Believability; It’s Not an Option

This week I started work on the Revision Project, as I’m dubbing it. For those of you just joining us, the Revision Project refers to the massive overhaul I’m giving my previously published short stories before re-releasing them. I won’t go into the details of why I’m doing this again, so if you’re curious, check out the post where I explain my reasoning at length.

Anyway, reading these manuscript dinosaurs in preparation to give them their much needed facelifts, I’ve realized just how much I’ve learned about myself as a writer and about storytelling in general over the past year. Largely thanks to this blog. Nothing makes you understand a process faster than having to break it down and explain it to someone else. I learned that during my martial arts training, but apparently it’s equally true for writing. Which is why seeing those old works through the filter of fresh perspective brought to light a common theme that plagues them– a distinct lack of authenticity.

This is particularly true for The Bardach, which was my earliest endeavor and admittedly the weakest of the three. But there are moments in all of them that feel superficial to me now. Like we’re just grazing the surface, floating over the action like we’re peering down at it through a snow-globe. And it got me thinking. Why is that? When I wrote them, I didn’t feel this lack of investment, even after the rose-colored glasses of creation had worn off and the overly critical ones of the editor returned. So what’s changed?

I said in my article about storytelling for demo teams that story is about conveying an emotional message. That’s a dramatic difference from the way I used to view it. I used to focus primarily on plot. The characters were in an integral part, of course, but the narrative focused more around the action than anything else. I wrote like a film director rather than an author, worrying about how to convey the cinematic dance of camera angles instead of creating fully realized, three-dimensional characters. That’s not to say that I wasn’t able to weave a story that had impact. I think Confessions managed that. But emotional depth wasn’t necessarily my strong suit. Then along came Unmoving, a story so completely focused on the inner turmoil of the lead character that it forced me out of my comfort zone. It made me grow as a writer. It made me redefine my idea of storytelling.

I feel this is a common journey for newer writers, and especially younger writers. When we first start out, we try so hard to mimic the examples of storytelling we’ve been exposed to– film, TV, video games, books– that we end up missing the point. We manage to learn the basics of narrative– how to craft an action-packed plot, write witty/natural-sounding dialogue, paint settings with just the right amount of detail– but we never learn the one thing that really resonates with readers. Believability.

There are two types of believability in storytelling. The first, making sure all the details and logistics of your story make sense, is a pet peeve of mine and has already been ranted about in a previous post. So we’ll jump right to the second type– emotional believability. This is what takes a good story to a great one. Take a moment and think about all the books that have ever moved you. Now think about why. I’m probably not far off in guessing that the answer had to do with feeling invested in the characters, in their struggles, their emotions? That’s what I mean by emotional believability. It’s an authenticity that speaks to the core of human nature, to themes that transcend genres and are universally understood. It’s the ability to translate personal experience onto the page, and it only seems to come with maturity.

There’s a reason they always say “write what you know.” Personally, I never subscribed to that. I’m a fantasy writer, so how am I supposed to write what I know when what I know is too dull and ordinary for the worlds I like to hang out in? It’s not like I can go to the zoo and observe the behavioral patterns of a unicorn, now can I? So I always threw that phrase out like wasted salt. Until now. Now I get it. It’s not about writing what you know in the literal sense, (although it can be, depending on what you’re writing), it’s about using your experiences to infuse believability into your story, to fully immerse your readers into that character’s existence, to move them.

Now, I’m not saying that younger writers can’t craft a great story. I’ve read well-done work written by all ages. What I’m saying is that there is a definite difference between the way someone writes when they’re new to writing, or life, or both and the way they write after they’ve been around the block a few times. But rather than argue theory, or semantics, or what-have-you, how about I just give you an example from my own writing. Examples always trump convoluted discussions in my opinion.

As some of you may know, I’ve had the privilege of being stalked by a panic disorder for most of my life, but it wasn’t until about two years ago that I actually suffered what can be officially declared a “panic attack.” As in a complete freak-out, hyper-ventilating fear-fest of doom. (I know, I make it sound so dramatic, huh? 😉 ) But panic attacks have appeared in my writing far longer, making them the perfect candidate to help illustrate my point.

Here is an example from The Bardach: (Note, this was written before I had suffered one myself.)

Amyli shook her head to try and clear it from the fog that suffocated her thoughts and followed her study partner down secret corridors she had never known existed within the Temple’s simple construction. Even encased in the thick stone of the walls, she could hear the screams of the dying. And suddenly the walls themselves seemed to be closing in, the air thick and stifling. She stumbled and clutched at Calinfar’s hand.

“Wait, I can’t!” she gasped, trying to breathe, one hand against her chest. Calinfar stopped immediately.

“What’s wrong? Amyli?” He grabbed her shoulders once more, releasing the injured one quickly when she winced. Welling tears glistened in her vision as she gazed into his concerned face and suddenly everything that was happening washed over her with the force of a burst dam.

Aside from the various other quality issues in that excerpt, did you notice how superficial it was? You get the idea that she’s having a panic attack through my attempt to describe it with overly-used, clichéd phrasing and imagery. But you don’t feel it, do you? It’s over too fast to really elicit more than a shoulder-shrugging “meh” from the reader. You’re not invested in Amyli’s emotional state, even if you had read the context leading up to it. You could take it or leave it at this point. Nothing about that moment will stay with you past the 10 seconds it took you to read it.

Now, here’s an example from Unmoving: (Yes, that’s right, a rare tidbit from my work-in-progress.)

The resounding clap as the wood violently met its frame shuddered through me, and I knew what was about to happen. In an effort to avoid the oncoming storm of remembrance, I stared at the flurry of peeling white paint her exit had sent drifting to the floor. But that only made it worse.

Instantly, the images I had tried so hard to forget crushed me like an avalanche. I saw snow swirling in the darkness, heard the squeal of tires trying to find traction, the snap and whipping sound of the seat-belt, smelled the sickening mix of burning rubber and dirty slush. Her screams pierced the memory like a relentless soundtrack, echoes of terror I could never outrun.

I braced myself and waited for it to pass, for the tightness in my chest to diminish and the invisible stranglehold on my throat to ease. Every time I felt the wave of adrenaline crash over me, I wondered if this is what it felt like to drown.

See the difference? That was written after I had experienced the horror of a panic attack for myself. You can feel it now, can’t you? (I hope so anyway.) The words have a sense of urgency, the descriptions are more realistic, the emotions believable. Even without the context prior to this, you can sympathize with him. That’s the difference a little life experience can make.

So the point of this long-winded ramble-thon is this: believability isn’t an option. If you want to write something that resonates with readers, you have to learn how to create that deeper level of immersion. How you go about learning that depends on you. You can wait for life experience to cast the slant of a more mature perspective on things. You can mooch off other people’s life experience, using research and interviews to beef up your knowledge of things you aren’t familiar with. Or you can fake it ’til you make it, as they say, and just keep writing, letting practice hone your ability for you. However you go about it though, strive for authenticity. You’ll know when you find it, and your readers will love you for it. Guaranteed.

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