Does anyone care about plausibility in novels anymore? Or are readers just so hungry for twist upon twist, they don’t mind how improbable this renders the story line?
Read a book like ‘Gone Girl’ and you could well believe the latter is the case. In an age where so many books are being published, the author is perhaps under more pressure than ever to come up with ways of taking the reader by surprise. They can achieve this by feats of imaginative ingenuity or by making the story, frankly, ridiculous.
It’s not just genre novels that seem to be prone to this trend. The literary novel in recent years, particularly in its quest to hit that literary/commercial sweet spot often referred to by agents, has often stretched the limits of probability.
Of course, there needs to be an element of the fantastical in all but the most rigorously naturalistic fiction. That’s what makes it engaging. Readers of fiction want to be lifted out of the everyday and to be immersed in fresh experiences and scenarios. We want to be asked to suspend our disbelief. So, surely, there is nothing wrong with straying from the realms of plausibility if it makes for a good read?
Whilst thinking about this, I chanced upon an essay by David Lodge called ‘The Novelist at The Crossroads’ (Routledge 1971) in which Lodge argues that the constraints of plausibility in the realistic novel is like a regular rhyme and metric scheme in a poem. Whilst it may at first appear that the discipline of regular verse would fetter the poet’s imagination, it actually forces him or her to reach for a higher plane of expression. It prevents the poet from accepting the first set of words that pops into the head, which are almost always banal, cliched, or exaggerated, and makes them come up with something more interesting and unique to comply with the rhyme or scan scheme. Similarly, the novelist who has to ground their work in plausibility must be more resourceful and skillful in the story line they conceive and in its execution.
The reason, of course, why I’m grappling with this issue is because I am in the process of planning my next novel. I am trying to negotiate that fine line between what is likely and what is exciting: to exploit the tension between fiction and reality which, when done well, makes reading such a joy.
In short, I want to take my reader on an invigorating and captivating journey, without taking them for a ride.