Last time I discussed some basics of suspension of disbelief, the willingness of a reader or viewer (in the case of movies or TV shows) to give up realism and logic for the sake of entertainment. Suspension of disbelief is vital to your story. If your reader cannot suspend her disbelief it’s likely that she will stop reading and not pick up your book again. So, in order to create a satisfying read you must master this concept.
This time I want to continue the discussion by reviewing four ideas I found that will help you aid your audience in suspending their disbelief and keep them reading. The four ideas are as follows:
1. One way to maintain your audience’s suspension of disbelief is to keep the story as realistic as possible. This doesn’t mean writing your novel as if you’re creating a nonfiction work. But, by using authentic dialogue, settings, and descriptions you place your audience in a world they can likely relate to and feel at home enough that they will willing go along for the ride as you guide them along your fictional tour. Examples of this would be to use authentic dialogue in a detective story or in a thriller. Here is a snippet of dialogue from my novel, The Peril Protocol, a medical thriller, that uses authentic medical terminology: “Geez, Bryan. You’re gonna let this girl die. Write this down: Assist control, tidal volume of 300 cc’s, respiratory rate 25 per minute, flow rate 60 liters per minute, FiO2 of 100% and PEEP of 15.” These are ventilator settings. It’s not important that you know what this means, but it sounds authentic and thus helps the audience suspend their disbelief. But, what about sci-fi and fantasy stories? That brings me to number two.
2. In outrageous stories such as science fiction and fantasy tales it is important to have internal consistency in the created world. This means world-building. You have to create the history, geography, and ecology of your made up world. Maps are sometimes helpful. In addition you will need to create a culture or cultures with all the laws and traditions necessary for believable civilizations. Also, you’ll need to have rules for things like magic or space travel. It’s a lot of work, but having a world in which your reader will willingly suspend his disbelief to dwell within for a few hours will be your reward.
3. Technology is rapidly advancing these days. I recall having one of those early generation cell phones. They were nearly brick size clunky devices. Now, cell phones are thinner than pencils, fit into shirt pockets, and have the power of many laptop computers. You can use technology like this in your story lines. Ideas that a few years ago would sound like science fiction are now “ripped from the headlines”. Things like bullets that can be shot around corners, computers in eyeglasses, and surveillance cameras on every street corner are all either being researched or on the cusp of mass production. Although, they may not be in common use, they are still fair game for use in your story. And, since most people have read about and are fascinated by such devices, they won’t mind being plunged into a world in which they are part of the plot.
4. Thanks to some pioneering writers you have a wealth of subgenres that, a few years ago, would have seemed fantastic and too outrageous for publication. These have now come to be considered the norm for today and audiences have no difficulty suspending their disbelief in reading them. I’m talking about things like superhero stories, mostly found in graphic novels and the movies. Also zombies are very popular and novelists have found unique ways of featuring them in their works. Who would have thought that Abraham Lincoln and Jane Austin would work as characters in zombie novels? Another popular subgenre is the Fifty Shades of Grey type relationship stories. This has tapped into a type of fantasy romance that women seem to enjoy.
You can stretch your writing muscles and continue to have your readers suspend their disbelief by using the above ideas.
What is Suspension of Disbelief?
You read a review of a new novel and the reviewer says, “I had trouble suspending my disbelief.” What is he talking about? What is suspension of disbelief? One dictionary definition states it’s “a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.”
Since, by definition, all fiction is nothing more than made up stories, in order to enjoy the work, your audience must disregard the fact that what you’re telling them is not reality. They have to read the novel or watch the movie as if they were receiving the information from a reliable news source. When your audience suspends their disbelief of a well written story there is a win-win situation. You win because people will want to read more of your work and your audience wins by being thoroughly entertained.
There is a basic rule for maintaining the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Violate it and you risk losing your audience. They put your book down in the middle of chapter four and never pick it up again. The basic rule is this: be consistent. Be consistent in writing your characters’ actions and behavior and be consistent in unraveling your plot.
If you describe your heroine as having green eyes in the opening chapter then in chapter ten you cannot say, “Her brown eyes flashed with anger.” Do this and your book may go immediately to the used book bin. Or, if your fantasy hero is able to fly by wearing a magic ring and you have him soaring above the clouds after he’s left the ring on his kitchen table your story goes down hill from there.
