Understanding the Suspension of Disbelief

Making Make-Believe Believable: Getting your reader to suspend his or her disbelief is key to writing make-believe. First you have to understand the reader’s expectations.

One of my favorite scenes in Peter Pan is the scene where Tinkerbell almost dies and Peter pleas with the readers to clap their hands if they believe in fairies in order to save Tink. I’m sure even parents reading the story play along and clap their hands along with the children.

Do the parents believe in fairies? No.

Have they chosen to pretend fairies exist? Yes.

Do the children believe in fairies? I’m not answering that. Let’s focus on the parents.

The moment the parents clap their hands, they have chosen to take their disbelief in fairies and set it aside. They are pretending. In writing, we call this the suspension of disbelief. The reader has decided to say to herself, “I don’t believe in fairies. However, for the purposes of the story (and my child’s mental well-being) I’m choosing to take my disbelief in fairies, and set it aside. I’m going to put it far away and pretend that fairies are real while I read this story.”

I call this “Getting the reader to press the I Believe Button.” It happens when the reader chooses to believe your world is real.

The key to getting the reader to suspend disbelief is getting the reader to agree to pretend along with you. You want to get your readers to clap their hands because they believe in fairies—even though they don’t. Once the reader decides that our unbelievable elements are too unbelievable, she will stop suspending her disbelief, and your story will collapse. Don’t be discouraged, speculative writers. J. K. Rowling has already proven that even lovers of mainstream literature can enjoy fantasy!

NOTE: Mainstream fiction and speculative fiction both require the reader to suspend their disbelief. When a reader buys a fiction book, be it mainstream or fantasy, the reader must choose to believe in the book’s world. Returning to our James Bond example, all of us know James Bond is not a real person. We also can be pretty sure that MI6 isn’t actually like Ian Fleming’s vision of it. And who knows if 00’s exist. James Bond is mainstream fiction, and yet we still must press the I Believe Button when we read it. A poorly written mainstream story can feature a world that seems more unbelievable than Hogwarts. Fifty-Shades of Grey is a huge hit right now because the author convinced her readers to buy into the world she created—a much different world than most of her readers have experienced.

Writers must understand know two things about their readers before they can adequately get the reader to press the I Believe Button:

  • The reader’s expectations
  • The reader’s reality filters

Today we will focus on the reader’s expectations. I once met two guys who were leaving a movie theater with a lot more angst than they should have been feeling after watching a movie. We ended up chatting and I asked them what they had seen. One of them frowned. “Twilight,” he said with a slight snarl. “I saw the previews on TV and thought it was going to be a normal vampire movie.” Clearly, Twilight did not meet this young man’s expectations of a vampire movie, and he was quite perturbed about it.

Readers have a few expectations about the books they purchase, and they should. After all, it is their money.

  • Expectation One: The book will be of high quality. I’m not going to belabor this too much. Readers want a book’s physical construction to be of high quality. The expect it to be edited. They expect e-books to behave like most e-books.
  • Expectation Two: The story will be of high quality. We discussed the magic of good story telling in an earlier post. Make sure you have a great plot, character development, and setting. Remember that as authors, we are entertainers. That means we are but mere street performers on a literary stage.
  • Expectation Three: The book will fall within their content/genre expectations. Like the young man who was expecting Twilight to be Blade, readers will become perturbed if the book they read isn’t the book that they were promised. Readers pick up a paranormal thriller because they want to read a paranormal thriller. If the book ends up being about a middle school kid attending a wizards’ academy, they might become miffed. That being said, you can play around with this one if you construct a great story. If you choose to break this rule, break it well…
  • Expectation Four: The story will allow the reader to escape into a different world. This, right here, is the key to creating suspension of disbelief. Readers buy books with the expectation of already suspending their disbelief. They are prepared to place their hands on the I believe Button—within the bounds of the genre they have purchased.

What to take from this: To suspend disbelief, you must understand your reader’s expectations of your story. Use your genre as a guideline. You can jump over it on occasion, but try to stay within bounds. If you decide to cross over a line, make sure to take your reader by the hand and gently lead him or her along.

Mainstream Writers: Play around within genre and make sure you write an incredible story.

Speculative Writers: Remember that your reader is already expecting speculative content. This should give you freedom to stretch the boundaries. However, make sure you provide the reader with an incredible story as well.

All Authors: Don’t skimp on quality. Make sure your story is well-edited and your book is high quality.

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.” Thanks for stopping by!

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

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About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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4 Responses to Understanding the Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Great post. As a fiction/horror/fantasy writer, suspension of disbelief is extremely important to me. I do it by trying to create a setting and characters that feel so real it seems like they could be your next door neighbor, then I add something supernatual or paranormal that gives it that twist as promised by genre. Usually it’s a supernatural character or item. Thanks for the tips. I love your blog, by the way.

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  2. Pingback: Writing Technique: Prep the Reader for Your Plot Twist and/or Make-Believe Element | M. B. Weston's Official Website

  3. Pingback: Writing Technique: Star Wars–an Example of How to Break the Rules | M. B. Weston's Official Website

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