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 victims’ families? (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 martianinvasion.com 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 isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s 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, I’ll reveal the most effective methods for ensuring that the “fantasy” elements of your story are believable to your readers and audience.]
I absolutely agree, Michael. I was mad at Ridley Scott after “Prometheus” (even though you can’t 100% blame the director for the script, other than going for it). But after “The Martian” Scott redeemed himself. We’re friends again 🙂 I loved it!
Thanks for your reply!
PS: I saw “Locke” yesterday. I loved it. I’m deeply impressed. I’d love to know your opinion on it.
LOCKE was one of my favorite films of 2014 – and I highly recommend it. Even with so little action, notice how clearly the Outer Motivations, Outer Conflicts and character arc are so wonderfully developed. A brilliant screenplay, I think.
“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.”
Exactly! This is why “Prometheus” for example, was a huge disappointment for me. I spent the entire time screaming WTF inside my head. The premise might be plausible in its simple form, but nothing of what almost any of the characters do makes any sense at all. Scientist believing without evidence, cowards wanting to pet alien snakes, robots dying their hair, anthropologists depressed after finding alien life, spaceship captain setting up a Christmas tree as the first thing to do after landing on a hostile unknown planet… I couldn’t relate to anyone’s action. I felt no tension. Only desperation for trying to understand why anyone would makes such choices.
Thanks for this, Michael. So well put. So inspiring. Thank you.
Thanks, Carolina, for the comments and kind words. I was NOT a fan of PROMETHEUS either, in part for the reasons you say. But I’ll forgive Ridley Scott just about anything, since he gave us THE MARTIAN — my favorite movie of 2015.
[…] my previous article, “Story Reality vs Real Reality,” I talked about how every story is on some level a fantasy, and what constitutes fictional […]
Some people call me a wimp. Why?
Because of the issue of reality and credibility.
In the real world, people don’t pull out gun often.
Because I can’t watch any movie with reckless display or use of guns.
I resent movies with guns and excessive destruction,
use of the emotion of fear to get the audience glued-in.
Part of my misgivings is that storytellers can still tell good stories without
necessarily driving up emotions. One of my best movies- Blind Sight does not
have any crazy gun scenes, yet it is emotionally engaging.
For me, I often prefer credibility over dramatized reality.
Hi Michael, I found a lot of value in this article. Yes, I can sit down to a movie or book where the premise is unlikely, Athol mentioned Lord of the Rings (one of the few movies I own), but when faced with conflict if the protagonist does not act in a way that connects me to his or her humanity, I lose interest. I’ve had many discussions with family and friends that begin this way, “I know this is fiction, but what do you think about so and so doing blah, blah, blah when he was . . ?” In other words, the “heroes” actions are worthy of discussion. I’m with him or her in spirit, every step of the way. I love or hate. That’s what gets me emotionally invested and sorry to see the story end.
Linda – you’re absolutely right. No matter how fantastic a movie might be, if all it has going for it are big action and special effects, it’s like watching a fireworks display – spectacular as we watch it, but devoid of meaning, humanity and anything lasting. It’s our emotional investment in the characters that determines success or failure – both commercially and artistically. The desires they pursue, the conflicts they face, and the courage they show – these are the things that touch audiences and readers deeply, and keep them connected to the story.
Thank you for sending me your newsletter, my fantasy of someday becoming a writer has been restored, if only for a moment.
Is it reasonable to introduce a fantasy at the beginning of a story and back track to return to the fantasy?
I shipwrecked and returned to save my boat and the boat somehow mentally sent me the thought which came into my consciousness ‘to leave, leave now, I don’t want you to see me like this’.
Great info and good reminders that sometimes less is more.
I just watched the pilot for a TV series called Haven, in which an FBI agent pursues an escaped convict to a small town where she encounters locals with superpowers. Knowing the premise going in, I was ready to suspend disbelief in superpowers, but when the agent accepted them far too quickly and easily, the writers lost my interest. I kept thinking, “She (the protagonist) would still be looking for alternate explanations,” and “She would not be so calm about this.” So I think that’s another point to remember about credibility: readers (or movie fans) will more readily accept unbelievable scenarios if the protagonist is highly skeptical.
But this isn’t an inflexible rule, just as your own “one unbelievable situation per story” rule has many notable exceptions. When writers make it clear that events are taking place within another world entirely, as in fantasy, science fiction, and magical realism, it’s okay for characters to instantly accept bizarre scenarios, and it’s okay–expected, actually–to include many unbelievable situations. Think of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The “one unbelievable situation per story” rule only applies when a bizarre scenario is intended to occur in an otherwise realistic environment. And it’s the protagonist’s skepticism that makes the environment continue to feel realistic in spite of the bizarre scenario.
Athol – perhaps I should clarify my “one fantasy per story” rule a bit. I don’t mean that only one character can have one special power, or that reality can be twisted in only one way. If you’re writing a fantasy novel or screenplay, you are creating a world where many things might be possible. In THE AVENGERS, The Hulk and Thor are invulnerable while Iron Man wears a suit of armor that makes him a superhero while Black Widow is a mere mortal, but one with extraordinary, this-could-never-happen skills. But the key to making this all credible is to clearly define the “rules” of the world you have created, and establish the limits to the characters’ abilities. Your example of LORD OF THE RINGS has a wide range of unearthly characters and events. But if Frodo overcame an obstacle by Googling the solution or sending an armed drone to stop the monsters, then it wouldn’t be credible, because those are not elements of the fantasy world we’ve been presented.
Thank you for this article, Michael. Your discussion of BIG and your pointing out that the heart of it is the gut-wrenching conflict about whether Josh should stay big, with its wondrous advantages and disadvantages, or go home to Mom and childhood with its own wonders and heartaches, made me realize that the screenplay my writing partner and I are planning out has a BIG-like aspect. We’ve been planning out the plot and characters and the comedy, but we must also be sure to make our protagonist’s final decision about which world to stay in as difficult, real and heart-wrenching as Josh’s.The audience must feel not only the sweetness of what he’s gaining by the decision he makes, but also the bittersweetness of the loss of what he must leave behind. They did that so well in BIG.
Well said! I struggled with the work of a young woman acquaintance who did not show her work to me before she spent a fortune on a self-publishing scam. They gave her no guidance or editing, which she needed badly. Her protagonist was completely loved by all who beheld her. The ‘perfect’ man that she fell for, (who was, of course, completely smitten by her), had only ‘sinned’ by giving in as a teenager to a wicked young woman’s bullying temptations.He tried everything to hold their shot-gun marriage together, even though she entered the Army and went into Special Forces.He stayed behind, taking care of their child, the most beautiful little girl in the world. When the faithless wife mustered-out, she became a PI, who the CIA called upon for Special-Ops upon occasion. International Bad Guys guys killed her, so he was free to marry.
Don’t wait for the movie.