Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Suspending Disbelief

I finished a book the other night by one of my more favorite authors. I love her recent historical fiction for young adults and thought I'd read some of her earlier work.

I didn't get it.

At all.

It got me thinking about the concept of "suspending one's disbelief" in fiction writing. Writers ask their readers to set aside natural disbeliefs and suspicions and go with them in a fictional journey all the while pretending that it is real. Sometimes the journey involves other worlds and creatures, other times and places-- Orson Scott Card and JK Rowling come to mind immediately. Sometimes the journey seems almost identical to everyday, run-of-the-mill life, and yet we still must trust that somehow, somewhere, in someone's life, these events truly could happen.

The author's book I read had too many yarns woven together, too many lives being explored, and too much of a stretch that the main "collision of worlds" described on the cover flap could actually happen at all. I walked away thinking: "Really? Would that even really happen?"

That response is the sign of a failure on the part of the author to keep readers engaged. When I read Harry Potter, I closed the book and thought "Oh, if only!" I knew it was fiction; I knew Hogwarts was the creation of a talented author, but oh how I wanted to go there! I'm not alone in that. Look at how many millions of people try, in their own simple ways, to recreate the Wizard and Muggle worlds around them.

How do you do that? Here are a few keys I thought of:

Consistency. You can't be changing the rules every other chapter; it won't work. Write the rules for your world/story and keep them the same throughout.

Plausibility. Yes, it is fake, but it must be believably fake. For example, a raging blizzard in Hawaii won't get your story anywhere-- unless that topsy-turvy weather is plaguing the whole globe.

Depth. Your story must be well-rounded and have substance. Pretend your creation is a boat-- the bigger the boat (tale), the deeper the water needed to support it. A shallow story does not justify sufficient suspension!

Description. If you're solely creating the characters, the world, the fantasy, then assume your readers know nothing. Show them everything. Yes, there is a fine line to walk between description and belaboring that all authors must walk, but in this discussion, walking that fine line is the difference between failure and success.

Anchor. Keep at least some aspect of your story moored in reality. Throwing a reader into a newly-created, uncharted existence in a story is sure to leave them feeling like a tourist dropped off without a guide in the middle of nowhere.

All of these keys--and the skills behind them-- are learnable. Some authors are blessed to get them right off the bat (just like some authors are able to make millions with their first book). Most of us don't get it right away. We need practice and experience. We need to look through our manuscripts with a hearty dose of skepticism to make sure our story merits the "suspension of disbelief." Being aware of this will help make it easier for you to spot the holes in your own fantasy as you're writing.

Good luck! Please post your comments below! :o)

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Joseph Ramirez said...

So true, particularly for characters. Even in a straight contemporary drama, all of these rules would apply to the characters and their actions. I can let a lot of things go... but if the characters aren't real to me, I just can't play.

Good post. Will apply it.

Julie Daines said...

I think about this all the time. Especially because written fiction is held to a higher standard of believability than movies or TV. I don't know why!