Sunday, February 19, 2012


I'm wondering how we as readers decide that some fictional event is implausible. Or rather, why we suspend our disbelief-- what makes that possible.

So there are things like time travel which are prima facie implausible. But we "believe" them, at least while we're reading, unless....? What? What triggers our "no way" button?

Recently I started reading a book which had as a heroine a 30-year-old physicist. She was already a world-famous physicist, advising the White House, being considered for major prizes.  And she had been a teen mom and had a 13-year-old.

For some reason, this triggered "no way" for me. (The time-travel plot, no problem though!) "There's no way! Teen moms might eventually go to college. But they usually have to work along the way, and so it'll take them 6 years just to get a BS. And a hard science PhD will be at least another 6 years. At least! So she couldn't actually have made a name for herself by 30. Impossible."

Now why did that seem implausible to me when in fact a teen mom getting a PhD by 30 is actually more likely than time travel. (My own mother got a hard-science PhD when she had eight, count 'em, eight children. So I know motherhood doesn't absolutely disqualify you.... but she was 52 when she got the doctorate.)

What's the trigger? I think actually it might be when you KNOW it's wrong. I teach college, have an academic background, and I know how long it takes to get a PhD, and how long it takes to get a name in academia.

I do not, however, know if time travel is possible. I suspect it's not, but heck, what do I know. It's conceivable.  While in my mind, getting a hard science PhD and establishing a career by 30 when you were a teen mom isn't possible. I know enough to know that's just the author copping out, wanting to have a nubile young lady, a world-famous physicist, and whole teen mom thing, all in one.

What about you? What triggers your "no way" button?

I'm thinking that paradoxically, the more outlandish the issue, the more likely we are to accept it, just because we won't know much about it. What annoys us is when we DO know something about this situation, and we get a sense of those "clinkers" that don't quite compute in our understanding.

What do you think?
Also what  would make this work better? Would acknowledging the unlikelihood help? Like mentioning how unlikely it is?


Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Oddly, time travel bothers me more than the PhD teen mom. I *might* know a smidgen more about science than I do about getting a PhD or being a teen mom, though. ;-)

Adding a few years to her age might help with realism. Admitting how unusual her situation is would just point out to me how odd it is. I can be pretty oblivious about that sort of thing.

Stephanie said...

I think you nailed it. I like some time travel stories but give me a girl with a horse and get the facts wrong. I'm throwing the book against the wall. It has to be so much easier to get the horse or rodeo facts right than write a plausible time travel scenario.

Elyse Devine said...

Authors generally try to have their characters act in realistic ways. That seems to be one of the constants in fiction across genres. Even if the situation is not possible in real life, like time travel, the goal is to have the character react as they would if they were real and the situation was real. When a character behaves in a way that is extraordinary and that leads to a phenomenal event, the reader needs to see - and believe - how that character was able to behave in that way and trace the path to the phenomenal event. Simply presenting the phenomenal event doesn't cut it.

On the other hand, we're much less attached to the rules of science and reality as we understand them. If the author presents an alternate scenario, as long as it is self-consistent, readers are usually willing to accept it.

Perhaps this is because our understanding of science changes as new discoveries are made, so we are more used to "reality" changing than human behavior and aptitudes changing. The author wants human cloning to be a regular occurrence? Okay, we can imagine a world where that can happen, a world where science has uncovered the information needed to make that a reality. The author wants a character to never experience anger or fear, even when attacked in a dark alley? The author is going to have to explain why that character is able to (or forced to) avoid those natural reactions, because otherwise we won't understand how that is happening.

In the example cited in the blog post, to make it plausible I think that the author would have to explain how this teen mom was able to finish high school, college, and grad school and make a name for herself while raising her daughter. Was she rich enough to hire a full time live in nanny to raise her daughter while she went to school? Was she very lucky in terms of her thesis, starting out with a "normal" thesis topic and stumbling across a major discovery? Even then, having too many possible but unlikely events is going to raise eyebrows. You rarely see that perfect storm.

Stevie Carroll said...

From a UK point of view, it's possible for a woman who's had a child as an older teen to gone on to complete a degree and a Phd in the normal time (ie by mid to late twenties). She would just need a supportive family/partner/partner's family and a university/universities close to her support network or has good childcare facilities. The famous bit, I'd be slightly dubious about, depending on the exact area her PhD is in, because the female physicists I know struggle for recognition by from their male colleagues.

Generally, though, I'll believe anything if it works in the context of the story being told.

Edittorrent said...

Stevie, well, Europe has a much more supportive child care system than the US does. Here, unless her mother was willing to quit her own job to take care of the child, the heroine would have been paying about $200 a week for childcare, and then once the kid was in school, about $80 a week for before-and-after school care. So it's not IMpossible, but I guess, yes, I would have to have some recognition of how very, very difficult it was, how many people it took. (When my mother was getting her PhD, I was still in high school, and my older brother and I were often called upon-- we could drive-- to pick my younger brothers up at daycare, or stay home from school with them when they were sick. It takes a village, or a very large family. :)

Maybe that's what it would take for me... just some offhanded reference to how she made it happen, and maybe a bottle of the energy juice she was drinking!

