Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Probable Impossibilities are Preferable to Possible Improbabilities

The title here is a quote from Aristotle and should probably be one of the first things any author of fiction considers when deciding on plot direction and events.

The quote has been restated to me in the past in the following way:

"You can have the possible.   You can have the impossible.  But it has to be probable."

What this means is that the audience has to find the story believable within the framework of the world setting chosen.


There is a tricky distinction between impossible and improbable.  This is because we so often include the improbable with the impossible.

Imagine a story where a dangerous animal is smuggled onto a plane and it escapes mid-air causing a panic that brings the plane crashing down and killing almost everybody on the plane.

How about another story where a plane crashes and over a hundred people die with the only survivor being a newborn baby.

Or another story about an important election is decided by people trying to figure out whether or not a hole was punched deliberately or mechanically with the deciding factor over millions of total votes being a question of less than five hundred.

Or what if I told you about a man who decided that the officials of the town he was in were out to get him and decided to build his own tank in order to get revenge against them.

Which of these would you assume to be a real life story that actually happened?  And which would you dismiss as a terribly unlikely event that was concocted for a piece of fiction?

The answer, all four of them are events that really happened.

http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/10/22/runaway-crocodile-blamed-plane-crash/
http://www.newyorkinjurynews.com/2010/05/16/Libya-Aviation-Accident-Miracle-child-survives-horrific-Tripoli-plane-crash_201005163628.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_election_recount
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Heemeyer

But they all sound like bizarrely unlikely things that would only exist in the pages of a comic book.

For a more extreme example, check out this tongue in cheek essay summarizing the history of the World War II conflict and try to imagine that as a TV series.

http://squid314.livejournal.com/275614.html

"Probable impossibilities are preferable to possible improbabilities."

If I were to write a story where the evil, racist main bad guy decides to ally his nation with a group of people that are far more racially divergent than the same ones he's trying to erradicate, then I would be called a hack writer.  Unless I'm writing World War II historical fiction.

By comparison, on TV and movies we see people outrun explosions, survive tremendous falls and perform amazing stunts regularly without even questioning it.

Then we hit into those stories that involve magic, monsters, heroes and divine intervention.  Those things that are clearly impossible, but which many audiences will accept with only the flimsiest sorts of explanations.

You could consider this maxim to be the one that encourages some of my other pieces of advice in earlier blog posts.

Which means, while you're checking reality to see if something is possible, you should also think about what your reactions would be if you were to encounter your decided plot direction in somebody else's work.

Are you going to have one of your main characters suddenly doing something completely in the opposite direction of what he has done in the past?  You'd better have some decent set-up or a good explanation for it, because otherwise it's just going to cause people to have frothing at the mouth rants about how annoying that scene or sequence is.

The context that a reader uses to determine probability is determined by the information that you gave them.  And falls into that idea of maintaining consistency which I have linked earlier.

It doesn't matter if your "normal" characters are doing impossible things.

But it matters a hell of a lot if any of your characters are doing things that you just flat can't believe them doing.

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