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Mass-1024x698-1.jpg?resize=525%2C358&sslFor the most part, what happens in novels doesn’t happen to real people.  Yes, there are stories that spring from news articles, family anecdotes, or personal experience.  There are many more stories that do not.  Vampires are part of no one’s family history.  No one I know who is not a police detective has ever solved a murder case.  My friends have married wonderful people, but no dukes or titled ladies.  Magic does not work, especially not in my garden, believe me.

Fantastic stories nevertheless catch us up.  We buy in.  What makes them plausible?  It is not because we truly believe what is impossible—Aristotle’s “suspension of disbelief” affirms that—but because the people caught up in an impossible situation or place come to seem to us utterly real.  They may live in a land plagued by dragons or a serial killer but nevertheless they are, in many other respects, just like us.

I mention this because I’m thinking about stories which do not feature murders, monsters or the mayhem of dystopian worlds, tumultuous history or courts of law, places where the social and natural order breaks down, base human instincts reign and crazy-dramatic things can happen.  When a story could happen to any of us, strangely, what happens becomes even less plausible than in a fantasy, historical or thriller.

Why?  For the simple reason that in fantastic stories the characters, particularly the protagonist, can be boxed in by circumstances.  Heroes and heroines generally are forced to cope with what is in front of them, if not save the day.  We expect that, understand it and go along.

In a realistic setting and story, though, it’s not as easy to box characters in.  We don’t automatically suspend our disbelief.

In the real world when challenges arise, we actual human beings can delay, delegate, avoid or simply ignore what’s going on and what needs to be done.  Have you ever put something off until tomorrow?  Have you ever let a task slide?  Have you ever called a plumber to clear a drain which, actually, you could do it yourself with a wrench and a little elbow grease?  Have you muttered tsk-tsk about a social injustice or intolerable suffering reported in the news, but then done nothing about it?

Or course you have.  Me too.  Some problems are better left for another day, are better handled by someone else, or simply are too big for you or I to solve single-handedly.  We lack the mandate.  We haven’t got the needed expertise, tools or money.  We’d probably wind up hurting more than helping.  There are a million reasons why not, and some of them are even valid.

Characters in stories have the same excuses and yet they will—must—sally forth, do what others would not, and save the day or themselves.  But, honestly, do they really have to?  I mean, right now not tomorrow?  Alone, when a specialist could be paid?  Might it not be better to wait for a better moment, let time heal, or hope the problem will work itself out?  That’s what reasonable people do, isn’t it?

Looked at one way, protagonists are idiots.  They are not acting like real people.  That’s as true in fantastic stories as it is in realistic ones.  If anyone we know in real life actually tried to do what the heroes and heroines of our stories do, we would worry, try to talk to them, or think that they’d gone crazy.

Yet in reading novels we don’t have those responses.  Instead, we believe.  We cheer.  We hope.  Which begs a simple question…why?

Building the Inevitable

Obviously, the suspension of disbelief is not automatic.  It’s made possible by the author.  In a fantastic story—a broad category in which I include anything that is truly beyond the realm of our everyday—it is first and foremost necessary to make convincing and relatable the story’s people.  (Place and plot situation also require plausibility, logic, consistency, accessibility, emotional grip, detail and more—don’t get me wrong—but that is a topic for another post.)

In a realistic story—a broad category in which I include anything that could be in the actual realm of our everyday—the first and foremost task is to overcome the reader’s objection to what a protagonist will do, making it necessary for this protagonist alone to do that and to do that quickly, if not right away.

Dropping a protagonist into a plot situation is, by itself, not enough.  There are too many outs.  Time, place and circumstances can exert pressure but not enough to push away the human tendency to put things off.  Thus, what’s needed is a convincing buildup of the reasons why a character must act.

The best of those reasons come from inside.  This technique, by the way, is also useful and just as necessary in fantastic stories as it is in realistic ones.

The-Night-Strangers-002.jpg?resize=201%2Chis Bohjalian’s novel The Night Strangers (2011) is a contemporary Gothic tale that lies somewhere between fantastic and realistic.  Set in New Hampshire, it’s the story of airline pilot Chip Linton, who moves with his family into a house which holds a horrible secret.  In a corner of the basement is a door which has for a long time been sealed shut with thirty-nine, six-inch long carriage bolts.

Now let me ask you, would you open up that door?  Be honest.  Would you do it yourself?  Would you do it in secret?  Would you feel compelled to do it, so much so that there’s no question whatsoever that you must?  And soon?  Convincing us that Chip Linton will do exactly that is the task that Bohjalian, the author, has set for himself.  He accomplishes it in step-by-step fashion.

In a sense, the first third of Bohjalian’s novel is simply a long case made to convince us that what Chip Linton is going to do is inevitable.  First of all, Chip was at the helm of a regional jet that experienced twin engine failure and ditched in Lake Champlain.  Chip survived but thirty-nine passengers died.  Thirty-nine…get it?  Can it be coincidence that there are thirty-nine bolts in the basement door?

One of the dead was a little girl wearing a Dora the Explorer backpack, whom Chip noticed boarding the plane.  Chip and his wife Emily have twin daughters the same age.  In their new-old house, one of the girls hears people screaming far away, as if drowning.  Meanwhile Chip wrestles with his PTSD and his guilt.  He has a therapist.  He doesn’t have God.  Rural New Hampshire is supposed to be a balm but there’s that door.  It needs to come off and in New England, that’s a man’s job.

What tips the balance for Chip, though, is that one of his daughters is lonely and distraught and is acting out.  In school, she has a red plastic cigarette lighter.  In one of his tormented moments of remembering the crash, Chip abruptly thinks she deserves a friend.  He can no longer take the psychological pressure.

He takes an axe to the door.

That is ninety-nine riveting, slow-build pages into the novel.  What Chip finds on the other side of that door, I’ll leave you to discover.  My point today is that an action that you or I would not readily undertake finally becomes, for Chip Linton, inevitable.  There’s nothing else he can do.  If we were him, we would do the same.  We’d have to.

Practical Inevitability 

So, whatever type of story you’re writing, let’s make this technique practical.  Here are some steps you can take:

What is the single most dramatic—and unlikely—action that your protagonist will take, either to incite further story, or in a moment that is a turning point or cathartic or climactic?  What is something that you or I would probably not do? 

List all the reasons why we or anyone would probably not take that action.  Even if we were in your protagonist’s situation, what would hold us back?  How could we put it off?  Whom else would we imagine, want or expect to do that big thing instead of us?  How would we look if we were to do that thing?

For every reason why not, create a counter-pressure in your protagonist great enough to overcome his or her reluctance or inhibition.  Create pressure from outside.  Create pressure from inside.  Bring pressure to bear from the past.  Bring pressure to bear in the present.  Pressure from other people is good.  Psychological pressure on self is better.

Put your protagonist in an emotional vice: Act and there likely will be terrible consequences.  Fail to act and the consequences will be even worse.  The negative cost to self will be unbearable.  Build the pressure until you are screaming to yourself, do it already!

The consequences are real.  Use the bad ones first.  Save the good ones for later.  How does this act change everything so that it can never change back?  Your protagonist is altered: in what ways for the worse, in what ways for the better?  Who else is altered?  What effect of the action is permanent?

Inevitability is not inevitable.  The hand of fate—and your evil imagination—may bring circumstances crashing down on your protagonist.  That’s good.  The actions that your protagonist takes, however, don’t come from the hand of fate.  They come from inside a human being who feels that what must be done is inescapable, and the time to act is now.

How are you making your protagonist’s unlikely action necessary and inevitable?  Share!


About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


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