Have you ever written an event that happened to you in real life, and then had everyone reading it tell you that they didn’t buy it? They say it could never happen, it didn’t ring true, it didn’t seem real, or some other such critique. To which you splutter, “But…but…but it really happened!”
So why do people not “buy” things in fiction that actually happen in real life? We’ve all experienced weird things in reality: a one-in-a-million coincidence, losing something very important only to find it months later, a strange accident of some sort. We know these things really do happen, so why can’t they happen in fiction?
Because fiction has to make sense.
Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Fiction is by definition not real, yet it has to be more real than reality. Everything in your story has to make sense. Which is not to say that strange things can’t happen, especially when you are in a farce or comedy or paranormal or fantasy. But whatever happens, it must make sense within the world of the story. And if something strange happens, you had better explain why to the reader before the end of the story, because otherwise the reader feels cheated. For example, if an important item vanishes, not only must the writer know where it went and how, but at some point the reader must know, too–and at the moment of revelation, the reader must say, “Of course! That makes sense!”
So why does fiction have to make sense?
I think readers expect fiction to make sense because one of the main reasons people read is to help make sense of the real world. The real world often makes no sense. Good people have bad things happen to them while bad guys have it all. Injustice abounds. People get away with murder. Our sense of fair play is regularly undermined by the reality of everyday life.
Fiction is an escape from reality, and one of the things we are escaping from is this feeling of senselessness. Which doesn’t mean the good guys always win, or that every story has a happy ending. But the endings, happy or not, make sense. So the reader understands why.
I believe one of the main reasons writers write is to try and make sense of the world. Some of us write stories that put right the things we perceive as wrong with the world, others write to explain what’s wrong and why. Either way, it is an exploration of reality.
If we write to understand the world, then doesn’t it seem logical that readers read to also understand the world? That’s why things have to work in the context of the story. That’s why everything in fiction has to make sense.
Because the real world doesn’t.