Is your story too unbelievable? Add some “sweetening”.

*Winner of the arc of  DITCHED by Robin Mellom is Riv Re! Congrats!

If you haven’t read this absolutely fantastic post about the Grinch at Fiction Notes by Darcy Pattison then click on over. Love, love, love it. And we wonder why that story remains a classic. Well, maybe we don’t wonder – the fun language, the characters, etc.

My whole family sat and watched HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS for our first Christmas special. I watch it for the Grinch song and for his tremendous moment of change when his heart grows and breaks the frame. I love villain songs. And why are villains so fun? #ilovevillains

My daughter had a question that I tweeted the other night.

Daughter: “Why does the Grinch have a sewing machine? And where did he learn to sew?”

Me: “Hmm. Good question.”

And then we proceeded to point out all the other unbelievable parts of the TV version.

But it got me thinking about believability. Why are some events believable even when they are unrealistic? (The kind of stories I love!)

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is unrealistic but totally believable!

WHEN YOU REACH ME included time travel but was totally believable!

But if Rebecca Stead had tried to put in some magic beans and a humongous peach into WHEN YOU REACH ME it would’ve been totally unbelievable! (Or who knows? Maybe she could’ve pulled it off.)

Believability comes down to the story, story expectations, the world building; and honestly, the level of writing.

So, for me, the fact that the Grinch had a sewing machine or that Max actually pulled that gigantic sled with all the ribbons, wrappings, and bows up the mountain was totally believable.

Add some sweetening!

We happened to be watching a special edition with an extra behind the scene look at the making of the Grinch. They talked about “sweetening.” Which fascinated me. Sweetening refers to the sound effects they add, the small details, whether a marker squeaking against a balloon or some violins – all to add to the believability.

What would sweetening be for the author? Maybe those small details about the world or your character that seem unimportant but just might add richness to your writing, your story, your world. Hmm. Very interesting.

What do you think? What do you love about unbelievable but believable stories? Do you add sweetening to your work?

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47 Responses to Is your story too unbelievable? Add some “sweetening”.

  1. Sheri Larsen November 28, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Very intriguing topic, Laura. Hmmm…I think I do add sweetening, but maybe didn’t realize it. Lots of times it’s during a dialog segment. My family and I watched Super 8 the other night. Funny how some aspects seemed a bit too far-fetched. I guess they forgot the sweet!!

  2. Sarah November 28, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    I’ll definitely have to think about this. I think some of the plausibility comes from the set-up, as you say–if you create a place that’s really fleshed out and rich and real, a world in which things can happen, it’s not so jarring when they do. I agree that it’s in the details.

  3. Pat Newcombe November 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Very interesting post, Laura. I think adding some every day details in amongst the unbelievabe bits makes it sweeter. As a writer of supernatural thrillers I am always dealing with making the supernatural seem natural and the way I try and do it is by using mostly the everyday world of routine and making my settings realistic.

  4. Natalie Aguirre November 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    I agree with you. It’s the details that are the sweetening. They make your characters deeper and then the reader can believe in your characters. We used to love watching The Grinch too when my daughter was younger.

  5. Sheri Larsen November 28, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    Hi Laura. Sorry about the link on my blog. I fixed it. If you click on author at the top of the page, I should be on page 10. Thank you for stopping by!!

  6. christine danek November 28, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I like to think I add sweetening. I do love the stories that are so far out there, but make me believe it could happen. This is very interesting. I will have to check out the special edition. Thanks.

  7. Barbara Jean Byrem November 28, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    Interesting thoughts. I think I did this in my current WIP (the great NaNo Project) without even realizing what I was doing. My favorite reader (husband)said you make some things that I would normally have found far-fetched really believable. He was freaked out that I could write a seventeen year old boy so well. I hope that means I’m getting better not more weird.

  8. Louise November 28, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    That makes me think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the Beavers had all sorts of fresh food even though it had been winter for 100 years, and Mrs Beaver had a sewing machine in a mostly-medieval world … yet it never jarred or flung the reader out of the story. In fact, the image of Mrs Beaver at her sewing machine remains one of my favorite from the book!

    “Sweetening” … little details are something I have a hard time with, but am trying to incorporate more. They are so important for adding depth to a story without overwhelming the reader with information!

  9. Jen Daiker November 28, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    It’s funny how you watch movies and eventually see them in a different light. Causing you to realize how unbelievable it could seem, but that the writer did so brilliantly you wouldn’t even notice. Great post, as always!

    • Laura November 28, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

      I love finding stories that include that sweetening, those intricate small details about the world or character that make me believe it can happen. Though, my impression was that in the movie world the sweetening isn’t so much in the story telling but in the sound effects. So to me even the best details in the world can’t make a story more believable but it makes it – sweeter, more believable and rich.

