How to Skip Over Implausibility

8 Mar
Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of stories about haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

In most writing workshops, someone will eventually say about a story, “I just don’t believe the character would do that.” As a piece of criticism, the statement is almost always true. Most real people would not do the most interesting things characters do in fiction. Of course, someone will also argue, “Well, I know someone who did exactly that.” But that is besides the point. Both statements mistakenly accept the premise that fiction and real life are connected in all ways. They are connected, of course, in that by reading about fictional characters, we often discover things about ourselves that we previously could not put our finger on. Writers have a knack for defining readers’ sense of their own identities. Nonetheless, the plausibility of something in real life isn’t relevant to fiction. All that matters is that readers believe that something is plausible. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible. I’d further this notion: in fiction, anything is plausible and possible if the writer wants it to be.

A great example of creating plausibility can be found in Keith Lee Morris’s new novel Travelers Rest. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

Anyone who reads Travelers Rest will immediately think, “This is sort of like The Shining.” A family driving from Seattle to Charleston gets caught in a snowstorm and stays the night in a creepy hotel just off the highway in the emptiness of Idaho. A series of increasingly unsettling things occur in the hotel, with no guarantee that the characters will escape. As readers, many of you may be giggling in excitement over this summary, and for good reason: creepy hotels make for awesome stories. But for writers, a supernatural hotel poses a big problem.

Here’s why: Imagine that you’ve pulled off the road and walked into a hotel in utter disrepair, run by a man who looked “as if he’d been stored in a crate of mothballs and tipped up onto his feet just moments before their arrival.” Would you stay? Probably not. And if you found out the hotel had no electricity? You’d be out the door in a flash, right?

That’s real life. Fiction has different goals; it doesn’t want to keep its inhabitants safe.

So, Travelers Rest needs its characters to say, “Sure, we’ll stay in this weird place.” It needs, in other words, for the implausible to occur, for characters to do something most of us wouldn’t do. So, how does the novel make this implausible thing plausible? Here’s the passage where it happens:

While Tonio asked about a room, she got her bearings and surveyed the hotel’s interior. The first impression was one of disorder. In the dim and rather dusty light of the lobby she saw ladders and toolboxes and paint cans and drop cloths and sawhorses—clearly the place was under renovation. Maybe the hotel wasn’t even open, and they wouldn’t be staying here after all. That would be disappointing. Why? She studied the room more closely. An enormous fireplace that, if it contained a roaring fire, would have dispelled every shred of the hotel’s gloom. Beautiful old gas lamps on the walls, tasteful (although awfully faded) wallpaper, elaborate moldings in the corners of the room, a high ceiling with a breathtaking chandelier that spanned almost half the lobby, a grand wooden staircase ascending to a second-floor landing, solid over-stuffed chairs (Dewey was sitting in one of them and wiping dust from the arm), a huge circular ottoman directly beneath the chandelier. It must have been a stunningly opulent place at one time—what could it possibly be doing in this little town?

Several things are going on here. First, the details are peculiar, but they exist within a realm of what might be tolerated. The word murder isn’t spelled backward on the wall, and young twin girls don’t appear and disappear. (Though, of course, these things don’t happen in The Shining right away, either.) The place is very dusty and under construction—weird, by real-world standards, but not clearly supernatural. And yet, something is obviously wrong. The character at the heart of the scene isn’t sure the hotel is even open. She isn’t sure it’s possible to stay the night. In short, she’s voicing the warnings that most of us would heed in real life.

So what makes her stay? The answer is in a buried line: “That would be disappointing.” She considers the possibility of leaving and responds with a desire to stay. She’s intrigued by the place—but note that it doesn’t actually say that. A sentence like this—”She was weirdly excited by the place”—might tip the writer’s hand too much. The character would become a puppet, not a character with (the illusion of) free will. The beauty of “That would be disappointing” is that it slips an implausible character decision past us. By the time we finish the paragraph (which continues on a bit longer), we’re already sold on the hotel. We want to understand what it’s doing out in the middle of nowhere.

The line has given readers permission to do exactly what we want: follow the characters into a place they—and we—should not enter.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create plausibility, using Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris as a model:

  1. Identify the decision that the novel depends upon. If Morris’ characters walk out of the hotel, the novel ceases to exist. It’s true that some novels don’t rely on implausible character decisions. But many—including novels with “realistic” plots—do: characters associate with people they shouldn’t, go places they shouldn’t, get angry when they should know better, and stay a little longer than is wise. From there, the plot takes off. What is that moment in your story? (It happens in stories as well as novels.)
  2. Provide an initial description of the situation. Morris’ character notices the hotel’s sawhorses and drop cloths and her son wiping dust off the chair. These details are odd—but they do not scream, “Run!” How can you describe the situation at the heart of the crucial decision in the same way? Let a character notice details that raise a flag of warning—but make the details within a realm of might be tolerated.
  3. Raise the possibility of making a good choice. Morris’ character wonders if they’ll stay at the hotel, if it’s even open. The door is open for her to leave. If you’ve ever made a poor decision in real life, you probably went into it with eyes wide open (or so you thought). You probably had a moment where you thought, “You know, I probably shouldn’t do this” or “This probably isn’t a good idea.” Give your character a subtle version of that moment.
  4. Make the character want to make a bad choice. This happens all the time in stories about marital affairs. We instinctually understand bad decisions about sex—or alcohol or drugs or money. We also understand on a instinctual level the lure of curiosity, the possibility of adventure. It’s why we buy lottery tickets. So, in other words, readers are primed to accept the implausible as long as you don’t make them think about it too hard. So, sneak the implausible decision past them. Morris does this by suggesting that his character would be disappointed not to stay in the hotel. She hasn’t actually decided anything yet, but her pump has been primed. You can use a version of Morris’ line: When the character considers the door out of the situation, let them respond with “That would be disappointing.”
  5. Describe the situation again in evocative terms. Now that you’ve made your character curious, feed the curiosity. Give details that are intriguing, that deserve to be studied.

The goal is handle implausibility not by dwelling on it but by skipping as quickly over it as possible

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Skip Over Implausibility”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Keith Lee Morris | Read to Write Stories - April 2, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on skipping over implausibility inspired by Travelers Rest, click here. […]

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