Making Make-Believe Believable: The first technique to help your reader suspend disbelief is to surround the unbelievable with the believable.
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.”)
For the past few posts, we’ve discussed understanding the reader’s mindset and expectations when it comes to getting our readers to buy into our make-believe worlds. We are now taking a closer look at the three techniques writers use to create suspension of disbelief:
- Surround the unbelievable with the believable.
- Make the unbelievable feel believable.
- Govern the unbelievable.
For the next week or so, we will be concentrating on surrounding the unbelievable with the believable.
First, we need to define our terms:
- Story elements that are governed by the same physical laws (gravity, physics, biological) that govern us.
- Technological story elements that are the same technology that is available when the story was written or when the story was set.
- Story elements that are not bound by natural law
- Technological story elements that include technology that doesn’t exist when the story was written or when the story was set. (For instance, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would be considered unbelievable during the time it was written and during the time it was set. It’s science fiction even though we have the ability to replicate the technology now.)
The unbelievable worlds that we create must contain elements of the believable as well as the unbelievable. The believable makes us comfortable. It feels familiar. Too much unbelievable can make your readers feel uncomfortable—depending on your genre, of course. Comic book writers can get away with a lot more unbelievable than paranormal writers.
Writing Technique #1: Surround the Unbelievable with the Believable
I like to think of Advil as an example. Advil, along with most other pills, is quite bitter, which makes it hard to swallow (no pun intended). Fortunately for all of us with headaches, Advil is coated in a candy shell and tastes just fine when swallowed.
Surrounding the unbelievable with the believable works the same way. Put a candy shell of reality around the unbelievable elements in your story. When you introduce the unbelievable elements to your reader, include believable elements that your reader understands and can associate with.
Here are the techniques we will be discussing over the next week:
- The Details Example
- The Transformation Example
- The Social Norm Example
- The Hybrid Example
- The Archetype Example
Today we will concentrate on The Details Example: When you are introducing the unbelievable elements in your story, make sure to surround them with believable details. Remember to use the familiar as much as possible. The best way to illustrate this is with an example from one of the great fantasy masters: CS Lewis.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis: The main character in this story, Lucy, and her siblings live in the mainstream world—until Lucy discovers a wardrobe that is actually the gateway into the fantasy world of Narnia. Lewis’s inclusion of ordinary details surrounding the unbelievable wardrobe is part of the reason the Narnia series is successful.
- It’s an ordinary wardrobe—a believable piece of furniture that most people during that time could associate with.
- When Lucy opens the door to the wardrobe, moth balls fall out. Mothballs were common, believable items to people during that time period.
- Lewis filled the inside this wardrobe with fur coats. While most of us don’t have fur coats nowadays, I’m sure they were common—especially in an English professor’s old house. The coats being fur also give us an added sensory detail. It’s so much more fun to snuggle with soft fur than to snuggle with boiled wool.
- When Lucy enters the wardrobe, she reminds herself not to shut the door all the way and lock herself inside. This would have been a normal thought.
- Even after Lucy enters Narnia, she first experiences a snow-filled wood. Lewis doesn’t throw Mr. Tumnus into the mix right away. He first lets Lucy, and therefore the reader, experience believable snow and trees.
Lewis sugarcoats this unbelievable wardrobe with believable details, which helps us swallow his fantasy pill.
What to take from this: No matter how unbelievable your world might be, you can always find some believable, familiar details to add into your story that will help the reader feel comfortable and continue to suspend his disbelief.
Mainstream Writers: Your mainstream characters might find themselves in 1) unbelievable situations, such as meeting the Queen of England, or 2) situations and places that most of your readers have never experienced, such as Buckingham Palace. Bring in some elements of familiarity by including details about things your readers know about already.
Speculative Writers: Reread your scenes that contain unbelievable elements and add in some believable details. Your readers will thank you for it!
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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