Sounds Made Up! Building Believability.
When a created work doesn't quite ring true we notice. If you want your work respected, don't forget about building believability into it.
There is a scene in the movie Signs where Joaquin Phoenix's character is talking to his nephew. He shares a theory about the alien invasion that he heard on television. The young boy dismisses the idea with a quick and decisive, "sounds made up." After all, he has been reading printed, hardcover books about aliens! As a creative, this scene and his dismissive statement are in my head all the time. I suppose it works as a counter to the internal Imposter Syndrome that many professionals face. Some may crudely call it a B.S. detector. Something that good creators do that prevents this reaction in their observer or audience is called Suspension of Disbelief.
As children we produced freely, without expecting the buy-in or approval of others. Many of us were encouraged when their drawings and water colors were posted on the refrigerator. Our skits and imagination play were humored by our kind and patient caretakers. Childlike-imagination doesn't get scrutinized like the real world. Creativity at this stage is play. It is not required or expected to be believable.
When a person begins to produce creative work professionally, there is a tendency to imitate the work of others. The world often wants what it expects. Clients want what they want, the same thing they saw when they chose you to do the work. The same thing, only different and special for them. So many times we are bound to feel like we are just mimicking and not creating real work.
From kids to adults
Ken Robinson gave one of the most prominent TED Talks, where he illustrates how the standardized public school system often conditions would be creative people to be "normal."
The creators in our world, who overcame this homogenization process, are now the ones who create things that are truly new... they build worlds. They create scenes, situations and stories in books, television programs, comic books, movies, live performances and many other forms that can deeply affect us. They are also the people who build new ways of working and doing things.
The act of creating should be respected and encouraged. Still, when we see something that has been created, but doesn't quite ring true we notice. This doesn't mean that things can't be imaginative or even wildly zany.
Keeping it real
One of the best examples I found with artists explaining how they crafted something that was a wild departure from realism but still remained believable during the experience was the original Ghostbusters movie. In the commentary, the creators are constantly pointing out how they were able to take the audience one step at a time into this made-up world. They couldn't just spring a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on the audience without the smaller steps up front. The little things, like the quiet ghost in the library, the cooking eggs on the counter, the green "slimer" ghost gradually built to the climax. The mysterious layers advanced the suspension of disbelief. When the top of the building became filled with lightning and clouds connecting the characters to a supernatural other world, the audiences were fine with it. They'd been led along a series of steps to make the larger leaps at the end easier to handle.
Another thing that the movie does, is that the characters take their situations at face value. The comedians are talented actors who are living the roles and responding to their situations in character. In lesser special effect-filled movies, you see the actor grinning and can't help but be aware they are just enjoying their time goofing around in front of a green-screen and getting a paycheck.
Other things that can bust your work's credibility
Creativity takes many forms. The Ghostbuster's examples is a well-crafted example of a motion picture with fantasy elements and humor woven together into a solid piece of entertainment. A book can be great on the inside, but if the cover is amateurish or the title feels like it is missing a word, no one is going to ever open it. There are email lists you can join like the Author Marketing Club, where authors can spread the word about their books on days that they are offered FREE for Kindle. It is a great way to fill up a Kindle. It also is a place where you can see many novice authors fulfilling their dreams and sharing the book that they always believed they could write.
Kudos to those writers for making their book. If you look down some of the titles, you can quickly spot one or two that are clearly not ready for prime-time. This has motivated me in my own writing. As I've mentioned, I have a few book projects in the works. I know I have to keep the bar of quality high, so that I don't turn off the interest of readers. Done is better than perfect, but enough quality should be there so that people are helped or entertained by the work.
I recall playing the game Balderdash with adults when I was around middle school age. I wrote down my lie response in hope that I would earn points with my fake definition. I watched the adults as they heard my answer read. A few reacted to my words, immediately throwing it out as a non-possibility. I saw it happening live, something I made was failing to be convincing. That lesson I learned helped me to become much better at that game in later life. Believability isn't only about quantity. It is about creating a feeling that is right, it belongs. It is balanced with enough truth and mystery to satisfy the players. As an adult, I made sure that any answer I played in that game felt like an answer. Sometimes those answers the game provided are very short. Creative life and building believability is exactly the same.
Your work must feel like it belongs to a place where people find it. You can need to make some changes to keep your work original, but not so much that it no longer belongs. Paying attention to other qualities can also help add to the suspension of disbelief. Making a work timeless or evergreen involves leaving out current idioms, references and cliches that are bound in the time they are written. I believe this is why a great movie like Disney's Aladdin has been less favored by modern audiences. Many of the references, like Arsenio Hall and William F. Buckley are lost on today's kids. I firmly believe that Frozen will suffer as well because of the one early "Love Is An Open Door" sequence. You don't find cheap modern references like that in greater works like Tangled. They stick to their depicted era with sincerity. You can go through the trouble of building believability that is only temporary.
It won't be easy
If you're struggling to burp out a new creation, please don't let this article scare you. Get your words down. Make your beautiful creations. But just before you wrap it up with a little bow to share with the world, invite a few trusted friends to help you point out any gaps. If your idea is a business, there is a book I can recommend that will help you take your idea and shape it, test it and mold it into something with a far greater chance for success. The book is Will it Fly by Pat Flynn.
I hope you create great things, but make sure that you don't for get the value of building believability. This is true of any creative work, even non-fiction. Testimonials, tables of contents, blurbs and back cover descriptions help set the expectations for the book inside.
>> In the comments share a struggle of your own when you tried to build believability. Or if you have a good example of a work that you observed that lost credibility and failed at building believability, you can share that too. Keep creating!
Photo: The Pazyryk Carpet