Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities

Could this really happen?” is a boring question and yields boring work. The better question is “Can I make this unlikely thing feel psychologically plausible.”

Example: here are two unusual stories.

  1. Archaelogists unearth a magic wand that turns sand to gold. The nations of the world go to war to claim it.
  2. A man gets mugged. He punches out his assailant. The assailant is so impressed, he gets a gender reassignment and becomes the man’s wife.

Of the two, which one is harder to buy on a narrative level? Nearly everyone says two. On the surface, this is odd because scenario one is magical fantasy and scenario two is theoretically plausible. And yet #2 is the one that will raise more questions, and hence feel more implausible unless properly framed and justified.

This is a useful illustration of suspension of disbelief. Audiences tend to willingly suspend their disbelief for fantastical conceits, but not when their notion of how human behavior works.

Example one feels like a fantasy story by dint of the words “magic wand.” Most people will think, okay, genre stuff, I get that, let’s see where that goes. The subsequent war makes sense because that sounds like the kind of thing nations would go to war over. Most people aren’t going to ask engineer-level questions as to how the magic works, those that do are probably unlikely to get swept up in the story regardless.

Example two is more plausible on one level, but more implausible on another. If someone told me this story, I’d have a ton of questions.

  1. Did the assailant always want to be a girl? Was he just looking for the right fellow?
  2. How soon after getting punched did he have his sex change? Did he have a standing appointment?
  3. What was your first date like? Did you know he was the assailant at first, or did she build up to that?
  4. Knowing all this, why did you marry the assailant? Do you identify as straight?
  5. What’s your sex life like?
  6. Do you want children? Are you going to adopt?

Etc.

Keeping things plausible doesn’t mean that you’re restricted to dull or familiar situations. Truth is stranger than fiction. We live in a world where weird stuff happens every day. That said, part of writing is anticipating the audience, anticipating what will make them say “what the hell?” If someone wrote this story and treated example two as a mundane situation that required zero explanation, I’d question whether they empathized with the audience well enough to tell a good story.

On a meta level, if you got notes on this, most readers would say “I don’t see why assailant did this.” It’s usually best to anticipate this question and answer it before people realize it’s bothering them.

If the man or assailant had a friend to ask thes questions, if they called it out themselves, then they could justify why they did these things in a way that makes the seemingly odd behavior as understandable, romantic, even heroic.

You can do anything in a story, you can justify anything. But you can’t justify if you can’t anticipate what people find plausible and what requires further explanation.

Note: The title comes from a quote by Aristotle, an early hack writing guru who was passionate about three act structure and never wrote a play. 

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2 thoughts on “Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities

Add yours

  1. I love the mugger to lover story and vastly prefer it to one about an improbable war over an over-supply of inherently worthless gold.

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