We've all heard the saying that truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be because some things that happen in real life just won't fly as fiction. We need to bear this in mind as we create twists and turns in our novels. There are just some things the reader can't buy into even if it did happen to someone real.
Most of us have been recipients of fortunate coincidences, possibly a miracle or two, or found ourselves in the middle of some unlikely incident that changed our lives. These events may be highly spiritual highlights in our lives, may have saved us from some terrible tragedy, or taught a powerful lesson, but when a writer is tempted to use such events in novel writing there should be a big red caution label plastered on the screen before them. I'm not saying don't ever write in a miracle, just lead up to it with care, plant clues along the way as you would for a mystery or suspense novel so that it is plausible. Too often a miracle is just a replacement for the cavalry suddenly riding to the rescue because the writer has painted him/herself into a corner and doesn't know how to get out. This holds true for conversion stories too. It's just too convenient for someone to suddenly join the Church without any soul searching, questions, or a spiritual epiphany.
Have you ever been reading along and found yourself thinking, "Oh sure, I bet she really did that?" That's a good way to pull the reader out of the story and make him or her want to throw your book at the wall. Overly dramatic rescue scenes involving impossible gymnastics do this for me every time. So do intricately detailed escapes that only a hero with an advanced physics degree might calculate. Okay, if the hero is a PhD rocket scientist I might buy it, but if the girl who is so dumb she goes down the cellar steps in the dark pulls it off, you've lost me.
There are too many reality shows on TV that have little to do with reality. They're scripted, people! All those phony heart to heart talks with the camera are not reality. They may be fun to watch--or not, but they're a poor example for writers who want characters and actions that feel real to readers. I read an article earlier this week about a few pathetic people who have so fallen for such shows they actually think that like in the movie Truman they are living out their lives in front of TV cameras.
Since I'm a reviewer I read far more books than I review. Often I find a have to skip reviewing a book because it is based on the writer or someone he/she knows and the writer has tried overly hard to be faithful to the "true story", to what really happened. Too often the story falls into the "I wouldn't have believed it if it hadn't happened to me" category. If that's the case, the incident doesn't belong in a novel; put it in your journal, a biography, or family history. Oddly enough, fiction, which is a made up story, has to be believable.
Another sin against reality I see at times, and one I've had trouble with myself, is hovering. Just as some parents create selfish, helpless children by helicopter hovering over them, excusing instead of correcting their mistakes, writing their reports, yelling at teachers who correct them or give them a poor grade, etc., writers are sometimes so protective of a beloved character nothing negative can happen to him/her, the character is so perfect he/she doesn't make mistakes and doesn't grow. This isn't reality and the reader knows it.
Three novels I read recently are excellent examples of making both characters and their actions believable. I'm not a fan of science fiction but I liked Fractured Light by Rachel McClellan a great deal because her main character Llona feels real. She talks, thinks, and agonizes like a very real seventeen-year-old without the teen clichés. She reacts in ways that suit her age and her prior life experiences. McClellan made me feel like her fantasy world is real. The second book that fit my criteria for feeling real is Sian Bessey's Within the Dark Hills. Annie and Evan are caught up in the very real Welsh coal mining world of the 1800s. The fires, floods, coal dust, men, women, and children working like slaves is so real the reader feels as though he/she must go wash off the coal dust on her own skin if the book is set down for even a few minutes. Heather Moore, writing as H.B. Moore presents one of the best conversion stories I've ever read with the Daughter's of Jared. The conversion is so subtle as Naiva struggles with the concept of deity and faith, the reader is almost unaware the groundwork is being laid. Naiva is stubborn, loyal, exasperating, often makes foolish choices, has a huge capacity for love, has deep rooted insecurities and low self-esteem, is intelligent, and has a strong desire to do right. In short, she is achingly real and stirs a strong identity factor in the reader. She finds herself in terrifying, but believable danger. Though Moore bases her story on a short episode in The Book of Mormon and stays true to the few details given in the scriptures, her fictional enhancement feels alive and real.
As writers we want to be clever, original, imaginative, memorable, but when doing so, it is wise to remember we lose our readers if we aren't real. All the cleverness in the world, the true adventures, and the stranger than fiction experiences won't cut it if they go too far in suspending the reader's literary reality.