Stephanie, I've heard that too! And it makes me nervous about writing about horses! I bet getting even one detail wrong can throw the book into "implausible".

Elyse, that's a good idea, that if they act plausibly given the situation, that will ring true. For example, let's say the physicist returns from her time travel trip to the middle ages, and her 13-year-old daughter slumps around refusing to do homework and mouthing off. And the heroine doesn't get mad! That would really be implausible to me. The laws of physics pale in comparison to the laws of parenting (teens drive you insane).

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Alicia, you live somewhere cheaper than I do...

But what sets me off? Again, it's facts that can't possibly be right, based on my own life experiences. When you know how things really work, it's hard to run up against that improbable detail.

Wes said...

Great question, or actually great series of questions. I have no answers for you, but I'm trying.

RE: time travel. It might be that readers want to be able to do it. Like watching Peter Pan. We all want to be able fly so we're more willing to accept that.

RE: the Ph.D. The timing isn't off much. I got mine at age 28. My problem in believing the character is her accomplishments are layered on too much. Advising the White House? Come on. Too much. Maybe she could aspire to such a position or win a major grant for research. She's already won some major prizes. Stop there. With her list of accomplishments she seems like Jack Bauer on 24 where he's trying to save the world from nuclear destruction every week.

Wes said...


I got a new horse, and I'm in love. He's a six year old Missouri Fox Trotter, gaited of course, trained as a cutting horse, very athletic, a paint, and runs to me in the pasture for a love fest. That last part melts me.

I was dinged very badly in a writing contest because the judge didn't know horses, of course that get in the way of him/her deducting points from my score. The judge thought the main character was abusing his horse by leaning against it and draping his arms over the horse's back. Honestly, that's what the judge wrote in the feedback.

Julie Harrington said...

I think a huge portion of plausibility comes in as soon as the reader picks up the book. Chances are when I buy the book, I know I'm getting a time travel story so that means I'm open to the idea. If I pick up a book based on XYZ plot and then find out a few chapters in she's some genius PhD mom with a bunch of kids and is SuperMom I start thinking, "Oh, come on!"

While we're raised by society to believe we CAN have it all, how many of us do by age 30?

And by 30... who's advising the White House? You'd have to have been extremely visible in the public doing fantastic thing (or famous in some other way like that actor from House who got tapped for service by Obama's administration).

So while we might overlook the PhD thing, and we might overlook the 2 kids by age 30, and we might overlook the White House thing, and we might overlook that she's a world renowned physicist... overlook them ALL?



Gayle Carline said...

In general, I think I might believe the 30-yr old teen-mom-physicist-wunderkind IF the author gives me enough supporting background to explain it. But they couldn't just throw it out as a one-sentence description, like "20-something waitress."

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I remember a contest entry where the horse bent over the pond and "lapped" the water. No problem. I mean, I know dogs, and I know cats, and they "lap".

But another judge called me, just appalled! She showed horses, and she assured me, horses do not LAP water!

So I'm turning to you for a judgment on this. Do horses lap?


Wes said...

No, horses don't lap. To me what they do is very attractive. (I have a scene where Kincaid is watering his horse.) They barely break the surface of the water with their lips, and they sip. If they've been worked hard and not given water, they might sip loudly, but normally one hear's a sweet sipping sound. Of course I'm a romantic regarding horses.

Stephanie, what's your take on this?

Wes said...

I encourage members of my critique group and others to ask an experienced person when they are unsure of details. There is nothing wrong with not knowing minor points of behavior of horses or details on other topics.

Where I find the most errors, in drafts and in published novels, is with firearms. Oh, my goodness, I could go on forever. Just find someone who is a shooter and ask them. They will be flattered.

My favorite appears often on NCIS and other shows with a medical examiner. The ME will dig a slug out of a corpse and say "They were shot with a .38." That's nearly impossible to tell unless the .38 is a heavy bullet such as the one that weighs 158 grains. The diameter of .38s and 9mm are nearly identical, although I would not recommend it, they can be shot out of either gun (.38, .357 magnum, and 9mm). The diameter of a .38 is .357 inches. That of a 9mm is .355. So two thousandths of an inch separate the two. Who can tell that at a glance?

Stephanie said...

Your other judge was right. Horses don't lap. I realize many people don't know much about horses but if you are putting them in a book, find a knowledgeable horse owner or trainer and ask. Horse owners love to tell you about their horses. As for contest stories, I've trained and competed on barrel horses at rodeos in the Northwest for thirty years. I had a contest judge tell me I should find someone who barrel raced to talk to. Her craft suggestions were right on but she'd obviously never traveled in the Northwest. Sorry, my rant.