Helping Readers Suspend Disbelief

Guest Post  by Loralee Evans

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my mom or dad while they read me stories like The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, or Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. head-shot-for-booksThese memories, along with many great teachers who got me excited about reading, are what helped me develop a love of reading and writing. I have lived in Missouri, Texas, and Utah, and even spent a year and a half in Japan. I enjoy the works of many authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Harper Lee.

All writers want one thing: for readers to immerse themselves into the writers’ stories, care about the characters, and go along on their journeys with them.

In order for that to happen, writers need to convince readers to suspend their disbelief. Writers need to give readers a reason to put their day to day personal beliefs on hold in order to enjoy a story that contains situations that the reader may not normally believe in, like magic or anthropomorphic animals (animals that can talk, reason, and often dress like humans).

The phrase “suspension of disbelief” or “willing suspension of disbelief” was a phrase coined in 1817 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

Most readers going into a story want to suspend their disbelief. But suspension of disbelief has its limits. Readers are willing to believe in a world where there are unicorns or flying cars, but they won’t be willing to believe in a story that is inconsistent.

So how do we build a world that is fictional, yet believable at the same time?

Here are six suggestions that can help us do that.
1. Build Your World.
2. Remember Common Sense.
3. Do Your Research.
4. Create Convincing Characters.
5. Keep Your Narrative and Dialogue Consistent with Your World.
6. Keep Your Own Rules.

1. Build Your World with consistency. Establish your world’s societal laws, religions, customs, animals, plants, etc. around the natural realities of your world.

Author Brandon Sanderson is a master of this. In his series The Stormlight Archives, he created Roshar, a world that is regularly bombarded by hurricane force winds. These winds could easily rip a tree out of the ground, or kill the animals we’re familiar with. So he created plants called rockbuds and animals with exoskeletons like large crabs that could hunker down and withstand these winds. Even the world’s religion and swear words revolve around the reality of these storms.

When creating your own stories, keep the realities of your world in mind and mold your world around its natural laws. In short, don’t ignore universal laws or common sense.

2. Speaking of Common Sense, good writers are both creative and logical. Believable worlds are both fascinating and grounded in logic.

In the story Dinotopia, for example, meat-eating dinosaurs logically consider humans food, not friends.

Having said that, in certain stories, especially children’s stories like Matilda who had a horrible, abusive principal, it is one thing to ignore certain realities in order to tell a fun tale. It is another thing to create an inconsistency because of a lack of research on the author’s part.

3. In other words, when we take the time to do Research, the risks of getting something wrong, are reduced.

In my most recently published book, Felicity and the Fire Stoppers, my main character Felicity, an anthropomorphic sparrow, is trying to help a group of Hot Shot firefighters escape a wild fire that has gotten beyond their control. Before writing the book, I knew precious little about what real fire fighters would do in one situation or another. And so, since I wanted my story to be plausible, I did research. Not only did I find as much as I could on the internet, I also asked a couple of firefighters themselves. And they were helpful in correcting my misconceptions, validating what I did have right, and generally making sure I had my facts straight.

If we get something inaccurate because of our own lack of planning, research, or common sense, people will notice. And they won’t like it!

Remember: Most readers go into a story wanting to believe it. It is our job to make a story believable for them.

4. Another way we do that is to Create Convincing Characters.

Make sure your protagonist has goals and motivations to which your reader can relate, and that are believable. Don’t make him perfect, but don’t make him too flawed, either. You want him to be someone your readers can both believe in and care about. Readers do not expect or want perfection. What they do want, is a protagonist who gives an honest effort. If good things simply fall into his lap, your audience will not find him plausible or care about what happens to him.

With your antagonist, don’t make him evil for the sake of being evil. His reasons must be logical. At least to him.

In other words, characters need to be people. Not puppets!

5. One way to ensure that, is to Keep Your Narrative and Dialogue Consistent With Your World.

Have the language of your characters and narrator contain only words and ideas that people in that world/time period would know. Don’t say something like “The cloud was as thin as a jet’s trail…” in either narrative or dialogue if your characters are not familiar with what a jet is.

Additionally, make sure you use appropriate grammar that fits the story, the characters, and the setting. It’s okay to use “bad” grammar if it fits your story or your characters. But it needs to have a purpose.

6. Last, but perhaps most important of all, KEEP YOUR OWN RULES! Once you’ve established the rules of your world and universe, keep them.

I remember watching a documentary where George Lucas was talking about the Star Wars movies. From the beginning, whenever there was any ship in space, there was sound accompanying it. With the big ships, there was a deep rumble, and with little fighters, there would be this zipping sound increasing as it came toward the camera, and then decreasing as it went away just like cars do in real life. But at one point, after a number of the movies had already been made, someone pointed out that there actually is no sound in space. Mr. Lucas, however, didn’t say to his fans, “Oh, guys! I just discovered there’s no noise in space! I will now make sure there’s no noise in space!” He kept the first rule he had established, and noise in space remained. Mr. Lucas knew the necessity of keeping his own rules. His audience had already accepted the truth that there is noise in space in his world, and were okay with that. If he changed the rules of his story, he would have caused an inconsistency, which would have been more implausible than simply leaving the rule he’d already made that there is noise in space in his universe.

In conclusion, following guidelines like the ones suggested here, doesn’t means that you have to stifle your imagination or creativity. What it does mean, is that as authors, we owe it to readers to harness (not stifle) our creative energy and direct it in such a way that we can create stories our audience can believe. Remember to establish and keep your own rules, and create stories that are logical, populated with characters readers can care about and believe in. Readers want to follow you wherever you lead them.

Let’s give them a reason to!

Jennifer Bennett

About Jennifer Bennett

Jennifer J. Bennett was born in Southern California as the youngest of six children. Her imagination began to develop as a child creating worlds in her backyard. Books have always played a big role in her life; favorites growing up were “The Country Bunny” by Dubose Heyward, “The Light in the Attic”by Shel Silverstein, and “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’ Dell among many, many others. She also enjoys music, theater, travel, and cooking.

Jennifer moved from Southern California in 1989 and finished high school in Southern Utah where she met her husband Matthew Bennett who currently works in educational administration. They reside in St. George, Utah with four amazing kids: Haylee, Chase, Conner, and Libby. After her father was diagnosed with cancer, she began writing her first novel, “The Path”. Her father encouraged her to move forward with her writing and she has continued since. He passed away in 2009.

Jen, as her friends call her; can be found buzzing around California from time to time in search of magical elements from the past. She tries to balance fun, being a mom, and trying to be a grownup (which she really isn’t sure she ever wants to be).

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