Story Tips

10. Walking the tightrope of believability

In last week’s blog, I wrote that we, as an audience sign up for a heightened version of reality, not reality itself. We watch a film or episode, or buy a book, because we want to be taken on the emotional roller-coaster ride of your story. This is our job as writers and in order to succeed, we must learn to craft our stories in a heightened and exaggerated way.

But there is a flip side and a line that a successful writer knows she cannot cross, and that is the line of believability.

As a writer, you spend months and often years developing your stories. You create worlds, give birth to your characters and also put into place a clear logic, genre and style. These important decisions you make are the very things that bring your unique concept or story to life. But if you do this properly, what you also find is that you have drawn a clear line between what can happen and what cannot. Where your story can go and where it cannot. What your characters can do (and even say) and what they cannot. This line is not random, nor has it been forced upon your story – it has been carefully and purposely created by you.

We have all had the experience of watching a film when suddenly something happens and we think to ourselves, “I don’t believe this!” Maybe a character has done something or said something that just feels fake. Maybe something has happened that feels contrived or unbelievable. But my point is, at this moment, you have lost us. We are no longer involved in your story and it will be quite a task to transform us into believers again.

Oftentimes people I work with believe that in a great story anything can happen, but my advice to you is that in a great story NOT anything can happen. Every strong property, including ones such as Harry Potter and even Lost, comes with a strong set of internal rules or logic, and our job is to fully embrace these rules.

A great writer becomes skilled at walking the tightrope of believability. A great writer knows that this very line is what creates a strong, defined and unique story. The kind of story we love, remember, and are moved by. The kind of story you want to write!

Image: Gena Melendrez /

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