read a highly-touted ‘Victorian’ novel written by a lady in California which began with a man paying off a hansom cab at Euston station by giving him a ten pence piece. The fact that it got through her editors and proof readers amazed me.

  7. John Griffin says:

    There are acres of Sherlock pastiches that fall at anachronistic hurdles, mostly the language; indeed some steampunk seems more authentic.

  8. Richard Burton says:

    I’m quite attached to some books that seem to burst credibility for fun, like the Stainless Steel Rat stories, or cast it aside in pursuit of something else like Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius. I think it can be comfy fun, like a shared joke, or a high wire act for the author. Crap research does spoil things though.

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