Actually, the why is pretty simple: people don’t like fiction that’s not believable. The how is a little bit longer. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’s an editing checklist of tips for making sure your story doesn’t make readers think, “Wait, what? That doesn’t make sense.”
Characters and Dialogue
- Go through the story and read through all of one character’s dialogue. Is it consistent? Is it distinct from other characters?
- When you have a child character, ask a teacher or a parent who has a child that age read the dialogue and tell you if it sounds right.
- With a dramatic revelation or a death or a love scene, try reading the dialogue out loud and see if it sounds too cheesy or not.
- If you’re writing a character who speaks only broken English, make sure the vocabulary he knows and the grammar he uses are consistent. What I usually do is figure out what I could say after two semesters of Spanish, and what grammar mistakes I would make at that point. Sometimes I literally translate what the character says into Spanish, then back again.
- Ruthlessly eliminate any information-dumps: places where you used dialogue to tell the readers something they needed to know, but that the character probably wouldn’t say out loud.
- Villains tend to be primary offenders for unrealistic dialogue. If you understand what motivates your villain and makes her personality unique, you won’t have to resort to cliché lines. (See also the evil overlord list. This is hilarious and contains all the cliches you could possibly use with your villain.)
- One simple, yet overlooked question: would my character be smart enough to think of this? Make sure you know your character’s general intelligence level, how perceptive they are about social things, and how good their memory is. Then keep it consistent.
- Have someone involved in theater read over your story specifically for dialogue mistakes. They usually have a pretty good ear for how people talk.
- Red flag anything that you included based on your vague intuition of what it should be: What exactly are the effects of a heart attack? How heavy is a sword? What does the inside of a police station look like? Can that animal actually climb a tree? Then do a little research and find out.
- Check out articles (interviews with futurists or popular technology articles are good sources) about possible inventions of the future to get ideas for realistic fantasy, sci-fi or dystopian weaponry or gadgets.
- If you’re writing something historical, take the time to read some primary source material to learn about how people at the time thought and believed. It’s easy to get places, uniform colors, and major events right, but easy to miss things like treatment of elderly people, expectations for parents disciplining children, or superstitions that many people held.
- At key plot points, write out the obstacle and the solution to overcoming the obstacle. Then ask, “Is this too predictable?” or, on the other end of the spectrum, “Is this too conveniently out-of-the-blue?” Even if you like your solution, brainstorm a list of all other possible reactions or solutions. Then make sure your original is the absolute best one.
- Rewrite the climax as many times as necessary. Change everything about it if you have to, even if it’s the very first idea that you had and shaped the rest of the story. If the climax feels unrealistic, the whole story will flop.
- When doing an editing read-through, keep this question at the back of your mind: if my braggart friend was telling me this story as if it happened to him, where are the points when I would give him a skeptical look and say, “Really?”
- Don’t give a character a seemingly-random-yet-specific skill or item that she can then produce when necessary at a critical moment to save the day or solve the mystery. That will feel unrealistic. It’s fine, however, to give a character a specific character trait that will either help or hurt her at a critical moment, because we see that happen all the time in real life.