Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Make Sure Your Readers Believe You

Credit: NBC

If you are a fan of Parenthood, and haven’t watched October 11th’s  episode (I haven’t caught up to this week’s yet), you may want to skip this if you don’t want to deal with a little spoiler.  Or not. It may not make a difference to you.

See, Crosby, the younger, hip brother, and Adam, the more uptight, responsible brother (played by Peter Krause, who I LOVED in Six Feet Under) are starting a music studio. Crosby tells Adam he really needs to loosen up when he meets with their potential client, a rapper named Mistah Ray.

Cut to Adam, looking more ridiculous than Jamie Kennedy in Malibu’s Most Wanted, walking down the street after getting talked into some “fly” clothes, just like Crosby suggested.  He catches a glimpse of his image in the car window and panics. He’s on his way to meet the rapper/potential client, but he realizes he looks like nothing like himself.  He grabs a lifeline and calls Crosby, who is closer to his house, and asks him to stop and grab him some more appropriate clothes. The somewhat flighty plan is that Adam will change in front of the rapper’s house.

That’s all we need to start the next chain of events.  Crosby ends up to driving his sister-in-law, Kristina, to the hospital, since her water conveniently broke while the two of them were having an argument about the music studio business.  And while Adam is stumbling over his words in a meeting with Mistah Ray, Crosby is holding Kristina’s hand as she delivers a baby girl. Of course Adam arrives within moments, and it’s a sweet emotional time, eventually wrapping up with the whole family meeting the new arrival.

So, yes, it was a touching episode, but like the princess on top of the dozens of pillow soft mattresses, a little pea was rubbing me the wrong way:  Did Adam show up at the store naked? Why couldn’t he just change back into the clothes he surely had on his back when he left home that morning?

Granted, I found the premise a tad unbelievable. But it didn’t necessarily take away from the enjoyment of the story as a whole. After all, seeing Adam in the costume, trying to be the man who would wear the outfit, was funny. The episode was pretty heavy, so it needed a few laughs. Watching Adam hurry down the hospital hallway, pulling his pants up before he meets his baby daughter for the first time was cute, and you know that, for the Braverman family it will be a story told over and over again.

What does this have to do with writing, besides my—ahem—STUDYING storylines instead of creating my own? A few things:

  • ·         Suspension of Disbelief is part of storytelling…  Writers create worlds where vampires sparkle, romances are happily ever after—every time (if they don’t, it’s not a romance), the zombie apocalypse is a viable threat, and master detectives stumble upon the perfect clues.  As writers, this is the thrill of perceptible imagination: on paper, we get to separate from our realities and control our fictional new world with rules of our own. Readers, too, get to escape into the words. So what if we can’t hop into a wormhole and travel to the other side of the galaxy in time for dinner in real life? Our minds can, once we are immersed enough in the story.
  • ·         …But still be believable. Even in the world of make-believe, you have to make sure what happens in your stories makes some kind of sense.  It’s the writer’s job to create the story in such a way that a reader will find themselves believing. If you are writing an historical novel, your setting and characters have to live in that time. There may be some turns of phrases that weren’t spoken in the 18th century that you could get away with, but of course a character searching for answers couldn’t “google it.” That’s extreme, but you see my point.  Your writer’s group or editors will usually find less obvious inconsistencies.  
Adam’s trip into hip-hop fashion may not have been totally believable, but it was a useful tool for humor, for advancing the story line between Crosby and Kristina (and for allowing Crosby to witness a baby’s birth, since he missed his own son’s), and for showing Adam’s willingness to take risks to grow the studio business.

How do you balance the unbelievable with the unfathomable in your own stories?

Happy Writing!

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