      Thanks everyone!

  10. Talli Roland November 28, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Interesting! I love James and The Giant Peach. I think some books are so absorbing that we’re willing to suspend our belief and just go with it. Love the thought of ‘sweeteners’.

  11. Susan Kaye Quinn November 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    I love the idea of sweetening! Robert McKee talked about plot holes in his book Story and said that getting the audience to overlook them was (sometimes) the best solution. (Note: I’m not recommending this as a first step) But he spoke about the idea of suspending disbelief and helping the reader do that.

    Great post!

  12. Traci Kenworth November 28, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    I think the sweetening makes the whole book shine. Great post!!

  13. Karen Strong November 28, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    I love the Grinch! 🙂 How interesting about the “sweetening” — never heard of this concept but like it.

    Thanks for the Darcy Pattison link. 🙂 Off to read…

  14. Ava Jae November 28, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    Very interesting post, Laura! The Hunger Games trilogy I think really handled the unbelievable-but-believable nature of the story. The entire premise of the Hunger Games themselves is horrific, but when you read it, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, which makes it even more potent.

  15. shelley moore thomas November 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Love the Grinch!

    And I love the idea of sweetening. I think the more fantastical your story is, the more that you, the author, have to believe 100% in the truth of what is happening within its confines.


  16. Leigh Moore November 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    hmm… I’m not sure I understand this “sweetening” concept–LOL! I’m sure it’s just early a.m. As far as keeping things believable, though, well… I just try to think about the characters and what’s happening and not push it too far. I think we’re allowed a certain degree of “suspension of disbelief,” right? Just don’t overdo it. ;p

  17. Stina Lindenblatt November 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    I think it’s important to provide enough set up so that it is believable.

    I never questioned the sewing machine, but I did question about Max pulling the Grinch up the hill. But it was funny so I let it slide. Plus it was a picture book. There’s only so much room for set up. 🙂

    • Laura November 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

      Sweetening is a term in the film industry – the sound effects they add to make a scene more believable. In the Grinch when the antlers weigh Max down and his head drops to the floor – they added some music. When the Grinch sawed the antlers off – it was violins that made the sawing noise. The sweetening makes what you are seeing more believable and draws you into the experience more. I”m thinking authors need to do the same thing, except with their words, not sound effects.

      I hope that helps explain it!

  18. Heather Sunseri November 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    I saw Breaking Dawn over the weekend, and I must admit there were parts of the movie that were so unbeievable that I found myself laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of it (like what Edward did to that poor bed), yet I don’t remember laughing in a make-fun sort of way when I read the book. Okay, maybe I did, I don’t remember. My point is that sometimes these unbelievable aspects of novels are made real by the sweetening in the writing – and that is definitely important when writing fantasy or trying to make young adult readers think about new and different concepts.

  19. Susan Sipal November 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    I too am fascinated by this sweetening concept and so glad you wrote about it, Laura, because I’ve not heard the term before. But I think in fiction it’s the veracity of the extras that really make your story sing — like the sensuous imagery, the visualization of those details, the creative and fascinating imagination that makes all aspects of the world and people really come alive.

    LOVE the Grinch! Now I’ll be singing, You’re a mean one, all day long! 🙂

  20. Connie Barnett Dowell November 28, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    Sweetening is important for all kinds of stories, not just fantasy. The little details, the sight, smells, sounds, the little quirks of setting and character are at least as important as the plot in keeping readers interested. Part of the fun in reading is being pulled into another world, whether it be realistic or a fantasy world.

  21. Phil November 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Absolutely right–it’s all about the telling details that brings your world to life. The trick lies in picking the right details, though…

  22. Anna Staniszewski November 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Funny, I think “sweetening” is exactly what I’m doing in my current revision. I love that term!

  23. Lydia K November 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    There definitely is a magic to stories that are unbelievably believable. Or believably unbelievable! All the internal logic has to click into place.

  24. Bish Denham November 28, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Suspending belief…Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a fine line we writer walk. I think sweetening can be as small has how something tastes or smells or has large as a hurricane. It all depends on where you place it. A hurricane in France doesn’t sound/feel right. But a hurricane in the tropics does, even if the eye of the storm takes the characters to another time a place…hmmmm, did I just come up with an idea for a story?

  25. Adrienne Proctor November 28, 2011 at 4:10 pm #

    What an interesting idea! I think “sweetening” should not only include details of the world, but personality details to flesh out the character in the reader’s mind. I think this gives more credibility to his or her reactions to unbelievable situations.

    • Laura November 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

      I agree with all of you! No one said sweetening your story is easy! Hard work making it all flow together while keeping interest.

  26. Susan R. Mills November 28, 2011 at 4:44 pm #

    Yes! The details are so important, especially those that might not be so obvious. Great post!

