Before making a story incredible, first make it credible

In the last month, I’ve watched a man deliberately put himself into a prison to rescue his brother who is also incarcerated; seen teenagers fight for the amusement of a decadent elite; and enjoyed the adventures of a pirate captain who fails to recognise that his pet parrot is in fact a dodo. The fact that all these stories are the product of imaginative minds doesn’t mean that I necessarily go along with every aspect of the fictions they convey.

One interesting and slippery aspect of any fictional construct is what’s necessary for an audience to suspend its disbelief and go along with the fantasy. In this respect, and arguably others, storytelling has much in common with hypnosis. When invited to go into trance, you will be asked to dwell on various aspects of sensory experience that are described without specificity, so that whatever it is you focus on falls within the remit of what the hypnotist says. So, being told ‘Notice the temperature around your hands’ will heighten the trance, while ‘Concentrate on the piercing birdsong’ won’t if there is no bird singing within earshot, and likely jar you out of your reverie.

Fiction works in similar ways. Some people simply don’t respond to particular genres because they find them unbelievable. The presence of spacecraft, or ghosts, is too much for them to accept in any form of story. Others will tolerate such fantasy trappings, but perhaps not in combination, since they belong in separate genres.

A skilful writer, director and actors between them can persuade an audience of pretty much anything if they’re willing to go along for the ride. I was happy to accept a ship full of plasticine pirates encountering Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria in a fictive 19th century in The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!. In practice, I was more convinced by that world than the one posited in Hunger Games.

While The Pirates! was gung-ho in its adoption of a plasticine world and characters without proper names, Hunger Games faltered for me in the set-up of the future, fobbing the audience off with a hurried description of how things are rather than cementing the reality in place. Still, by the time the characters took centre stage and the reality show styled games between them began, I was content to follow what happened, perhaps lulled by the format that the film was satirising, and the credible performances of the leads.

Genre dictates what elements need to be in place for an audience to buy into a fiction. Thrillers depend on the plot being credible enough from one twist to another that practicalities like the exhaustion levels of the hero are politely ignored: if you’re thinking that Jason Bourne really needs a lie down and a bath when he’s taking on some bad guys, either the film’s not doing its job or this is not the genre for you. Relationship dramas demand a level of emotional complexity that’s rarely seen in a science fantasy or superhero epic. That can be taken by fans of such stories to mean that their preferred style of yarn is somehow superior to those not grounded in reality. If anything, it makes the facility for audiences to buy into heroic adventure even more impressive: when such stories are done well they connect at a vital mythic level that few writers can reach.

Prison Break is a different beast again. I watched the pilot episode of the series, plucking it from my stack of unwatched box sets, and was compelled almost despite the outrageous nature of the story. Opening with a one man bank heist, we then find out that the robber wanted to get arrested so he could be sent to a particular prison, where his brother is also captive. Not only that, but he helped design the prison in question, and has it mapped out on tattooes. Oh, and he’s faking diabetes to get regular contact with the nurse there, meaning he also needs a drug to make him immune to the side-effects, and for that he needs to deal with one of the prison bad guys. It’s all so fast paced and engagingly played that you want to go along with it to see what happens next: the rhythm establishes a desire for story beats rather than depth, which for this show is just fine.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s important to take into account that what you’re taking for granted because it’s been rattling in your head for a while is not necessarily as credible – or even interesting – to anyone else. That being so, what pieces could you put into place that would help an audience buy into the tale that you’re relating? Take a look at the choices that other writers, artists and filmmakers have made in their work, and find out what you can learn from those who’ve come before, and you’ll increase the credibility of your own story.