translated by Anna Malanushenko

Translated from:

How to make a believable description of the impossible

published in the journal The World of Fiction

1. Documentalism in fiction

Many think that fiction should be believable. In the sense that it would be nice if everything described in a story should have actually happened to the author in real life. If it hadn't, at least the author should have more than just a theorerical command of the subject. For example, in order to write a perfect book on the Tunguska event, the author should ostensibly have spent half of his/her life as a reindeer herder in taiga, and have been a geophysicist for another half of his/her life, also spend half of his/her life as an astrophysicist in Pulkovo observatory, and also preferably have had an astronaut experience; and, of course, he/she should also be a writer.

The truth is that everyone should be an expert in their line of work. A reindeer herder should herd deer, and a writer should write. The writer makes mistakes, of his/her own, when writing, and the reindeer herder also makes mistakes, of his/her own, when writing. The writer used the wrong word when describing a rear left button of a dog sled. On the other hand, the reindeer herder cannot express his thought clearly, and in the letter to the publisher he wrote 'Tunguska' with eleven spelling errors and wrote the letter so clumsily that it is completely unclear what was that he wanted to say and whether he liked the book or not. Should we blame the herder for this? 'But he isn't a writer,' we might say, 'we shouldn't blame him for that!' But how can we blame the writer for not being a herder?

To clarify: I am not praising ignorance. It is really terrible when a writer makes bad mistakes. And it is wonderful if he or she is a specialist in minor facts and details. And it is also great if he or she always appears immaculately dressed in public, sings well, can cook, and speaks seven languages, inclusing Basic and Morse code... But neither of these is what makes one a good writer. And it does not make one a bad writer if he or she used the wrong word for the button on the dog sled, or gave an inaccurate description of the guard of the epee which belonged to Louis XIV. It's just if we rank all skills that make one a good or a bad writer, the realisticity and love for detail would not be in the top of the list, they will be way below the skills that are much more important.

And just how does one go about measuring realisticity? When Kolobok speaks to the Fox in the fairy tale, why nobody gets upset with the fact that a baked bread roll is incapable of speaking on the account of lacking the relevant anatomical structures? Did the author of the tale make a huge mistake, or did the author deliberately lie to the readers? The problem is that we do not have a good definition of realisticity. It would have been nice if the reality content would have been written on a book cover, like alcohol content on a bottle. A book below 15% is unrealistic, 15% and higher means it's fortified by reality, 35-40% are strongly realistic books, and books above 90%, such as surgical or rubbing stuff, are not meant to be ingested undiluted. The latter is worth noting, as such books exist and are called reference books.

The connoisseurs of realisticity in literature could enjoy one such reference book. In which all buttons are named correctly. As well as many other useful things. As it is a popular belief that books are tools of enlightenment and should pass on knowledge by the truckloads. So, there is, for example, a book called 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'. Why people don't read it in subways, excitedly turning page after page after page? Perhaps because a literature that is used for entertainment isn't meant to overwhelm a reader with facts? Let's talk about it.

2. The goal of fiction is to give a believable description of human feelings

Why the best songs about World War 2 were written by a theater actor Vladimir Vysotsky, who didn't spend a single day fighting? Did he really know to the smallest detail how a fighter aircraft of 1940's dives for the attack? Why the best detective stories were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie, who never robbed a single bank, never stole a single diamond, and didn't kill a single gardener? Why is sci-fi written by people who never flew to Sirius and fantasy by people who never fought elves with magical blades? Perhaps because they are able to do something crucial for their art: they can write in such a way that a reader understands, gets involved, and says, 'Yes, I can believe this'. This is something that a reindeer herder cannot do, nor a physicist, nor a historian, nor a criminalist.

