Suspending Disbelief: Understanding the Reader’s Reality Filters

Making Make-Believe Believable: Before you can get your reader to suspend his or her disbelief, you must have a good understanding of your target audience’s reality filters.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, most of us relied on this thing called dialup to use the internet. Our computers needed a special cord to connect to a phone line, which is what gave us internet access. If someone wanted to use the phone, you had to get off the internet. Remember those days?

During these dark times, I remember a commercial about a computer that could connect to the internet without using a cord. I couldn’t imagine how this technology could be real. It didn’t make sense to me, and to be honest, I didn’t really believe it. (Imagine how I felt when they first came out with smartphones…)

The problem: I based my views of what could and couldn’t be done with computers on my limited knowledge of how they worked. The computer companies needed more than just one commercial to get me to believe in wi-fi. For someone in the computer industry, however, the commercial would only confirm what they already knew was coming and already believed in based on their study of technology. My computer technology filters differ greatly from that of a computer whiz.

The key to understanding how to write speculative fiction is to understand each reader has different reality filters. If you present your reader with something that doesn’t fit through their reality filters, he will shut down and take his hand off the I Believe Button.

What affects a reader’s reality filters?

The Reader’s Age: It’s easy to convince a child that Santa Claus is real. My parents rarely discussed Santa Clause with me as a child. They put presents out in front of the tree every Christmas, and that was the extent of their attempt to make us believe. However, I believed in Santa Claus because I went to school and hung out with kids who believed in Santa Claus and watched movies about Santa Claus. Children are more likely to believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, and monsters under the bed than adults. They are also more likely to include speculative elements in their playtime and imaginative fantasies than adults.

The Reader’s Personality: At the age of 7, I figured out that Santa Claus didn’t exist. Every Christmas, however, I want to believe he’s real. I want to suspend my disbelief. I love reading about Santa, watching movies about Santa, and pretending for just one evening that some old man with a reindeer sleigh gives all of us presents. I press the I Believe Button willingly because the magic of Christmas still sparkles for me.

I am also the type of person who wishes that the world of Tolkien was real. I wish magical things existed, and that’s one of the reasons I read speculative fiction. Some people don’t have those desires, and they will tend to read mainstream fiction.

The Reader’s Experience: A reader’s reality filters also vary based on their experience. A few years ago, I received an email forward about Santa Claus written by an engineer. The essay discussed the physics of Santa Claus. After counting the number of households in Western Hemisphere and calculating how fast Santa’s sleigh needed to be in order to hit each house, the engineer concluded that the necessary acceleration of the sleigh would be so high that the reindeer, sleigh, toys, and Santa would disintegrate. The point: This man’s experience with physics and lab work, combined with his personality, made him immune to the world of make-believe. (Personally, I think this poor man needed to get out of the lab a little more often and enjoy some eggnog.)

The reader’s experience is most important when writing science fiction, steampunk, or paranormal fiction. If you are dabbling in these genres, make sure you live up to your readers’ experience. (For example, some sci-fi fans don’t like Star Wars because there is no sound in space, and George Lucas added sound in the movie.)

Our job as writers of speculative fiction is to push our world through these filters. We need our readers to believe in wi-fi. We need our readers to choose to suspend their disbelief about Santa Claus.

NOTE: The same basic human instincts and emotions exist no matter what a reader’s age, personality, and experience. Young children believe in Santa Claus. They get a tingly feeling inside when the subject comes up. Santa represents the magic of Christmas. Adults don’t believe in Santa, but they do believe in the magic of Christmas. A story about someone who gives freely of his time and money can cause the same warm feelings in an adult as Santa can cause in a child. Adults watch Christmas movies specifically because they believe in the spirit of Santa. Likewise, younger children fear the monster in the closet or under the bed. Adults fear the burglar who might sneak in their home. The key to writing good fiction, speculative or mainstream, is to access these feelings.

What to take from this: Know your target audience!!!! I cannot stress this enough. If you want to make your audience tingle, you must know what makes them tick.

Mainstream Writers: Remember that every good story still contains magic. You are bound by the constraints of reality, but you can still touch the audience. You can still get your readers to access the same feelings your readers felt when they played make-believe. Figure out how to recreate those feelings within your world of reality.

Speculative Writers: Knowing the reader’s age, personality, and experience simply gives you the boundaries in which you can play, and you can expand these boundaries with a few good techniques. Never forget the art of storytelling, however. Getting your adult readers to fear the monster under the bed the way they did as children requires more than parlor tricks. It requires an excellently composed story.

We’ve covered understanding the reader’s mindset—especially when it comes to suspending disbelief, from here on out, we will be covering the actual techniques writers can use to create suspension of disbelief:

  • Surround the unbelievable with the believable.
  • Make the unbelievable feel believable.
  • Govern the unbelievable.

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

Award-winning author M. B. Weston is one of the fantasy genre’s new, emerging voices. The Elysian Chronicles, her flagship fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason, has been referred to as, “…filling a big part of the void that will be left by the final Harry Potter,” by award-winning author, Vincent O’Neil. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. The Elysian Chronicles is being adapted into a graphic novel, and her newest book, The Sword of the Vanir (working title), is due out in Spring 2013. 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 ImagiCon. 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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