Thursday, August 5, 2010

How to Ensure Your Readers Suspend Disbelief

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

To write FICTION is to write lies, is it not? And yet, though our readers have full knowledge we lie to them, they must, and do, willingly suspend disbelief with every NOVEL they enjoy. How does that work?

If we get right to the nub, the secret to a good novel is this willingness to suspend disbelief, isn't it? Here's evidence of that. Would you enjoy a novel that contained an exciting plot, magnificent characters, compelling conflict and effective dialogue, if it's base premise said, without equivocation, all humans are vile, worthless creatures? Probably not.

Why not?

Because no author will ever convince you all people, including you, are contemptible and have no value whatever. It's simply beyond belief.

Herein lies one secret to have your readers suspend disbelief. It's important writers understand there exists an unspoken agreement between him and his reader. This agreement says the reader will suspend disbelief, to a point, and the writer won't go past that point.

What "that point" is, differs by genre. For example, if you write a modern day romance, readers won't believe the lovers met on an interstellar cruise ship. In contrast, if you write sci-fi, it's a distinct possibility the character's could meet on a cruise to the moons of Jupiter.

This leads us to the first skill a writer must master if his reader is to suspend disbelief. Your novel must stay true to its genre. That is, if something must be true in your genre, you maintain its truth throughout your novel. The secret to the truth of your genre is research.

The classic example in historical fiction is the roman centurion who checks his watch. Watches didn't exist in that day, so it's use is untrue to the genre. Another example is the detective story where the chain of evidence doesn't exist.

The next principle to which an author must adhere goes by the technical name, "Step Away from the Stupidity." That is, if it simply can't be, don't try to push it on your readers. A good example of stupidity is trying to convince your readers no humans having intrinsic value. Readers won't buy it. If they can't make a logical leap to where you want to take them, they won't jump.

Consistency is yet another key to have your reader suspend disbelief. Consistency of character, plot, magic, rational and all the rest must transpire though the novel for the reader to accept your lies as fact, at least for a time.

Last night I watched a rerun of Friends where Rachel came on to Joey and Joey backed off. Where else in that ten-year series did Joey back down from a close encounter? And that's the point. All of a sudden, Joey's character changed without explanation, and a bit of the consistency suffered.

The real secret to the willing suspense of disbelief is found in the phrase, "Details do it." People believe what they can see, so paint that evocative verbal picture. Be sure to infuse enough real details to enhance the believability of your false ones. If you have an odd character, make him three-dimensional by infusing him with attitudes, emotions and other characteristics real people might have. The same applies to setting and any other aspect of your novel that bends the bonds or reality.

Now for one last thought to ensure your readers suspend disbelief. If you can't write a story in the first place, people won't belief anything you have to say, period. Your best weapon to convince your readers to suspend disbelief, is to learn how to write.

Now, what did you read that made you stop suspending your disbelief?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. Great post! I've never read something that I didn't believe. Those authors were great at creating a world and I was witness to it.

  2. C. Patrick SchulzeAugust 8, 2010 at 7:37 AM

    Thanks, Julie.

    I just watched the movie "Passengers" the other night and turned it off, simply because I didn't believe the heroine, Anne Hathaway, would have acted the way she did. If you have time, watch it and tell me what you think.

    Thanks for your comment, Julie.