I read a lot, and one of the things I love about reading is the opportunity for escape that books offer me. People don’t get cut in half. Rabbits don’t live in hats and coins aren’t magically hiding behind my ear. I know that teenagers seldom run around catching bad guys or saving the world, and dead people usually stay dead, but in a well-written book, I can enjoy the story without thinking too much about these details, and in fact, I want to. I want to imagine that what I’m reading is real and could happen. Who hasn’t eagerly awaited their Hogwarts Letter or imagined how they’d fare in the Hunger Games (Who am I kidding- I’d die fast)? I have no false belief that every detail in a book, movie or TV show is absolutely plausible or true. Our ability to believe the unbelievable is called “The Willing Suspension of Disbelief” (coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and signifies a kind of agreement between the author and us the readers that we will suspend our judgement concerning the realism and logic concerning the events of the story for the sake of entertainment. We agree to accept the events of the story as presented and character actions taking place within the fictional universe.
In real life, we are skeptical about the existence of ghosts and aliens. We believe that there’s always a real-world explanation behind magic tricks, and we know time travel can’t happen (yet). Suspension of disbelief is almost essential for any form of storytelling today. In order to enjoy a story, we have to overlook certain impossible details that we would never accept in the real world. we accept that secret train platforms can take a lucky few to a magical school. We accept invisibility cloaks, fire-breathing dragons, teleportation and a host of other things that don’t or can’t exist.
Now you might be thinking that suspension of disbelief means that anything goes in your story regardless of how outlandish and ridiculous it might be, but that is far from the case. Even a fantasy or sci-fi novel that generally requires a larger leap from readers has to have a degree of probability or realism. Readers are a savvy bunch, and we still expect consistency and logic within the impossible. Far-fetched events can’t just be thrown into story for the sake of novelty, and you have to offer a reasonable explanation as to how it happened. You don’t have to channel Neil Degrasse Tyson to explain how your character time traveled, but it can’t be completely ridiculous either. If the reason is too out there, readers get turned off and the story fails. Instead of enjoying the story, we are thinking about how outlandish and unbelievable it is, and there’s no buy in. It is important to establish the rules of your world and to be consistent in following them. The central characters in Harry Potter are 10-years-old at the start of the series, and Rowling is careful to make sure that they think and act like regular kids. Claire from the Outlander books is a 20th century woman living 200+ years in the past. While she does adapt to the time she’s living in, her language and mindset are reflective of how a woman of her age and time would think and behave. If they weren’t, it would be much more difficult to accept the impossible things that happen.
It takes a lot of skill and planning to convince readers to suspend their disbelief for the length of a novel, but if you remember a few simple tips, your readers will be swept away by your amazing story, and not letting real-life get in the way.
1. Establish and follow the rules of your characters and your world. If your character needs a special item of clothing to turn invisible, make sure they always have that item when they turn invisible. Consistency is key!
2. Make it logical- whatever is happening in your story, it doesn’t have to be possible- you just have to be able to answer the traditional “W” questions used for information gathering in a way that will make sense to and satisfy the reader. Nothing is more disappointing than not being able to buy in because the characters are unbelievable or the events are too ridiculous to believe.
3. Make it detailed- the devil is in the details as the expression goes, and if you want your audience to believe, you need to supply them with enough details to satisfy them. The more fully realized your characters & world are, the better. J.K. Rowling was successful with Harry Potter because she thought about all of the little things right down to the pronunciation of words in spells and the movement of their wands. Being able to answer the traditional Who, What, Why, When & How questions of information gathering, you’re on the right path.
4. Make it relatable- The reason we love the books we do is because there is something in them that we relate to. The story & characters speak to us in some way, and feel real even if they are living in a fantasy world.
5. Plan ahead- if you’re placing your character in peril, make sure you’ve thought about how you’re going to get them out of it in believable way. If your character behaves in a way that goes against the rules you’ve already established, or if their escape is too unbelievable, readers will stop buying in. Whenever James Bond gets captured by the villain du jour we expect him to escape, but if the ropes simply fell off and he walked out the door, it would not only boring, it would be silly.
What do you think makes a book suspend or break your disbelief?