But what makes a text believable, if not the listed facts? The answer is simple: the reader is a human. A physicist, a reindeer herder, a tank driver, and even a bank robber, they are all humans. They all have different life experience, lifestyle, and vocabulary, but they all know universal feelings: that of victory, of fear, pain, love, frustration, curiosity, loneliness, happiness, betrayal, discovery, loss, amazement, hate, and so on... These feelings are also familiar to someone whose job is to write books. They make up the writer's toolbox. And they are precisely what Encyclopaedia Britannica is missing.

So whether a reader believes the book or not is determined by how vividly and how realistically did the writer describe the human feelings. This is exactly why nobody complains about the believability of the tale of Kolobok. A writer can write a book about anything given a minimal amount of facts, as psychological realisticity is much more important for the readers.

3. Minimal details

Just who exactly needs to name the buttons on the dog sled? An urban reader will not appreciate it, while a reindeer herder will surely find mistakes. Moreover, the herder will pick a fight with a herder from the neirhbouring pasture in which said buttons have different names. And two physicists will, too, pick up a fight, if you dive deep into the cutting age science.

The hell with technical details! It will only tire out an amateur and enrage a specialist. The hell with small mistakes. When a reader managed to prove to Arkady Strugatsky that there isn't a single model of a Luger pistol that has a scope, the writer refused to make corrections to the manuscript. And, really, why should he?

The necessary level of facts and technical details is just the level of an amateur, who your readers will most likely be. And a little beyond that, so that you do not appear an amateur in their eyes. A handgun pushes bullets out of a barrel if one pulls a trigger, and everyone knows that. And this is enough. Let the readers imagine the make of the pistol and the presence of a scope. But you shouldn't write 'to pull a hammer', because many readers will know that a hammer is cocked, and a trigger is pulled by a finger to make a shot.

Technical details are especially harmful in sci-fi. If you will write, 'a Prima class spaceship', nobody will complain. But if you will write that this spaceship has an engine based on a nuclear reactor, you will get a number of spiteful questions from those readers who take interest in physics. Moreover, if you will try to describe the engine in even more detail, be ready for a huge amount of bewilderment and reproach. And if you only had written, 'a Prima class spaceship', everyone would have been happy.

4. When realisticity is harmful

There are situations when meticulous and precise description of however truthful facts isn't helping, moreover, when it actually harms a book.

Why are the books about spies are written by people who have never worked in espionage? Well, simply because a professional spy will never write such a fake, in his or her opinion. 'This is a complete failure,' will the spy say, 'an outrageous sequence of mistakes! Everything here is wrong! The work of a spy,' the professional would go on, 'consists of decades of boring assembly of information from local newspapers, of a patient recruitment of local informants. But, God forbid any chases, any shooting, never do anything in haste! Otherwise you are guaranteed a failure, it would be a blatant unprofessionalism. You should not write books like that,' will the spy say. So how should we? Who cares for a book in which the professional spy reads newspapers year after year and tries to recruit local journalists? Not even a professional spy will take any interest in such a book. [Transl. -- the next two paragraphs are a little tricky to translate. The context: for some reason unknown to humanity, most Russians will say 'bullrush' when talking about a cattail plant. It is an example of how commonday speech is so much different from the dictionary definition. Apparently, the same confusion actually exists in English! I think there are more words like this in English, e.g., a tin can is not necessarily made of tin, and a writing chalk is not necessarily made of chalk. The second example mentioned here is 'shoulder'. In medical/anatomical Russian, a 'shoulder' means something completely different from what's called a 'shoulder' in daily Russian! The easiest to explain is with this. This must be quite frustrating for doctors. But this article points out that this is frustrating for writers, too, and what word should a sci-fi writer use in such a case? It is kind of an important question so I kept the text as is.]

Let's consider another simple example. Everyone knows what bullrush is, right? It is a fluffy puffy kitty tail like thing on a long stem. It grows in swamps. The entire country thinks so. But if we look it up in the dictionary we will realize that a bullrush is a dry spikelet, like a little whisk. So the question is, if you are a writer and you need to describe a scene that takes place on a swamp, and cattails hustle in the wind. What should you do? Should you call the plant the way the readers know it? Or the way it is called according to the botanical encyclopedia? And take a lonely pleasure from being correct and misunderstood?

