Thursday, October 25, 2018



Suspending our disbelief has become a national past time. While it can be alarming in real life, Coleridge’s concept is usually something fiction readers embrace. But where’s the line between delight and cognitive dissonance, between a gasp and a guffaw, or in my case, a loud, sarcastic “Pleeeease,” or “You’ve got to be kidding,” snorted across the living room.

On the surface, fantasy and sci-fi may be in more obvious need of our psychic largesse, but mystery novels require their share, particularly if they involve weekly corpses in a sleepy seaside town, sleuthing kittens, coffee roasters who put the FBI to shame, or for that matter, justice.

Despite its body count, I believe our genre is a hopeful one. Crime novels are a place where wrongs are occasionally righted and characters—however flawed—can win, or at least have a shot at redemption. So it’s more important than ever not to betray our readers by pulling them out of the story. Where is that line we can’t cross? How much leeway do we have?

My conclusion, which is certainly up for debate, is a lot.

Successful writers across the genre push the bounds of believability all the time. Take Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Can he really keep a toothbrush in his pocket while obliterating eighteen bikers? Can he actually find clothes that fit him perfectly in the middle of nowhere, every single time his are dirty/bloody, when I can barely do it with an entire mall and the internet at my disposal?

Of course he can, because Child made sure Reacher was larger than life from the start—in every novel he accomplishes things which would seem impossible for a normal person. And because his wardrobe, or lack thereof, brilliantly supports and illuminates his restlessness and the impermanence of his life, we don’t care that it’s unlikely every small town surplus store carries khakis for giants.

Janet Evanovich offers us the world’s oldest hamster—Stephanie Plum’s Rex. What is he, twenty-five? Who cares? I hope he lives to be a hundred. Stephanie’s been through enough.

As a reader, I will put up with a certain amount of coincidence, a couple of “wait a minute, didn’t she’s?” and some leaps in logic, as long as I’m connected to the characters and the book feels emotionally truthful and consistent with the tone the writer established in the early pages.

As a writer, though, I’ve struggled to determine how much artistic license writing a “zany” mystery gives me, when it comes to the details of plot and character. I started out as a film writer, operating in a realm where nothing was expected to be realistic, but are the rules different for novelists? Do comedies get a pass hard-boiled books don’t? Or are the rules the same for any imaginary world?

In my particular case, my first novel, Lost Luggage, had an amateur sleuth in Cyd Redondo, but a zanier tone than most cozies, so I turned to my inspiration—screwball film comedies—for a working “logic threshold.” How did the whole leopard thing really work in Bringing Up Baby? Did Katherine Hepburn’s Susan Vance have a leopard litter box the size of a bathtub, off screen? Would she really wear a floor-length chiffon peignoir with claws around? Did it matter? I embraced every silly moment of that film, because writers Hagar Wilde and Dudley Nichols set up Hepburn’s character to repel logic from her first line of dialogue. And because it’s the tension between what is happening on screen and what should reasonably be happening which makes the film a classic.

Would Garbo’s Russian beaurocrat in Ninotchka actually wear that ludicrous hat, or would eight bachelor scholars take in a gangster’s moll in Ball of Fire? If Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were writing it, absolutely, because they gave us a beautifully crafted “suspension bridge” from the first moment of both films, making their characters believable in all their glorious unreality.

When Preston Sturges opens his script for Easy Living with a Fifth Avenue millionaire’s mink coat landing on broke heroine Jean Arthur’s head, we have no problem believing she will unwittingly meet and fall in love with the millionaire’s son. We know right away we’re in a world where no coincidence or happy accident is too great.

Still, as I struggled with my second novel and attempted to recreate the tone one reviewer had kindly called “enchantingly ridiculous,” I was wary of the line which might push it into merely “ridiculous.”

In the end, it came down to listening to my character’s internal logic to make sure all my comic set pieces unfolded in a way that was believable for her and for the tone of the series. I found it also helped to try to keep up a relentless pace. That’s the true genius of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s—their pace doesn’t leave the audience time to question or ponder. So that’s what I’ve tried to do in Drowned Under– write Cyd’s true, eccentric nature, as fast as I can.

Whether readers will buy her lowering herself on a rope—with her carry-ons—from a helicopter onto a cruise ship, preserving blood from a corpse in a travel nail polish bottle, or defeating the villain with her intimate knowledge of the way wheelchairs work, remains to be seen.

How do you “cheat” logic or push believability in your novels and, as a reader, where do you draw the line?

Wendall Thomas teaches in the Graduate Film School at UCLA, lectures internationally on screenwriting, and has worked as an entertainment reporter, development executive, script consultant, and film and television writer. Her novel Lost Luggage was nominated for Lefty and Macavity Awards for Best Debut Mystery of 2017 and her next Cyd Redondo mystery, Drowned Under, is due out in February. Find her at


Marja said...

I love the old movies and the zany situations, as apparently, you do. When it comes to humor, I don't draw too many lines, although I'm not into slapstick too much. As a writer, I can't help but think of some of the screwball things I've seen people do in real life that people wouldn't believe if they read it in a book. When it comes to humorous books, a lot of scenarios work that wouldn't necessarily work in suspense. Great post, and thank you for sharing your thoughts and reminding me of some of the old movies. Now I have to try Lost Luggage.

Paul D. Marks said...

Wendall, I think the key is that you have to set up your "world" from the beginning. Once you set the parameters of that world you can get away with anything within those parameters. But if you go outside them than you can start to lose the reader or audience.

Nancy Cole Silverman said...

As long as you leave them laughing I don’t think you need worry. And from what I’ve read of your books you’ve no trouble doing that. Congratulations, Wendell I’m looking forward to your latest.