One way to maintain believability in a story is to set expectations early. Therefore, if you need the hero to cut his way through some ropes to save his own life during the climax of the story, he can't suddenly pull out a pocktknife and think, Thank goodness I always carry this trusty thing around! I knew it would come in handy one day! Unless you've already built the pocketknife into the story, readers will feel that this is a cop out. Therefore, to create believability, you must mention the pocketknife early on. Have your hero pull out the pocketknife in Chapter 1 to open a box; show him using it to whittle a twig in Chapter 4 as he ponders deep thoughts over a campfire; inform us in Chapter 6 that it's the last gift given to him by his dearly-departed grandfather. That way, when he suddenly pulls it out in Chapter 22, readers think, Oh yes, of course! His trusty pocketknife!
If only real life had the same sort of believaibility built in. It rarely does, however. In real life, unbelievable things happen all the time--so unbelievable that, if it weren't for eye witnesses, no one would take our word for it.
Take, for example, the Spider Spoon Incident.
One moment, I was enjoying a delightful lunch with my sister-in-law and some nieces and nephews. The next moment, I was goggling at the impossibility of Spider Spoon.
We sat at the family dining-room table enjoying conversation over beans and rice. I'd just dug out a healthy scoop of rice with a broad, shallow-bowled spoon when my sister-in-law asked me a question. Since the question related to The Great Gatsby, a novel with which I maintain a complicated relationship, my answer was not short. The entire time I was talking, I held my spoon poised near my mouth, elbow propped against the table.
At length, I finished my
Struck speechless, I went pop-eyed and extend my arm to its full length. This action brought the Spider Spoon directly into my young niece's personal space. Flailing a stiff hand outward in panic, she karate chopped straight through the tendril, sending the little spider, still attached to his little weblet, flying who knows where. I dropped the spoon and frantically patted my hair, my arms, and my torso, suddenly itchy everywhere.
"What's happening?" asked my sister-in-law, who--based on her perspective from the other end of the table--had just witnessed me shoving beans into my little niece's face, her karate chopping at nothing, and then me slapping myself repeatedly.
"SPIDER SPOON!" I spluttered, wondering who would ever believe this.
The best we can guess is that, at some point during our heated discussion of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the spider had floated down from above--either from the overhead light fixture or from an air vent--and somehow landed directly on my upraised spoon. Whether this was by design or happenstance, we will never know. The spider cannot be reached for questioning.
If this scene were fictional, it would require quite a bit of work to be rendered believable. First, it would need to be foreshadowed by, at the very least, a conversation between characters about the migratory habits of household spiders. Second, our protagonist would have already seen a spider drop down on something (or someone) else, thinking to herself (by way of building some rather delicious irony) I'm so glad that's never happened to me! I would probably just die.
Life, however, does not require such believability. One minute everything's fine, and the next minute, snakes fall from the sky and spiders crawl out of your lunch.
Remember this when your own Spider Spoon moment comes: the best you can hope for is to have a quick thinker in your corner--someone who's good in a crisis and ready with a well-placed karate chop. And, of course, witnesses on hand to corroborate the unbelievable.
Image courtesy of Feelgrafix.