Here is an example from my own practice. About 10 years ago I wrote my first book, a simple action story about brave special forces saving the world from some villains. In order to make the description as realistic as possible, I got handbooks on firearms and also did research to find the most spectacular moves in hand-to-hand combat... And finally the story was at the point where the hero is fighting the villain in the open space. The enemy is strong and vicious, the enemy has a knife, and the hero, as it is always the case, has empty hands, a brave heart, a huge stock of self-righteousness, and, well, some combat experience. And there is a spectacular move against a knife which I wanted to describe, to share it with my readers. As a result, instead of a vivid battle scene the readers got... got what? A dreary description of which part of a wrist was turned against which side of a hand and how it was counterclockwise and... and there was an entire page of this. Even if someone knew this move, chances are they could not recognize it. The rest of the readers simply got lost. But this isn't the end of it! It turns out that it is completely unclear what to call a [Transl. -- forearm] a part of the arm between the wrist and the elbow. Because in medical literature it is called a 'preshoulder', but if I will say, 'he grabbed his preshoulder', the vast majority of readers will think that it was [Transl. -- upper arm] the part of the arm between the elbow and the shoulder joint... even though in medical literature, that part of the arm is called a 'shoulder'. And the part that we are used to calling a 'shoulder' in daily Russian ('Lenin carrying a log on the shoulder') has a completerly different name... so what word should I use? The correct one, or the one that will be understood?

The correct answer is that we should write the way we will be understood. Best of all is to avoid overloading the readers with the unnecessary. How should I have had written the combat scene? My job as a writer was to make the readers feel the heat of the moment, the lightning-fast change on the scene, the pressure. To make the readers feel the dynamics, the rhythm! To have the readers feel themselves in the place of the hero, have them start unvoluntarily and jerk a shoulder (it does not matter which one!), as if it is the reader who dodges from the scary knife! And none of this requires a description of a particular move. A punch! Blood! A swing! Roll over! Sparks in the eyes! Another punch! Once in the rhythm, the reader will have a mental image of the episode in accordance to his or her knowledge. Such an image, born in the head of the reader, is a thousand times more believable than any description that an author might possibly conceive. The goal of an author is to masterfully bring this image into existence. Which, by the way, is a lot harder than to give a dry and accurate description of the scene: who stood where, who turned to whom, who was dressed in what, and how pretty were the last rays of the sun sparkling above the horizon.

5. What prevents a reader from feeling the story is realistic

Suppose you are a prophet, or a visitor from the future, or a genious scientist, and you know the construction of a 24th century spaceship in great detail. And suppose you are writing a novel about its engine:

'As we all know, our ship moves three times the speed of light!' says captain Dobrov to his crew.

'Which is only possible,' stands up flight engineer Severov, 'because we draw upon the energy of the gravitational decay of plasma!'

'But how can our ship survive such an acceleration?' navigator Legkova turns to him. Before anyone could answer, she exclaims, 'Ah, right, I completely forgot about the unique crystal ion plating of the ship's body!'

How can a reader believe this? Nobody will believe it, even if it is factually correct, even if humanity will have a chance to confirm it in less than 300 years. Why? Because the described scene is unrealistic. The reader won't know how starships are made, but will feel the overall falseness and will get an impression that the astronauts try to talk to the reader, and not to one another.

Ilf and Petrov made a brilliant joke on just this in their book 'The Little Golden Calf' [Transl. -- classics of humor!], when two self-proclaimed sons of Lieutenant Schmidt have accidentally been spotted in the same public place:

Afraid that his inquisitive brother might ask him what exactly kept him so busy, which was largely doing time at correctional facilities in various jurisdictions, the second son of Lieutenant Schmidt seized the initiative and asked a question himself:

'And why didn't you write?'

'I did write,' replied his sibling unexpectedly. Feeling a great rush of playfulness he added, 'I've been sending you registered letters. Here, I've got the receipts.'

