Writing Fiction That is Believable


by Katie McCoach

Imagine you are sitting amongst fellow writers in a workshop class or critique group. You’ve just finished reading your work and this group is providing constructive criticism. You are nervous, of course, we understand. This writing is a piece of you—anything you write is. This group understands that as well, and they are in the group the same reason you are—to develop their writing. That is why you are here, right? To make your writing stronger? To see how an audience responds?

As each member provides their comments on your work, you begin to get antsy, and slightly irritated. How can they say that X moment in your story wasn’t believable? Yes, this was a work of fiction, but still, X happened in real life! Of course it’s believable because it actually happened! You know this from your real life experience even though, again, like I said, you are sharing the work with this group as “fiction” not creative non-fiction.  This group of writers are wrong, you think.


Let’s take a step back.

Sharing writing is tough for any and every writer. Reading reviews online after it’s published, hearing what an editor, agent, publishing house has to say can be daunting and it can be difficult, yes. One key thing that is important to remember is that your writing class and readers are sharing their opinions and their experience with your writing so you can understand how they see it.

I’ve noticed the circumstance that I shared above has happened many times in writing groups and classes I have been a part of. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  This is because often times, that is the case. Memoirs can be such strong stories because it’s unbelievable certain things really happened. But in fiction, showing the “unbelievable” can sometimes be harder to do.

In work of fiction, every thing needs to be believable to the story. I’m not suggesting that we limit a writer’s imagination in any way. What I’m saying is that the in order for the crazy, the unbelievable, to make sense to the reader—for the reader to relate—you must make the characters relatable and their goals believable.

The point is, you don’t want to be forcing the reader to have to explain how or why certain things are happening without yourself (the writer) offering an explanation.

A writer cannot make a claim or add something to the story that is not believable to that story. Maybe it’s the characters themselves that make X moment feel as though it doesn’t match a character’s motives. Maybe the world that’s been created (realistic or otherwise) doesn’t allow X to be possible because you haven’t shown how it is possible.

If the criticism you receive on something is that X is not believable, it’s because the story, characters, structure, setting, etc have made X a mismatch to the story. It does not matter if X happened in real life or not. You are writing fiction, which means you have created a world that does not exist.  By creating a new world, new life, new characters, the moments that take place within that story need to make sense to the story. “It happened in real life” is not a valid argument.

In the moments when you receive feedback that X is not believable; I urge you to listen to your story, not yourself.




Guest post contributed by Katie McCoach. Katie is a member of Romance Writers of America and the Editorial Freelancers Association. She has had essays published in TrainWrite and Kalliope and is currently writing a contemporary romance novel. For advice on editing, writing, and publishing, visit her blog and be sure to also follow her on Twitter.

30 thoughts on “Writing Fiction That is Believable

  1. This was actually a really brilliant and informative post. I have never had my work critiqued by anybody before, except once when my father came upon piles of my writing stashed under the bed. Being my FATHER, he praised it to the skies and demanded to know why I never shared it. But obviously he is biased. This post is educational because it is certainly important to have fresh eyes critique work, because they are more likely to notice the discrepancies in the writing and to see where the flaws of connectivity lie. This post has made me want to join a creative writing club. Thank you for sharing this valuable information.


    1. I’m so glad you found this post useful! Parents are so great in that way, and yet, it doesn’t always help when you need to submit to agents/publishers/or self publish, does it?

      Good luck joining a writing group!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Parents are lovely when it comes to cheering you on but they are not always very honest – or maybe they just sometimes can’t fault their kids’ hard work, I don’t know! lol. Thank you so much.


  2. My fiction has both feet firmly in our world. I’m not running out, creating a universe that follows it’s own rules (and even if I did, whatever happens has to follow those rules).

    For example, the Hunt for Red October. Clancy was not Navy. He’d never served on a sub. What made the book believable was his research. He learned the terminology of submarines, how they work and fight, and what does what.

    Edward Beach on the other hand was a submariner, and knew how they worked and so on. He was able to bring something to us that was second nature to him.

    The thing was, both didn’t break the rules. They stayed within the operational parameters of how a submarine worked and fought, and their books work very well.

    The one thing beach could bring to his books was the people. He was one of them. he knew hopes, fears, relationships, all that. He didn’t have to imagine them. He was already there. He was able to go into the psychology of a submariner better than Clancy as a result.

    That said, and despite the fact that I’ve lived a lot of what I write, I still have to pay attention to what happens. My characters (assuming they’re the cops), know they have limits imposed on them by laws. They have to play within those parameters or risk losing the case they put so much work into.

    Also, I hate where one piece of evidence makes the case. If you do that in a real court case, you just lowered the chances you’ll win by half.

    One piece of evidence might suggest what happened, but it should never be the lynch pin for everything. A case is built through good police work, tying this to that, and so on. That’s what makes a good case and will make it believable with an audience who’s been there, done that, and got the T-Shirt.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a wonderful post. It reminds me of a book I had checked out from the library that focused on storytelling. It basically said that no matter how “honest” you are in your writing, if it doesn’t have the air of truth around it then that’s all it sounds like- a story. Honesty and a sense of belief is only attainable when you write with other motivations underneath your story. Is your character motivated? Is the scene apart of the web that holds up your story or is it extraneous? Readers pick up on these things and sometimes it hurts to hear, but it only makes your storytelling stronger.


  4. Puts me in mind of something Neil Gaiman said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” We have to remain teachable if we want to get better.


  5. The article makes a salient point.

    It’s all about the way a story is written. When written well, an unbelievable story becomes believable. When written poorly, a believable story becomes unbelievable.


  6. This was really thought-provoking. A key part of your argument here seems to be about playing to the context of your narrative, which makes perfect sense. It’s so strange that a true thing can seem implausible in the context of a work of fiction. Maybe that’s because this fictional world has its own rules and requires that its “facts” fit it a certain way.


  7. It may be something else too. A betta reader would say a thing doesn’t work for him, but he might not know exactly why. He might say it is unbelievable, when in truth the problem is in pacing or in something else. Or even in his narrow experience in that field, which another might consider believable.


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