CREDIBILITY: Story Reality vs Real Reality

I once consulted with a screenwriter who complained when I told him his screenplay lacked credibility. “Movies aren’t ever real,” he argued. “Is it believable that zombies could take over the world in World War Z, or that Denzel Washington could kill all those bad guys in The Equalizer?!”

My answer to him was, “YES IT IS!”

So let’s look at why audiences and readers believe these unbelievable stories, and what “credibility” really means in the make-believe world of movies and fiction?

Every Movie is a Fantasy

Every story begins with a What If? situation that would be hard to believe in real life:

  • What if a disgraced Secret Service agent had to single handedly stop a group of terrorists who have taken over the White House? (OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN – or WHITE HOUSE DOWN, take your pick)
  • What if two underachieving cops went undercover as high school students to bust up a drug ring? (21 JUMP STREET)
  • What if the President of the United States were single, and wanted to have a romance with a lobbyist? (THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT)

Even movies or novels that seem grounded in reality, or that are actually based on true stories, abide by this principle. Such stories examine what happens when an everyday person is thrust into an out-of-the-ordinary, bigger than life situation:

  • What if a good-hearted, politically liberal nun became involved with a gruesome killer on death row, and in fighting for his sentence to be commuted, had to resolve her own conflict over his hateful nature, and over her sympathy with his victimsfamilies? (DEAD MAN WALKING)
  • What if a lone CIA agent had to extract a group of American Embassy workers hiding out in Tehran by having them pose as a film crew? (ARGO)

It is the fantasy element of each of these stories that draws the audience into the theater. No one really wants to see a movie that is truly realistic and simply mimics the life he lives every day.

Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, my be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. Here’s what I mean:

If I said it had taken me a long time to write this article because I had been abducted by aliens and was trapped in their space ship for a month, you’d probably assume that I was nuts, or that you had subscribed to the newsletter for by mistake.

But if I told you I just read a novel about a guy who claimed he was abducted by aliens and had to convince the world that an attack was imminent, you’d simply wonder about the title and author. In other words, you would readily accept that a fictional story wouldn’t happen in real life.

On the other hand, if I said I had just learned that a man had entered a supermarket and for no apparent reason pulled out an automatic weapon and began shooting at everyone before finally killing himself, you find it shocking, but you wouldn’t find it impossible to believe.

But if I said I had just read a screenplay where the hero does this, and in the end we still don’t know what his motive was, you’d correctly conclude that the writer would probably have an impossible time selling his script.

This is because in movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.

Only One Fantasy to a Customer

Now comes the quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isnt the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. Its the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

Big, for example, is a fantasy about a 12-year old boy who makes a wish and wakes up with the body of a 30-year old man. I hope I’m not spoiling anything by telling you this couldn’t happen in real life.

But think about everything that happens to Josh (the Tom Hanks character in Big) after he’s transformed. He runs away from home, finds a job and a place to stay, falls in love with a woman who thinks he really is thirty years old, and must eventually decide whether or not to go back to his old life. In other words, every single conflict he faces is logical, believable, and grounded in reality. The movie explores what might really happen after the fantasy situation occurred.

Now imagine the same movie if, when he got big, Josh entered a world where his best friend had the power to disappear, his girl friend could travel through time, and everyone could read minds as they battled the dinosaurs that roamed the earth. Such a movie would hold little interest (except for some dazzling special effects) because the story would lack any reality or believability at all.

One of the reasons such a broadly fantastic scenario would fail to capture the emotion of the audience is that the conflict would become meaningless. In Hollywood movies, it is the hero’s compelling desire that drives the story forward. But it’s the conflict the hero faces that elicits the emotion in the reader and audience. When the powers of the hero or the other characters become limitless, there’s nothing difficult to overcome, and the audience feels no real tension, worry or fear. They simply observe the action, rather than becoming a part of it.

Introducing more than one unbelievable situation or action into your screenplay also eliminates the possibility of any real depth to the characters, or to the theme of your script. Movies allow us to look at ourselves by putting our desires, beliefs and feelings within bigger-than-life situations, in order to reveal the deeper aspects of our human nature. If the characters you portray do not behave in any recognizable way, the audience feels no emotional connection to them, and has no opportunity for self-examination, enlightenment or catharsis.

This is why the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this article was mistaken. His script was about an everyday accountant who got recruited to infiltrate a drug cartel in South America. So far, so good. This premise has a single fantasy element that can make the script interesting and exciting.

But within the script, there was a scene where the hero used karate to disarm a dozen bad guys, another where he casually drove through gunfire without showing any concern at all, and another where he pursued a woman in spite of the fact that she was married to a drug lord. None of these actions were consistent with the character the writer had created.

Had the screenwriter wanted to create a James Bond movie, these elements might work. But then he would have to originate other “realistic” situations and characters for his super-spy to react to, which would make that story accessible and exciting.

[In the next Story Mastery Newsletter, Ill reveal the most effective methods for ensuring that the fantasyelements of your story are believable to your readers and audience.]