The Art of Believability


The crowds were lured into the tent with illusions made of glue and glitter. They believed in the bearded lady, the man whose head could levitate from his shoulders, even the woman who disappeared in a cloud of colored smoke. Yet, when the bear wearing a fedora came out riding a tricycle backwards and singing an aria in a fine baritone, the crowd began to disperse.

“It’s a man in a suit.”

“It’s a ventriloquist.”

“It’s just a puppet.”

Seeing the loss of ticket sales, the circus manager sacked the bear. Leaving behind his home for the last ten years, the bear put on his suit and tie, straightened his hat, climbed on his tricycle, and began the long trek to the newborn land of movies. Someone out there would better appreciate his talents.

The deeper I get into writing, the more I learn what is true is not the same as what is believable. For example, the world of Pippington, where I do most of my writing, is a 1910’s fantasy world. My job as a writer is to create a sense of reality, of authenticity to make the reader believe they can hop into a dimension-crossing/time travelling ship and stand on these fictional streets.

To build this reality, out goes modern terms, like “Hello,” “What a hotty,” and “What!” In their place come more time-approppriate terms like “Good day,” “how handsome,” and “My goodness!” Cars become motor cars. Pants, while acceptable, are better called “trousers” or “breeches”.

Then, are the words that did exist, but modern audiences don’t believe. For example, “cops” was a slang term from the 1910’s, but audiences who’ve critiqued my writing feel the term is too modern. So, “cops” becomes “coppers” because it has an older feeling.

I aim for accuracy when I can, but I can’t use accuracy if it will pull the audience out of the book. Therefore, I create a skewed mirror-image of the truth to create an illusion of believability.

This holds true for many other pieces of fiction.

Any good marksman would tell you about the kickback from a shotgun, but a marksman in a film rarely is knocked back. Also, their guns are usually loaded with magical cartridges which repopulate when the gun is fired. In reality, both explosions and lightning are seen a few seconds before they are heard, but, in film, there is a mystical time-contraction so sight and image match.

And, of course, there is the reality that there is nothing to carry soundwaves in space, and so space explosions have no sound at all.

While that lack of sound is the reality, it is disconcerting and distracting to the aural language of modern audiences. We’ve been taught that explosions do have sound in space, except in rare cases of serious science-fiction. Ships shoot lasers, which then lead to a satisfying boom.

For a less violent example, we can compare Marty McFly’s two cowboy costumes from the Back to the Future III



The first outfit is the 1955 Doc Brown’s vision of how cowboys dressed. While we can mark the ridiculousness up to both Doc Brown’s lack of fashion sense and the filmmakers’ wanting to spoof the perception of cowboys, this is not how all of 1955 movie cowboys dressed.

This image is from 1956’s The Searchers, with John Wayne in his common double-breasted shirt. While The Searchers’ costumes and outfits might not be 100% accurate to the wild west, they’re not as far off as Back to the Future III portrays it.

Yet, this is also the same time period as the Roy Rogers TV Show – with the classic singing cowboy dressing like:

Do You Know Roy Rogers?

Instead, the filmmakers were clearly influenced by the gritty authentic feeling of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, and dressed Marty McFly like this:

Marty clint 1885

Which of these is the most authentic and accurate? The final version is probably closer, but still is likely to have a few tweaks to build the false reality for modern audiences.

Compare also a few versions of Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.

First, here is the 1940’s Elizabeth Bennett, played by Greer Garson:

Still Of Laurence Olivier And Greer Garson In En Man För Elizabeth (1940)

Is she an upper class Southern Belle or an upper middle-class Georgian Era British lady?

Then, we have the 1980’s BBC version, played by Elizabeth Garvie:



The fabric is clearly different than later versions, but the dress is at least close to the time period. The actors can’t really help the 1980’s lighting and the yellowing from early video filming.

Followed by the 1995’s version played by Jennifer Ehle (who had plenty of chemistry with Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy and his wet shirt):

Here, we have far more meticulous attention to accurate, historical detail, and some well-kempt hair. The world she lives in, while authentic, is also clean and the film mostly plays out in sitting rooms, ball rooms, and dining rooms.

