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The Art of the Plausible


photo by Flickr's Farrukh [1]
photo by Flickr’s Farrukh

 There are few greater pleasures for those who love storycraft than picking up a book, easing into the first pages and then–bam–finding an entire afternoon has simply vanished. You know, those times when pages dissolve into a realm so convincing you find it hard to pull free. Over the years I have encountered many stories with intricate plots and clever narratives. But rarely does the whole of a tale envelop me, compelling me to walk with the characters, breathe their air, see through their eyes and, at times, even cry their tears.

I began pondering the matter during the recent WU Breakthrough Novel Dissection exploration of Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist from author Emily St. John Mandel. Among the group a consensus arose that, despite the intriguing concept, the narrative at times distanced the reader. Early on, Liz Michalski described the book as “a story behind glass,” an assessment that resurfaced throughout the discussion, even as participants praised many attributes of the tale.

For me the criticism echoed days afterward for, you see, I have been similarly struggling. Despite chipping away at the outline of my current WIP, I have yet to feel fully immersed in the world of my characters as I did with my first novel. In a situation many of you will recognize, voices of doubt followed, taunting “If you can’t experience a sense of reality with your own story, how on earth will anyone else?”

Warding off full-blown anxiety, I began a quest for the keys to an immersive reading experience. Not surprisingly, given complexities of our craft, I found no definitive techniques. Still, I gained insights from revisiting books that had stuck with me, those that had transported me to worlds beyond my own.

For each, I asked a simple question: What made the experience “feel real”?

Paint a Seamless World. Though quite young when I first read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, the acclaimed parable of clashing cultures left a lasting impression. Upon revisiting, I found the highly charged accusation that propels the novel and the taut courtroom proceedings which follow it were not what gripped me, as one might expect. Instead, what held me captive, both then and now, were the nuances of India that infuse the tale. Without breaking stride on a crisp narrative, Forster paints a vivid tableau of colonial rule India. The reader feels the oppressive sun beating down upon a vast landscape, and the respite British conquerors and their native subjects find in cloistered evening gardens. At times one is overcome by the scent of elephants or of fragrant flowers. In other scenes, one departs dusty streets of a boisterous village to enter mahogany-laden, silver-gilded interiors of British compounds. The narrative is fully immersive, akin to any IMAX Technicolor wizardry developed in the decades since.

“But that’s a classic,” you say. “Contemporary readers don’t have time, nor want, lush descriptions. They would find them boring,” you insist. Well, tell that to fans of The Hunger Games trilogy, who know Panem by heart. Or to Ann Patchett, who set her breakthrough novel Bel Canto in a pampered mansion at the heart of an unforgiving jungle. I contend readers always have craved, and always will crave, a visceral experience. So while mapping out your twisting yarn, take the time to layer the world within it, for your readers will be spending a lot of time there.

Craft a Convincing Cultural Context. I concede an engrossing novel needs more than sensory engagement. After all, stories are about conflict. But real life conflicts are tricky. Be it nations at war, or strife within a household, broader contexts exists. History, personality, desire, ego, and weakness come into play. The line between good and evil can shift, or fritter away entirely. In short, conflict is messy. And if it is to feel genuine, so must conflict be in our stories. Ann Patchett explores all the forces driving the players of Bel Canto, which entranced readers upon its release in 2001. The audacity Patchett displays in daring to blend so many voices–desperate rebel, wealthy industrialist, political leader, talented ingénue–within the vice of an unfolding hostage situation never fails to inspire me. She embraced the contradictions, crafting a plot with no clear resolutions, no easy answers. In doing so, she effectively inserts readers into an article skimmed over during morning coffee, one of inexplicable strife in a foreign land. Revisiting the tale, the message to me was clear: don’t shortchange your audience. Respect their ability to handle complexity. Readers engage the world everyday. They appreciate its nuances; they understand how it works.

Embrace Deep Emotion. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another bold novel, and another immersive experience. Like Bel Canto, it draws readers into dangerous waters. The wealthy hostages of Bel Canto give way to a captive woman resisting a fascist state. But beyond creating a convincing dystopian setting with an eerily conceivable political future, Atwood goes a step further. She gives her protagonist a driving impulse, that of finding her child stolen by the state. In rereading passages, I was struck by the character Offred’s pain. Her sense of loss is tangible, unvarnished. In those moments, the stunning visuals and intricate social strata of the book vanish. What remains is a woman, alone, mourning the loss of a child. The emotions come through, binding the reader to the heroine. As writers, we sometimes shield our characters, our audiences, even ourselves, from raw emotion. But an author should never be afraid to “go there.” If a scene calls for it, and if real life demands it, then give the emotion its due. Not only will readers appreciate the honesty; they’ll experience feelings themselves. And nothing engenders a greater sense of reality within a reader than an emotional response.

Those were my takeaways, providing paths for revisiting my WIP. And now I turn to you – What books captivate you with their sense of realness? What attributes draw you fully into a tale? Do you have techniques to infuse your stories with a sense of vitality? How do you bring your characters to life for readers? I, and others I’m sure, would love to hear your insights.

About John J Kelley [2]

John J Kelley [3] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [4], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.