Suspension of Disbelief
Merriam-Webster defines Suspension of Disbelief as: to allow oneself to believe that something is true even though it seems impossible.
All writing, specifically fiction, is based on Suspension of Disbelief. This is what allows us to tell stories that range from fictional accounts all the way to full Science Fiction and Fantasy. It forms the basis for how readers allow themselves to be immersed in a story, no matter how fantastic or bizarre. Without it, there would be no escapist fiction, no movies or television shows. When the readers allow themselves to be swept along with the story, the real magic begins. Let’s explore this a bit, shall we?
The primary element to suspension of disbelief lies in telling a good story. A tale that the reader enjoys enough to allow themselves to be swept along with. The more engrossing the tale, the greater the readers will become attached to the story, even going so far as to start believing (to an extent) that the tales could be true. Look at the Harry Potter franchise, books and movies. How many people have wondered which house they would have been sorted into? Who hasn’t thought, I believe in magic? All because they were swept along for the ride on a well-told tale.
Since writing became more than just bibles and books intended to teach, there has been the suspension of disbelief. The more scientifically advanced society became, the farther that suspension would take them. Science Fiction only became possible when we had progressed far enough in technology that we could conceive of it becoming a reality, even if it was a distant future. Writing therefore, is at least to an extent, turning the incredible into the credible.
You can’t just through your readers into any scenario and expect them to believe it without any explanation. You have to present the story so that it sets the reader up in a way that is relatable and understandable. Depending on what you want them to believe, it might be more difficult or easier than you thought. Especially if the subject is something they can relate to. The more relatable, the easier the suspension of disbelief will be. The less relatable, the more difficult. If the story is going to be more difficult to relate to, that is when relatable characters become invaluable. Something about the story has to draw the reader in and nothing does that more than characters that resonate with the reader. Building you story based on believable details really helps, too.
Let’s say you want to tell a story about a serial killer who is also a vampire who lives in London in the year 2153. You’re blending a lot of elements there, but that’s ok. It’s not impossible to make it happen. You need to build your foundation on details that are realistic and relatable. Add in characters that are normal people, not perfect in every detail. Set at least part of the story in “Old Towne” parts of London where the architecture hasn’t changed for “historical reasons” and then you can describe scenery that people find familiar and understandable. Keel the future technology attainable or at least explainable. Give the heroes, and by extension the villains, human frailties and passions. That makes them relatable to the reader, maybe even keeping them a little sympathetic to the villain. That always makes an interesting tale. None of this is impossible, but it will require you put some thought and effort into researching your subject and taking the extra steps to build the story on a firm foundation of relatable details.
If any of your characters have a particular skill, make sure you’ve done enough research to know the right details. If the character is a cop, then you’ll have to have a basic understanding of police procedures and behaviors. If the character is a doctor, you’ll have to know basic terminology and procedures to make them believable. Don’t just gloss over the things you don’t think the reader will notice. Trust me, they will and they’ll call you out on it, too. Readers are willing to forgive a lot of things in the pursuit of suspension of disbelief if they have that foundation in reality that a good story needs to be built on. Trust me, they came into the book wanting to be immersed in the story. It won’t take much convincing. You just have to know what you’re talking about when you write. Having those details correct makes all the difference in the world.
Readers want to be swept away by the story. That’s why they read. If you want your stories to be the kind that readers want to read again and again, you have to give them a fully-immersive experience. You owe them that for reading your work. Reading is a journey we take in our minds. The journey that you share with them is the story that you wrote. They want to join you on that journey, that’s why they read your book. Take that journey with them. Experience those joys and scares that a good story brings. Write for yourself as much as for them. Write the kind of stories that you want to read. I think you’ll find that what you look for in a story will be the same thing that scores of readers are looking for, as well.
When you read, you look for a story that is engrossing and takes you on a rollercoaster ride of experience and imagery. That’s exactly what your readers want, as well. It’s up to you to give it to them. Suspension of Disbelief allows you to tell that Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Steampunk, Dieselpunk, Historical Fiction or any other form of fiction story that you can think of. Build your story on a solid foundation so the experience is as immersive as the reader deserves. Build solid characters and believable details for the core so that the fantastic details are accepted readily. Remember, the reader WANTS to believe in the story. Help them to believe.
Writing is all about a journey in our minds that we share with our readers. Just because you write the story doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong to the reader just as much as it does to you. It’s a shared journey into the world you created for them. Every emotion and experience you put into that story, you are sharing with them. It’s a strangely intimate relationship, bearing your soul with someone you might never meet. Give it the care and attention it deserves. The story you build will reflect that experience and your readers will love it.
Take that journey together. You won’t regret it.
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