He produced a pile of frayed slips of paper from his side pocket, which, for some reason, he showed to the chairman of the city council instead of his brotherfrom a safe distance.

An author who tries to convince his or her readers in something acts not too differently from these impostors who wanted to convince the chairman.

The very first mistake is that one should not have written a novel about a technical idea. Never. Ever. If you got a unique technical idea, that's great! You should write to the patent bureau, or submit an abstract to a scientific conference. Is your idea too fantastic for the patent bureau? Have you got a unique prediction? You could share this idea with your friends, discuss it in the internet. At most, write an article for a sci-fi journal along the lines of, 'Here, I've got an idea...'. Such an article would be the most you could get out of it, an idea on its own isn't worth anything else. A literary idea is particularly worthless, it is not even a subject of copyright laws. [Transl. -- In Russia, I'm not sure about USA.]

A book is an entity which is subject to its own laws, which aren't unlike those of dramaturgy. The most important thing is a plot, which is expressed through the conflict of characters. Script writers are taught that any movie script should be described by a phrase: 'This is a story about a [character] who [acts].' This rule fully applies to the world of fiction literature. A story about a unique propeller isn't a real story. The story is about Karlsson, who lives on the roof [Transl. -- a cult children movie, the link has it dubbed in English rather than with subtitles, but it's a good one :) it's just as good for an adult -- it's just a completely different story then! -- here's part 2 they're based on an equally cult Swedish story]. What does it matter that you have invented a propeller built into a human body? You won't have a book until you create Karlsson with all his character and habits and Junior with his loneliness, his ever busy parents, and a mean nanny, until a plot line will appear. And once you will have created this world and populated it with the characters, the technical idea, the most important thing at first, becomes but a funny decoration, and it won't even matter what it was. Was the propeller attached directly to the spine and the digestive tract, or did Karlsson simply had special pants with a tiny motor?

6. Methods of psychological realisticity

So the plot about humans, filled with emotions and experiences, must come first. The topic of a book is always some problem or another, so an engine per se cannot be a topic. Invent a main problem. Come up with a conflict that may present this problem. Here's some gibberish: a mechanic sold bolts made of platinum to buy alcohol and installed cheap beryllium bolts instead. He did not know that beryllium would get dissolved. How long do the heroes have till their ship explodes? Two hours? Or two hundred years? Will there be a safety inspection? Will the mechanic try and distract the inspectors, or will he flee? Or will he blame the navigator? Or perhaps the navigator herself will take the blame to hide the guilt of the mechanic because she is in love with him? Is this too shallow of a problem? I agree. Come up with an interesting one! This is the job of a writer. Let there be a captivating plot, in which you could slip the details about the engine's work in a subtle fashion. This will be realistic.

The characters must live in the world that you invented, and not just put their masks on to play a scene in front of the reader. If the characters are astronauts, how do they speak of their engine? Perhaps in much the same way as you speak of your old microwave. You don't worship it and don't tell your guests what are the physical principles behind it. In fact, you don't really care yourself what these principles are, but you do have experience of using it, you know where to poke with a toothpick when a loose contact comes undone... this abundance of details is a realistic way for a hero to treat an object that he or she is used to. Readers can be led to believe the most impossible things if the heroes will treat them as if they were a boring everyday humdrum.

There also is a useful method called shifting the focus of attention. The unbelieavable will appear obvious if it is obvious to the heroes, while the matter of the doubts and arguments is elsewhere. Will the berilliym bolts hold till the end of the flight, or will they not? The mechanic swears that they will. The captain bets any sum that they won't. And a physicist who happened to be nearby and who was invited for a consultation... and the readers get the idea: the engine worksthe bolts are the problem.

Some years ago I had fun on April Fool's Day, I wrote pseudo-news articles on some silly factoids, trying to convince the readers that these factoids are real. Shifting the focus of attention has helped a lot.

