Probable v. Possible

Guest Post by Judah Cleveland.  You can find her blog at

I took a creative writing class a while back that taught me a really important lesson. It wasn’t on the lesson plan, but I learned it nevertheless. I wrote a story I thought could have happened. My mom said she could imagine reading it on someone’s blog as a true story. Not only that, but I had studies and tons of sources to prove it could really have happened. It had to do with medical practices here in America that I thought caused more harm than good.

Unfortunately, the grader did not agree with me and thought my story was entirely unlikely. She even told me I shouldn’t write about things I don’t know about.

Of course, I was extremely offended, but my defense was simply, “It’s all true! It could all happen. I know lots of people with stories similar if not identical to this.” I even asked my teacher if I should cite my sources.

I totally did not get the concept of fiction.

Six months later, my mom and I were reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water in which she quotes Aristotle: “With respect to the requirement of art, the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”

And I realized that while my story may have been possible, totally, completely, absolutely possible to my readers it was hardly probable. Ithought it was probable, but they didn’t.

It doesn’t matter how factual and possible a story is, if it doesn’t seem probable, then the readers won’t like it.

And that does make sense, when you think about. If all readers cared about was a factual, possible story, then fantasy and sci-fi wouldn’t be nearly so popular. The majority of those stories aren’t possible at all. There’s no such place as Middle Earth. Hobbits do not exist. And Elvish is not a real language. (Did I just lose half my readers?) And yet we don’t care if they aren’t real. We still love the story.

What makes books like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, and others so popular isn’t because everything that happens in them is possible, but that they’re probable. They seem like they could happen, even if they couldn’t.

That is, in the end, the author’s great challenge: to make the unreal seem real and the impossible seem probable.

But where does it leave authors like me who are battling modern society’s failings?

It depends on your purpose. For me, my goal is to rewrite my story from before, leaving it completely factual, but writing it in such a way so my readers believe the story.

It’s all about getting your readers to believe the story, whether it’s something that doesn’t truly exist, or something most people don’t understand. This can happen in many different situations: from historical fiction dealing with commonly mistaken history  to stories like mine where I’m taking on controversial subjects.

Of course, that’s one of the dangers of good writers. They can convince people by making ideas look probable, whether or not it’s true. That’s why several years ago my parents stopped reading the His Dark Materials series to me and my siblings. The author was simply too good. He was an atheist writing about God, and my parents were concerned about where he would take it, and if he continued to write so well, then would we find ourselves nodding along with the story?

It’s not that I don’t think  Christians should read books written by non-Christians, but I do think  they need to evaluate them as  they read, understanding  that the author’s job is to make the impossible seem probable, the untrue seem real. They need to realize what false ideas the authors could be presenting as true.

This is a lesson I’m still learning in my own writing. I encourage you to think for yourself on whether your writing is possible but improbable or probable but impossible.

Are there any places where you ran into a similar problem in your writing?  Let us know in the comments!


6 thoughts on “Probable v. Possible

  1. “There’s no such place as Middle Earth. Hobbits do not exist. And Elvish is not a real language. (Did I just lose half my readers?)”
    Yes. Yes you did.

    Lovely, thought-provoking post, though. I appreciate it.

  2. Good post. That’s a good explanation of why your characters should be believable, deus ex machinas are bad, and why we hate unlikely (improbably, usually to help the MC) things that happen to make the plot work.

  3. Judah – I remember this so well. I’m glad the experience in class has been redeemed, in a sense. Another lesson that I try to teach, even moreso these days, is that the reading experience is also very subjective. One person may love a story, another person may not, for whatever reason. And yet, I think it’s valuable for young writers to write for themselves and their target audience — let the naysayers say nay all they want — and remain undeterred. Every artist will face the critics, and you can’t let it get to you. There are “Simon Cowells” in the publishing world. Write anyway. Write in such a way to make them eat their words, hehe. I’m thinking of Jennifer Hudson here, if you know her story. That kind of overcoming only comes from believing in yourself and what you have to say. I appreciate the forum you all have created here for young authors to be heard. 🙂 ~ MsG

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