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.