If you maintain consistency in your work you can create some really bizarre plots and, as long as the writing is good, your audience will go along. One example of this is found in early American folk stories, the so-called “tall tales”.
In one, John Henry, an African-American railroad steel driver (a worker who hammered a steel drill into rock to create holes for explosives), competed against a steam-powered driver and won only to die of heart failure. In another tall tale Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack, is able to clear acres of forest in record time with the aid of his pet, Babe the Blue Ox.
Although these stories strain credulity, they are regularly taught in literature classes as examples of American folklore and continue to entertain generation after generation. They remain a staple of storytelling because, despite their fantastic claims, they are well told, reveal a great deal about the American spirit, inspire us, and are consistent in their telling.
Another example of a work that stretches the audience’s suspension of disbelief is a stage play, Our Town by Thornton Wilder. It is one of my favorites. The play tells the story of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, a fictional New Hampshire town. There is no set or props. The actors have to use gestures to indicate actions such as preparing breakfast in an imaginary kitchen throughout the play.
After a few minutes of watching this strange performance you forget that there is no setting and the actors handle no props and you settle in for a totally engrossing show. You disbelief is totally suspended.
Write a consistent and enthralling story and your audience will be sure to suspend their disbelief. And you will have a novel or short story worthy of reading over and over.
Next time I’ll discuss four things you can do in your writing to help your audience suspend their disbelief.
Last time I introduced point of view (POV), the perspective from which you are writing. It can be from the perspective of a single character as in first person or third person limited. Or, it can be from different perspectives as in third person omniscient and enter the thoughts and feelings of a variety characters over the course of a chapter or section. Either way, there are certain rules or guidelines, if you wish, to follow in writing from different points of view. My previous blog touched on this, but lets look at some do’s and don’ts as to how we write in the more popular POV’s in more detail.
As mentioned previously, the first person POV allows for greater intimacy. You can explore your narrating character in as much detail as you’d like. After all, he or she is the one telling the story and can reveal as much or as little of themselves as you, the writer wants. Also, because it is first person, the narrating character can be unreliable. He or she can embellish their story, withhold information, or even outright lie. This makes for a more interesting narrative in many cases.
But, be careful. Generally, you should plant clues throughout the narrative that the narrator is unreliable. Making the person so evil or so erratic that your audience knows something is up can do this. Or, in a mystery you may plant actual clues along the way to contradict the narrator’s account. Otherwise, you risk confusing and ultimately losing your audience.
Here is an example of an unreliable first person narrator from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho: “I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.” He sounds very intriguing, but who would want to trust the veracity of a character like this?
What the reliable first person narrator cannot do is know certain things in the story. For example, suppose your story revolves around a bank robbery and your narrator tells the audience that he knows who robbed a bank. Unless you show the narrator talking with one of the robbers or actually being at the scene while the robbery was taking place then you’ve committed a big “no, no”. Otherwise, how would your narrator know the information? What happens then is your audience no longer suspends their disbelief (a subject I’ll tackle next time) and your story tailspins into the earth.
In the third person limited POV there is a similar process going on. You’re allowed to enter the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time. It may be one character for the entire story or a variety of characters throughout. Generally, if you want to tell the story from the perspective of several viewpoint characters you allow one character per chapter or section (that part of a chapter separated by a break such as “***”). That way your audience knows which character is the limited POV character for that part of your story.
Here is an example of the third person limited POV from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller told from the character Yossarian’s POV:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.”
If you want a good primer on how this can work, just browse G. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Each chapter, written in the third person, is entitled with the name of the viewpoint character. Read the book and you’ll see that each chapter is told through the thoughts and feelings of that particular “title” character.
One thing to avoid with the third person viewpoint is what’s called head hopping. This is the tendency to change viewpoint characters within a chapter or section without warning. The result can be confusing and down right maddening for your audience. You have to give your readers a chance to settle in and get to know one character before going to another.
Follow these guidelines. They will help you avoid costly mistakes in whichever point of view you choose.