Getting your reader to suspend disbelief requires you to make your make-believe elements feel real. Fortunately, you have several techniques at your fingertips, which we will be discussing this week.
It’s October! Tis the season for walking in brisk, cool weather, taking hay rides, and enjoying fall leaves. (If you live in southwest Florida like I do, tis the season for cursing the heat, slapping mosquitoes on the hay rides, and decorating your home with autumn garland because that’s the only orange, yellow, and red you’re going to get.) It’s also the season for Halloween and the all-too-familiar community haunted house. When I was young, our community Jaycee’s group set up their annual Haunted Forest a few streets down from me as a fundraiser. Every October, thousands of people would line up—and pay—to allow someone lead them through the dark woods where local young adults dressed up in frightening costumes would try to scare them to death. I could hear the patrons’ screams from my house over a mile away. These haunted forests/houses get people to suspend their disbelief because they make the make-believe elements feel real. People aren’t watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They are standing five feet away from someone in a hockey mask holding a chain saw. It feels real! And they scream.
We can apply this to writing. Our job as authors is to make the make-believe part of our stories feel as real as possible.
NOTE: If you’ve just discovered 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.”) Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing the first rule for making your readers suspend their disbelief and buy into your story’s make-believe elements: Rule #1—Surround Make-Believe with the Believable.
This week, we are going to concentrate on the next rule:
Rule #2—Make Your Make-Believe Feel Believable.
In an earlier post about establishing a realistic setting (click here to read), I quickly mentioned that when I read a story, I begin to see the story’s movie playing in my head. Many of us do this. I believe that what the reader imagines when he reads is far more real and experiential than an actual movie. Reading is book instead of watching the movie is like walking through the Jaycee’s Haunted Fores instead of watching the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The reader is there, within the story, standing right next to the characters. When I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I wasn’t just watching a movie in a theater. I was a member of the fellowship of the ring—a silent, invisible member, but I felt like I was right there.
A great way to help your readers suspend disbelief is to slip the make-believe elements of your story into the movie they are playing in their heads without creating any glitches that make them stop and think, “Wait. What?” Your reader should see the dark forest, the moon shining through the leafless branches on a clear night, the twisted shadows, the caw of a crow, the soft soil under the ground, the frightened characters, the witch flying around on a broomstick—and not stop the movie to wonder about the believability of the witch. You can do that by making the witch feel real.
Her are a few concepts to think about as we discuss these techniques over the next week:
- Your make-believe elements should operate the same way as your believable elements. To the characters who use them on a daily basis, they should feel natural and familiar. They should make sense.
- You must learn to put yourself into your characters’ heads and also into their world. This requires imagination. It means you often will need to sit back, close your eyes, and be there. If you want your readers to be there, you’ve got to be there too. Get into the world you’ve made. Turn on your eyes, ears, nose, sense of touch, and taste buds. Work with the weapons and technology you’ve created. Is it practical? Does it make sense? Does it feel familiar to you?
What to take from this: You want to introduce your make-believe elements in such a way that they feel believable, natural, and familiar, and you want to do it without stopping the movie that is playing in your reader’s head. You want to develop a practice of getting into your own world so you can better explain it to your reader.
Mainstream Writers: Unless your readers are obsessively well-traveled, you have to do the same thing as speculative writers here. Your real life worlds need to feel just as real and alive as make-believe worlds because chances are, your reader hasn’t been to the place you are writing about.
Speculative Writers: Start thinking about the stories you’ve read where make-believe things felt real. Ask yourself what the author did to make you feel that way.
The rest of this week, we will be discussing these techniques that make make-believe feel believable:
- Use of sensory details
- Creating imperfection
- Relying on character reactions
- The use of make-believe in everyday life
See you all tomorrow!
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.