The Lure of the Implausible-Authentic

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFolks who’ve seen the movie As Good as it Gets know that there was something magical about the pairing of an obsessive-compulsive and an out-of-luck waitress. It wasn’t exactly a love story, but it was a story about an implausible pairing made authentic. (I’d argue that it was the “implausible” part of the equation that made the story so compelling.)

There are other such stories; one of my favorites is Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, pairing a pious Quaker with an assumed madman who’d had a stroke. And how about the classic pairing of Meggie and Father Ralph in The Thorn Birds, or Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis and Jack? These unlikely couplings don’t just work for love stories, either: consider simpleminded Lennie and his friend George in Of Mice and Men; or Frankenstein and his truly in-the-dark blind friend in Mary Shelley’s classic work; or The Outlaw Josey Wales himself and Chief Dan George (based on the novel Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter–which is being re-released next month by Buccaneer Books, btw.).

A fairly recent study (Dec, ’06) from the University of Liverpool may hint at why people are so intrigued by these sorts of relationships, and it takes it down to the level of word choice.

Most people know that Shakespeare liked to play with words; in fact, he made up at least 500 of them, including leapfrog and puke (lovely, I know). He often switched up expectations, too, using a noun as a verb, for example. What scientists discovered is that when readers come across a word used in a way they don’t expect, it amps up brain activity.


“If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited,” said Professor Philip Davis, from the University’s School of English.

That extra activity means the brain is working harder, making the reading experience more active–and possibly more memorable. In the case of character creation, focusing on unusual pairings might just make your readers sit up, clear the sand out of their eyes and wonder, eagerly, how you’re going to pull it off.

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to reach for the Implausible-Authentic in your own writing. From character pairings to word choice, it’s a winning recipe for unboxed storytelling.

Thoughts? Chime in.

Write on, all!


photo credit: Ike615 at Flickr


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    I love it when a writer uses unexpected word choices and it makes sense (sometimes I’ve run across weird ones that don’t work). But I didn’t know reading them was making my brain work harder, I only knew my brain was burning trying to come up with fresh ones of my own. It’s good to know I’m getting a cerebral double workout! :-)

  2. says

    I wonder if that’s why I’m such a fan of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, etc.). He makes up TONS of words, and slang, and even the patterns of speech.

    I definitely picked up “wonky” from Buffy, and the pattern, “Hello, (insert noun here) much?” And Firefly, though short-lived, was even MORE fascinating, because the future society had new slang — like the word “shiny” instead of cool — and average people threw in words and phrases in Mandarin in their everyday speech. Whedon even turns ordinary words around in new ways like, “She is seriously damaging my calm.”

    I would love to be able to write that way.

  3. says

    In Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite, a book on modern writing, he talks about unconventional adverbs, which fits in exactly with what you are describing. The whole Neurobics phenomenon geared toward keeping your brain healthy and active as you age is all about surprise and experiencing the unexpected. The premise makes a lot of sense.

    My made up word is somewhat stolen from a friend. “womply” meaning empty, angsty, sad, run-down.

  4. says

    Crystal, I’ll have to check that book out. I can tell you that I’m feeling womply ever since starting a diet. :)

    I love making up words, too. We have a chalkboard in our kitchen, and it’s often got one or two Walsh originals–could be from any of us–scratched on it. If it wasn’t nearly 11, I’d probably be able to produce a few examples. Speaking of:

    Lacy, great examples! Kath and I blogged up the Firefly movie Serenity a while back. If you’re interested in checking it out, here’s the link.