One of the jokes regarded 'biotattoos', an ostensibly fashionable thing, when a colony of harmless bacteria are allowed to grow under the skin producing colorful tattoo-like patterns. The hero of the article was, of course, a journalist. He was given a task and he took to it: he found information, interviewed doctors, lawyers, tattoo artists, doctors again... overall, he got it 'figured out'. But what was is that he got figured out? The article didn't question whether biotattoos exist. The hero was trying to answer several different questions: are these bacteria as harmless as they say? Has if ever happened that a tattoo did not disappear after a special antibiotic, and what is it like for people whose pretty art on a leg grew up uncontrollably all over to their faces? Is the vaccine sertified, and how can one spot a fake? The readers sympathised with the victims, got indignant with the swindlers, doubted the professionalism of one doctor and trusted another, the readers got an opinion on every question except for the one that was the most important. The main questionwhether the biotattoos exist at allhas never been the focus of attention, as it had never been discussed.

Another joke was that a writer famous in Russian FIDOnet, Alex Exler, is in fact a fake, an alias of a group of five people. In order to make this believable I had to put on a role of a vile character with his own story: he was wronged by someone at work in some way or another. He had a grudge over beind underpaid or fired. So now he holds true to his promise and gets a revenge on his offenders by revealing something that his colleaguesthe five 'Exlers'have been hiding all these years. The author's actions were ugly and petty, but in a way, they were believable! I received loads of angry letters telling me how foul of a creature I am. The readers got their opinion on the topic, but it always regarded the actions of the hero, whom I managed to make vivid and believable. Given that, the question about five Exlers itself was taken in as a fact.

7. How to judge believability from the feedback of the readers

The internet offers a unique opportunity to collect readers' feedback and make conclusions based on it. But you should remember that reviews do not make a ready feedback, they are merely a material that requires certain analysis. The readers who didn't like something try and find weak spots, and these would be exactly the weak spots which they would never notice in a text which they did like. 'It's hard to believe that the maniac went to the bank to withdraw some money immediately after the murder,' readers would say. 'It's hard to believe that the fireman said that,' 'just why did he bring a screwdriver to the party?', 'it's hard to believe that the airship can reach such height...'all these are complaints about realisticity of your book. But it doesn't matter what explanation would you supply about the maniac, what legend you would come up with about the screwdriver, how would you fix the height of the airship. None of these would make a reader happy. If the problem was the airship, the reader would say just that: 'The book is awesome, but replace 20 kilometers with 2, but overall it's awesome!' If the reader didn't say this it means he or she wasn't taken in by the story, could not believe it as a whole. So he or she came up with some reasons. Perhaps your text is too dry? Or maybe the story isn't too interesting? Or the motives of the heroes aren't explained with enough clarity? This is what you should fix in your story. Or better, write a new story altogether.

8. Stylistic realisticity

On top of the methods to work with the plot, there is a number of stylistic methods that can make a text easier to believe.

First of all, the choice of the main hero matters. The closer the main hero to a readerin age, habits, tastes, or social standingthe easier it is for a reader to get into the hero's shoes. The first person stories are better than the third person ones.

Secondly, the author him or herself should believe the events. You should live in the world that you created entirely, you should become your heroes while working on the text. You should see what they see and feel what they feel, only then there is a chance that some part of these feelings will make it through the text to your readers. If your hero is afraid of something, you yourself should experience the fear, while sitting in front of your computer. If the hero fell from an airship into the water, you yourself should feel the crushing impact of hitting the water, followed by coldness, lack of air, the blurry darkness around you and the faint light of a wavy surface above you. You don't have to write all this in the text, but you must feel this all to the smallest detail. If you won't feel it yourself, the readers won't either. Don't overthink which letters exactly would pass on the information that needs passing on; any letters will, if you yourself are completely absorbed by the world of your book. The information will get passed on on a completely different level and in a completely different way, in a way that is much easier to use than to try and understand how it works. If you can't put yourself in your hero's shoes, if he or she isn't interesting to you and doesn't have problems that you can understand, then don't write about such a hero at all as it won't turn out believable.

