More specifically, you're not believing what the characters feel. Something about the story as a whole isn't authentic.
That's the best word I can think of for it. Authenticity. It's quite possibly one of the most difficult things to establish in our writing.
Or maybe it just is for me.
The thing is, it's a characteristic of the piece as a whole, with a mix of different variables going into it. You can't deconstruct it completely any more than you can break a baked cake down to its constituent ingredients.
We have to try, though. We can't just learn from CPs and beta-readers that the gut-feeling authenticity isn't there and throw up our hands. "Oh, well! So much for that story. Guess I'll try another one." We have to think about what might be factoring into it.
So I've pondered, and here are the first three that occurred to me.
- Show, don't tell. I know! How dare I trot that tired thing out? But think about it. "Telling" is, at its root, asking the reader to take your word for it that your character is angry or heartbroken or whatever. You can't show everything (even trying would be a pain), but try to show enough.
- Motivate actions (and reactions). If you've been reading my blog for a while, you might remember my little theory about Front-End/Back-End Motivation. (If not, may I shamelessly suggest you read that and see what you think?) Lack of authenticity may stem from readers not buying into your characters' choices.
- Voice, voice, voice. If the voice is (or becomes) jarring, stilted, or otherwise not right, it knocks the reader out of the story. It becomes just words on a page, and the characters lose their realness.
Okay, that's what I've got, but I'm sure there are other things that contribute to the problem. Any ideas?