Suspending Disbelief

I saw an interesting question posed on Twitter this morning: “How does an author create a tale that allows readers to suspend disbelief?”

It made me think of those YouTube videos where people pick apart movies for how unrealistic they are. We do that with books sometimes, too. So what makes the difference? Why are we willing—even eager—participants in some fiction and resistant to other?

I believe there is a natural barrier between us and fiction. We understand, when entering a book or movie, that it isn’t real. There is a sense of, “Make me believe it.” The author’s job, then, is to make that barrier permeable.

Think about all the things that pull you OUT of a story. Characters that don’t behave in ways that seem realistic, for example, or stilted dialogue. Sometimes it’s the world that doesn’t make sense. If a fantasy author has created a town or country or planet, it still must function within parameters that readers relate to. The place may be very different from Earth, the characters may be aliens, but there are some universal truths that we rely on when entering a fictional world. Touchstones, if you will. If the internal logic of the world doesn’t hold up—if every few minutes the reader is saying to him- or herself, Why did they do that? Why is this world set up this way? It makes no sense, no society would be built this way—the barrier is too solid.

So if you want to create something really different, you have to lay the groundwork of there being very good reasons for things. It can’t be because “it’s always been this way.” There needs to be an explanation of WHY it was ever that way to begin with.

Another reason people begin picking stories apart is sheer boredom. If nothing interesting is happening, the reader begins to look for something else to entertain them, and your world or characters may be the victim of their detachment. When you’re really into a book or movie, you’re carried along on a wave as the plot and characters move along. You feel immersed. Later, someone might point out a plot hole and you’ll say, “I never noticed.” But, boy, when you’re bored you notice everything.

Think about long car rides, looking out the window, trying to find anything interesting to look at. Or, if you grew up going to church, synagogue, some house of worship, think about sitting there and looking around at people, the walls, the chairs/benches/pews. Every stain, crack, speck of dust came to your attention. That’s what happens when a reader is bored, too. They start gazing at the wallpaper and noticing the wrinkles, rips, mismatched seams.

Boredom, then, is one of the particles that forms that barrier to fiction. The reader shouldn’t ask, “Why am I here?” He or she should want to be there, in your world, with your characters. They should never want to leave.

These things don’t only apply to fantasy and sci-fi, though the barrier to those is probably thicker. Authors of these kinds of books have more work to do to make their worlds and characters believable. But even real-world based fiction must give readers compelling characters and situations that, even if far-fetched, the reader can be made to accept.

I love Tana French’s books, but there is one called The Likeness that really stretched my believability. The entire premise is predicated on a detective who looks so much like a murder victim that they insert her into the victim’s world to root out the killer. The book is well written and entertaining, but I still had trouble giving the premise credence. And since no reliable reason was ever given for the, er, likeness . . . Sure, “long lost twin” is weak, but I’d believe it over random chance.

What pulls you out of stories and/or makes them unbelievable to you? Which books have you encountered with this problem? Did you finish the book or put it down? Let me know your thoughts!