  27. Lisa Green November 28, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Such a great point!!! I have no problem suspending disbelief if you make me feel like it’s real. Details perhaps? Also, consistency is a huge part of it. If you break the rules you just introduced to me, you’ve lost me.

  28. Elle Strauss November 28, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    I really like the concept and terminology of sweetening. I’m going to keep that in my arsenal of editing tools!

  29. Jennifer Hoffine November 28, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    LOVE this idea of sweetening. In fantasies like Grinch and James/Peach, the believability does seem to come in the characters and fun world building. Tone too. If it’s whimsical enough then a sewing-machine toting villian just adds to the fun.

    In contemporary, the sweetening seems to come with motives and other details that make the characters’ actions work.

  30. Julie Musil November 28, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    Huh, I never wondered that about the sewing machine! Maybe “believable” comes from the story set up and the genre. I love the part where the little doggie hangs from the weighty sled over the cliff. Adorable!

  31. Jenny Lundquist November 28, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    I think for me I can suspend a lot of disbelief if the characterization is rich and well-drawn. For me, sweetening would be small things I put into scenes. When I’m writing a scene I usually try to ask myself, “Where’s the fun?” It could be a small detail, or a quick exchange between two characters, but it’s something that makes me smile, and, I hope, adds to the believability and richness of the story overall.

  32. Jenny S. Morris November 28, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    This is a great topic. There are some movies or books where my mind automatically suspends the need for reality. I don’t nit-pic, I just believe. Then, other movies I point out every little thing. I guess it’s up to the author or movie producer to convince my mind which one I should be doing.

    I think for authors the sweetening is creating something the reader’s mind can relate to. Something our minds can latch on to that we feel comfortable with.

  33. Ansha Kotyk November 28, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    I love the scene where his heart grows (how many sizes?) and breaks the frame, that’s just the best scene. As for the sweetness, I love finding those little added details in stories that take them from the page and into my imagination.

  34. erica and christy November 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    Huh. Must think on this. Although, I think a writer can make ANYTHING believable as long as the story and unbelievable aspects are well thought out and explainable–even when the explanations are just as far fetched. If there’s an explanation, a reason, details, ANYTHING making the craziness sane, then the reader will accept it. Voila. Believability the reader doesn’t even bat an eye at. (Well, except for some young children who are just very perceptive and thoughtful!) christy :0)

  35. Peggy Eddleman November 28, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    I think sweetening makes a HUGE difference! And your daughter is AMAZING to pick up on the sewing machine thing!

  36. Christina Lee November 28, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Wonderful food for thought! I think all of it helps when you care about the character too (as far as believability goes)!

  37. Lynda R Young November 28, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    yes! Sweetening is a great way of putting it. I love those little details. They bring the scenes alive and make the unbelievable believable…and enjoyable.

  38. Donna K. Weaver November 29, 2011 at 12:52 am #

    Sweetening, huh? What a fun term. And so applicable to writing. So many other comments have mentioned good ones. I agree that for me sweetening is the stuff that adds depth to the story. Like the people who have a stage a scene. We just take for granted, for example, that the shops in Harry Potter look as wonderful in the film as we imagined in the books. But someone had to figure all that out and then find the items for those scenes.

  39. Riv Re November 29, 2011 at 1:26 am #

    Yay! Thanks so much! Should I contact you? I didn’t get an email or anything…?

    Details or so…precarious. Of course, I try to add details, but with some genres I think it’s harder. I write fantasy, with lots of action. I want it to make sense, so I do an insane amount of research on whether it’s possible for her to swing a sword like that or for him to punch him in the face like that
    And then, if you mix something up, you’ve totally destroyed all that believability you worked so hard at. But it’s still definitely worth it.
    But, like Christina Lee said, believable characters are vital as well. They’re what comes first, before all of the details.

    (Thanks again!)

  40. Karen Lange November 29, 2011 at 2:07 am #

    I hadn’t heard the term sweetening but I am familiar with the concept. It’s such a good one! I’ve often thought about movies, and what they would be like if you took away the music, or the thunderstorm, or other elements that add to the sensory experience.

  41. Patti November 29, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    It’s all about the world building and those little moments. Although having two teenage boys often ruins things for me.

  42. Laura Josephsen November 29, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    Oh, neat! I think a lot of little things can add to the realism and believability of a world. Things that are heard, or little things that are noticed, smells, tastes…without sweeteners, the worlds we’re creating would be pretty bland.

  43. Amie Kaufman November 30, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    This is great food for thought — it puts a finger on something I think I’ve instinctively known, but hadn’t quite articulated to myself.

    • Laura November 30, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

      Anne – very good points. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I won’t really know until I’m on the other side. 🙂

      I’ll be gone Christmas shopping for most of the day! I’ll be back later to check out all your awesome opinions! Thanks!

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