How Do You Help Readers Believe the Unbelievable?

Mark Twain once said: Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.


Have you ever read a novel and thought, “I’m so sure. That would never happen.” And then you put the book down because, well, it doesn’t ring true. It was unbelievable, and you lost confidence in the writer. I felt this way when I watched THE VOW. I almost turned the DVD off because I thought the movie was too far-fetched. But I didn’t, and I’m glad I kept watching because it wasn’t until the end that I discovered it was based on a true story. Then I felt okay with it. When it’s true we can believe it because it really happened, but when we’re writing fiction we have to make sure the scenario has a huge possibility.


How do you make something in your novel sound believable when it doesn’t? I’ll show you by using an example.


This week I’m reviewing MY SISTER’S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult. I’ve seen the movie, and I know it was based on a true story. I’m reading it because I’m plotting a similar story and wanted to read how Jodi structured her plot.


Read this excerpt:


“Oh, really?” She leans forward, counting off on her fingers. “The first time I gave something to my sister, it was a cord blood, and I was a newborn. She has leukemia–APL–and my cells put her into remission. The next time she relapsed, I was five and I had lymphocytes drawn from me, three times over, because the doctors never seemed to get enough of them the first time around. When that stopped working, they took bone marrow for a transplant. When Kate got infections, I had to donate granulocytes. When she relapsed again, I had to donate peripheral blood stem cells.”
Okay. Stop and ask yourself, Does this sound like a teenager talking?  It is, but I thought it sounded like someone much older, didn’t you? It wasn’t believable. This is based on a true story so we’re more likely to believe it, but what if it wasn’t? How could the author make us believe that this dialogue is from a teenager?


Watch what the author does next. This is the next paragraph. It’s from the attorney’s point-of-view–the woman whom the girl is speaking to.


This girl’s medical vocabulary would put some of my paid experts to shame. I pull a legal pad out of a drawer. “Obviously, you’ve agreed to be a donor for your sister before.”
The author addressed that it sounded far-fetched. She noticed it just like we would, but she justified it, too.


When you’re writing fiction that seems unbelievable help the reader believe it by addressing it in your story. Have your characters react to the unbelievability.


How do you make your unbelievable fiction ring true?


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  1. Excellent helpful example, thanks and keep it up.

  2. Good post, and great example!

  3. Thanks Dee and Lauren. I appreciate your feedback and I hope my example helps in your writing.

  4. This is good. I’m reading a book now with 10-year-olds and they sound much too old. Plus I need this as my next 2 books have 10-year-olds in and this is a good reminder to make them sound that age.

  5. Hi Pat, I think some ten-year-olds may not sound like ten-year-olds but if a character in the story says something like, “Where did you learn how to talk like a grown-up, kid?” Or “What are you– ten going on twenty?” Then the reader will think, Yeah, why does he sound so much older than he is? it will be more believable.
    Thanks for stopping by and I hope this helps.

  6. mark says:

    What is it called when the reader believes an unbelievable plot for the sake of the story?

    • Hi Mark,

      I my opinion the answer to your questions is: Non-fiction.

      If something in your novel is so far-fetched or coincidental, it typically only works if you’re telling a true story, something that really happened.
      Because, in fiction, if the reader thinks your story is unbelievable they’ll put the book down. That’s not to say that ALL readers will put the book down though. In my book group I’ve seen where some of us can feel a plot point is WAY too contrived and NOT want to read further, but others will love that simple contrived attitude because they liked the story. It’s happy, or the bad guy got what he deserved, or something.

      Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
      I don’t know if my opinion helps, but, in the end, you’re the writer. Write what your heart is telling you to write. Who knows, readers might believe the unbelievable because they love your story.
      Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!

      • mark says:

        …oops – love your reply but I failed to put my question in a way that enabled the answer I was after. I should have added that I feel sure this scenario has a name but I have forgotten it and would like to use it, thanks, Mark

        • Okay, I think I know what you mean. I always forget this term, too. I hope I’m reading you right. ha!
          Are you looking for this? I got it from Wikpedia, but my writing professor talked about it in class. It’s something you NEVER want to do. Check it out:

          Deus ex machina

          The term deus ex machina is used to refer to a narrative ending in which an improbable event is used to resolve all problematic situations and bring the story to a (generally happy) conclusion.
          The Latin phrase “deus ex machina” has its origins in the conventions of Greek tragedy, and refers to situations in which a mechane (crane) was used to lower actors playing a god or gods onto the stage at the end of a play.

          • mark says:

            Wahey! that’s the one. No flies on you Michelle! Just want to refer to it rather than use it ‘Bobby Ewing and the shower’ style. Many thanks, Mark

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