And, finally, the 2005 version played by Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth has simpler clothing overall, yet still in the correct time period. Her world, however, is portrayed a slightly more gritty – with the farmyard just out the door, and a reality of mud and dirt just on the edge of the fine houses she travels between.

While the later versions of the famous Miss Bennett lean more toward accuracy, the directors cultivate the pieces and details of truth they wish to highlight. The main joke of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, according to Seth Grahame-Greene, is the invisibility of servants and commoners in Jane Austin’s books, which is why he chose to turn them into zombies.

These films and fictions create the lexicon of modern audiences in perceiving the ‘authenticity’ of historical fiction. However, even if we turn to books from the actual time period, different shades of reality are shown. For example, a reader of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, about the horrors of meat-packing factories, will have a very different view of the early 20th century than a reader of O. Henry’s lighthearted short stories, about the common lives of people living in New York and the Old West.

All fiction is portrayed from the author’s view of the world, and seen from the reader’s view of the world. While we all live the same reality, we all see it slightly differently than others, which is part of what makes this world a fun place to live in. Thus, we have the magic of suspending our disbelief and being absorbed into another’s vision of reality.

  • How much accuracy is too much accuracy in fiction? How much is too little?
  • What film or books use authenticity and accuracy well?
  • Would you rather have movies portray the sound of explosions in space or not?
  • Would you pay to watch a real bear riding a tricycle and singing opera, as long as the bear didn’t attack you?

Side Note 1: Speaking of believability, my friend Andres Salazar has a KickStarter campaign for wooden tiles for playing the game Werewolf. Similar to the game Maffia, Werewolf is about deception, survival, and choosing who you really want to believe before you’re eaten. For more, check out the video below and the KickStarter page.

Side Note 2: And finally, I wish this sketch was within the realm of believability instead of a wondrous fiction.

9 thoughts on “The Art of Believability

  1. Recently having been studying Golden Age pirates, I was amused to find that Tim Powers’s version of New Providence in “On Stranger Tides” (the novel, not the Pirates of the Caribbean film that was “based” on it) is much more authentic than in TV series such as “Black Sails” or “Crossbones,” though the inclusion of voodoo makes it, shall we say a bit less authentic?

    • I think voodoo is a great example of things that may not be entirely true, but the audience will believe enough for the author to slip it in.
      I’ve been wanting to check out the book of “On Stranger Tides”, and I appreciate the large quotations marks around ‘based’ – let’s take a book and use a sliver of a plot and add Jack Sparrow!

  2. Lol, I love Key and Peele.

    And very interesting narrative on how reality can be portrayed differently. I’ve never seen that first Pride and Prejudice and was really floored by how similar it was to Gone with the Wind. I liked seeing the cowboys depicted through movies as well.

    • Gone With the Wind came out in 1939, as well as Jezebel – another Southern costume drama starring Bette Davis. Part of the magic of movies throughout all time, and especially toward the end of the Great Depression, was the spectacle they could build of a better, more glamorous life – hence, the Southern Belle dresses.
      (This is a super-film-major reply)

      • Well, the basic decision with any item from folklore, like dragons, is whether you are going to run with the existing lore or invent something new. Both have advantages, but I do find it sometimes boring to write just the same big, red, fire-breather that’s been done before.

  3. I love this! Very thought-provoking. One of the advantages of writing fantasy, I think, is that believability is key, but within its own frame of reference. It doesn’t necessarily have to match with reality, as long as it makes sense within its context. The challenge, though, is making it internally consistent, otherwise it all falls down! I really admire how J.K. Rowling made the Harry Potter world so well-integrated.

    And I need those sounds of explosions…otherwise where’s the drama! 😉

    • J.K. Rowling did a great job of keeping everything straight, but, toward the later books, the publisher had a continuity editor to help make sure things were accurate. I’d love to have one myself. I’m building my encyclopedia as I go deeper into this fantasy world, and it’s getting complex.
      And, everyone needs explosions.l

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