Interesting Versus Believable

“The trite and the extravagant are the Scylla and Charybdis of writers who deal in fiction,” Coleridge wrote in 1794, in a review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Thomas Hardy once made a similar point –

“The whole secret of fiction and the drama –in the constructional part — lies in the adjustment of things unusual to the things eternal and universal. The writer who knows exactly how exceptional and how non-exceptional his events should be made, possesses the key to the art.”

Here’s how Samuel R. Delany puts it in About Writing

“Writers are always grappling with two problems: they must make the story interesting (to themselves, if no one else), yet keep it believable (because, somehow, when it ceases to be believable on some level, it ceases to be interesting).”

Delany goes on,”Keeping things interesting seems to be primarily the province of the conscious mind (which, from the literature available, we know far less about than the unconscious), while believability is something that is supplied, in the images it throws up into the mind’s theater, primarily by the unconscious.”

I have often wondered why fiction is more believable than non-fiction, and I think Delany gives us the answer here — more of fiction is supplied by the unconscious mind, which is where emotional certainty comes from, cf. my earlier posts about Robert Burton’s On Being Certain, here and here. “Believability” in this context isn’t about statistical probability, because your unconscious mind believes in a lot of things your conscious mind hopefully doesn’t. Magic, for example — otherwise fantasy novels wouldn’t sell.

I heard Douglas Adams say on the radio once that you don’t decide what you think about something, and then put it into a novel – rather you write a novel because that’s the only way to find out what you think about something. Another comment that’s stuck with me: interviewed about his story “Pity” in Best American Short Stories 1995, Avner Mandelman said that the way to write a story was to take something you think you believe and prove it wrong in a story.

Then writing fiction is a way to find out what you unconsciously believe…
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  • Ralph Ferraa

    What if what you unconsciously believe doesn't tally with what your readers unconsciously believe?

  • The other Olga

    Ralph: then in workshop people will tell you: "wow, you really hate cats!"

  • James Warner

    Perhaps when we most vehemently despise an author, it's because our unconscious minds disagree about the way things are. Or because our unconscious minds agree — and our conscious mind cannot accept this?

    Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet in 1842, “There are in me, from the literary point of view, two distinct personalities: one who is fascinated by bombast, lyricism, great eagle flights, all the sonorities of style and the high summits of ideas; another who burrows and digs for the truth, excavating as much as he can, who likes to give the humble detail as much emphasis as the grandiose, who wants you to feel the things he represents with an almost physical immediacy; this person likes to laugh and enjoys the animal side of man's nature…”

    Isn't this the same conflict Delany describes? Flaubert's high-flying side reaches for what is conceptually interesting, his low-burrowing side for what is instinctively believable.

  • Bly S.

    The unconscious believes a lot of things about human nature. The unconscious is also pessimistic — it believes in magic, but it believes you have to pay a price for it. It doesn't believe in stories where everything goes swimmingly.

  • James Warner

    The ending of a novel I'm working on at the moment is giving me some trouble, and I think this might reflect conflict between the agendas of my conscious and unconscious mind. Perhaps a lot of blocks in the creative process can be explained this way. I think often when the ending of a novel is unsatisfying, it's because the conscious desire for a certain type of ending has triumphed over what actually "rings true…"