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Exaggeration is a device in humor. On the other hand, you need to care about believably in writing, especially in fiction writing.

For example, I'm writing a story where the main character goes to her university to find out about a weird topic. She is laughed at in class. And later in a lab. After this, she becomes a source of gossip--her schoolmates start calling her a nickname and many people she meets later on recognizes her:

"Yeah," De-Shi said. "She's very enthusiastic about animal suicide. You should've seen the little commotion she caused in the department."

"Oh," Cath covered her mouth, "she's Hanging Pup."

"Yup, the very one," I blurted back. I had no idea my fame had spread so far.

This, obviously, is unlikely to happen in real life; I just wrote it for comedic purposes.

The thing that worries me is that some of my readers pointed out that believability issue--so I'm confused. Can you sacrifice believability for the sake of humor at times? If so, what are the limits?

  • I'd say yes. It's "Rule of Cool" really: The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to the element's awesomeness. – Iain M Norman Jul 28 '15 at 13:33
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The most simple test of a comedic technique is, "Do they laugh?" Robert McKee mentions this in his book Story.

If readers are voicing concerns about believability, but they found it funny, it may not be so bad.

If your comedy is funny, a big part of the war is already won. Thus believability would only be a concern if the moment earned laughs, yet damaged audience investment in the world going forward.

My personal opinion/experience is that a slightly "off" or unexpected action by characters is more likely to be fresh and original than halting to the audience's investment in the story world. If one slightly unusual action/reaction by characters pulls readers right out of a story, they may not have been invested to begin with. Thus the true issue is with the story BEFORE that moment, not necessarily that moment.

(Sometimes Chuck Palanhiuk's characters do/say things I find bizarre and incongruent, at least at the first pass. But over time his characters and their eccentricity still adhere to an internal logic that allows the story world to remain believable.)

So a two part test might be: ONE: Did they laugh? TWO: Did they keep reading?

If those two tests are passed, chances are you're looking at a small issue, rather than a major flaw in the story. If only a few readers complain, yet those readers finished the book and enjoyed it, I wouldn't do a damn thing.

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The bit doesn't have to be believable. It does have to be relatable.

If your character suddenly finds herself having to deal with people's incorrect assumptions about her, the fact that this sort of thing wouldn't happen is besides the point. Everyone's had to deal with misconceptions and they can relate to this.

Also, just the fact that it's in a work of fiction gives you a little leeway. No one reads about ordinary lives, they read about extraordinary moments in ordinary lives. If something unusual wasn't happening to the protagonist, you wouldn't have a story.

The key thing is to be consistent with it. Don't use a throwaway exaggeration and then not have it pay off down the line. Do it for a reason besides being funny and go with it, see where it leads.

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