Third, the opinion of a reader is always more believable to him or her than anything the author will say. The role of the author isn't to get on a platform and start broadcasting his or her view on things. Let journalists do this, it's their job! The more does the author insist on something, the less likely it is that the readers will accept it. Get rid of the author's judgement! Is one of your characters a rascal? Keep this knowledge to yourself. Don't allow youself a judgemental description of the hero's clothes, voice, or actions. Making a judgement is the task of your readers! Your task is to make it so that your readers will form this judgement. Show that the hero is a rascal in his or her actions themselves, in the words he or she says, in how other characters treat him or her. Is the hero lying? Come up with details and situations to show this. Perhaps the hero looks down at his or her shoes? Or nervously takes apart and puts back together a pen? If your hero is in love, show this in the actions, in small details. Where does the hero look all this time? What words said by others make him or her start? What innocent remarks make your hero turn red in the face and leave slamming the door shut? Let your readers figure it out for themselves.

But then, don't expect the readers to figure out everything on their own! Remember that the amount of these small details should be three times the amount that an attentive reader could notice. It has long been known to psychologists that humans perceive at most a third of the ambient information. So a small detail important for the plot should be said at least three times. Is your hero a villain? Show it in three details. And only then spell it out loud for less attentive readers. But even then, it should not be said by the author, but by the heroes.

Not all the information is passed on on a conscious level. In fiction, one could add a large amount of little things which individually won't mean much, but when taken together, they will form a picture. This is how nervous system operates, too: by summing stimuli. A neuron will 'fire' if it will receive a strong stimulus in one of its dendrites, or many weak stimuli, or one stimulus which is weak but persistent.

Consider the masterful work with text by Victor Pelevin. In the story called 'A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia' there will be many related details to which the readers will be oblivious at first. An asphalt was cracked 'in a pattern resembling a double-u'. So what? How many would decode it to 'W' and will recall that a lycantrope is 'Werwolf' in German? [Transl. -- the Russian word for a werefolf is 'oboroten', literally 'shapeshifter'.] Such minor details are abundant in Pelevin's texts. This is an example of exactly that: the summation of stimuli, which as if by magic will bring the image of a wolf into the reader's imagination well before it will be said openly.

Yes, writing these minor details which nobody will ever notice certainly feels like a thankless job. But such is a job of any artist. Think of paintings, think of movies. They all are abundant in detail which will only be noticed with a magnifier or by examination of individual frames. But they are that what gives the illusion or reality.

And finally there are well-known norms of fiction writing which make the text artistic. A phrase about a dog sitting under a tree is always less realistic than a phrase about a spaniel resting its head on the paws under a poplar that's wet after a rain. Of course the descriptions should not be tiresome and should not turn into the games with words like 'the dentures of the southern night gnawed on the rotting jam patty of a sunset', when readers figure that the author isn't painting a picture but is simply showing off narcissistically.

Another typical mistake is to give a detailed graphical description, as if telling a blind man what's happening on a TV screen. The visual information is but one of channels that you can use to help the readers appear in the world of the book. Most readers will have not one sense but five: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. And there is no reason not to use them all. What does it smell like in the hold of a starship? What is a handle of a gun like to the touch? What does the elven soup taste like? What sound do the heels of an angry woman make on a narrow street? Let the readers experience all of this! Here is how Sergei Lukianenko described a starship parked on a spaceport, a starship which one could believe in: 'The air was filled with a whole symphony of smells: a stench of diesel from the powerful cargo ships, a rotting smell of something that was spilled in haste, a sharp taste of ozone, and a strange smell that isn't like anything else in the world: the smell of a starship which, for a short time, came to existence. Perhaps this is what the universe smelled like in the first day of creation, when the space and time themselves came to be.'

Leonid Kaganov, 2009

translated by Anna Malanushenko