Image: Matthew Loffhagen
By its nature, fiction is imaginary. It may comment on the real world, feel true to life, and even invite strong emotions, but it’s still fiction. Accordingly, few writers expect their readers to truly believe, factually, in their invented story. And yet great fiction still depends on investment – that’s where suspension of disbelief comes in.
What is suspension of disbelief?
Suspension of disbelief is a process by which readers are able to set aside the more insistent aspects of their disbelief and invest in a story; never factually forgetting that none of it happened, but able to emotionally engage with it as if it’s real.
Even stories set in worlds which at first glance appear identical to our own require a suspension of disbelief. We may read about the adventures, innovations, and close escapes of James Bond, but we know that his actions would get him gunned down in a minute flat in the real world. The same is true of even the most realistic dialogue or plotting – the real world is messy, and confusing, and often repetitive, and readers need a way to accept a much smoother, more approachable world without constantly rolling their eyes at necessary contrivances.
When suspension of disbelief collapses, the reader becomes unable to stay invested in a story because they’re constantly being reminded that none of it really counts. Disbelief smothers investment, and once that process begins, it’s hard to get a reader back on track.
How does suspension of disbelief work?
There are two ways in which suspension of disbelief tends to be applied. First, in relation to the reality around us. The fantasy genre, the natural home of vast mythological lands, is one in which many people are unable to immerse themselves. The varied fictional races, languages, and history ask them to suspend more of their disbelief than they find possible – they can’t quieten the voice in their head reminding them of how impossible this all is.
The other way in which suspension of disbelief is applied is in relation to broader truths regarding philosophy and human nature. Many readers can take all the dragons, elves, and orcs you can throw at them, but if the people in that world feel poorly drawn, or the plot depends on coincidence after coincidence, they can’t ignore the contrivance long enough to get invested.
This second form of suspension of disbelief is generally more important. Readers who struggle to ignore the obvious fictionality of genre writing tend to avoid it, while readers who expect ‘realistic’ plots and characters can be made comfortable in any story if the writing is good enough.
In fact, most readers will accept patently impossible events so long as they are used to address something which feels true in a more philosophical sense. Michael Hoeye’s Time Stops for No Mouse is set in a society of mice. Despite featuring a mouse metropolis, an aviator heroine, and the fountain of youth, the characters are incredibly recognizable and relatable. The more important truth the reader finds in the characters excuses the glaringly fictitious setting.
At this point, it’s worth noting the difference between realism and verisimilitude…
Verisimilitude versus realism
When we talk about what’s ‘real’ in fiction, we’re not really referring to how a story corresponds to the real world. Instead, we tend to use this simple term to refer to the more complex idea of verisimilitude – the appearance of being real, or at least being true.
Suspension of disbelief is rarely a conscious process. Instead, readers are generally able to put aside their incredulity unless the author forces them to confront it. In this way, a story can ‘feel’ real (can be verisimilitudinous) in the sense that it doesn’t feel too contrived.
Even this description doesn’t get to the heart of what makes suspension of disbelief work – a story doesn’t even need to ‘feel’ real to maintain a reader’s suspension of disbelief, it just needs to stick to its own rules.
When a writer begins their story they subtly, often subconsciously, establish the ‘rules’ of their world. The way that characters behave and speak, as well as the features of the world which are mentioned, establish a set of narrative rules that readers are expert at picking up on.
This applies to everything from the specific physics of a world, such as the possibility of magic or steampunk technology, to the personalities of the characters.
Recognizable genre and personality tropes are useful in this regard, as they steer the reader towards a set of rules they’re already familiar with. Often the protagonist influences how readers approach the world: if the main character presents an apocalyptic wasteland as normal then the reader adopts their sensibilities.
Similarly, the emotional tone of a work establishes expectations for how characters will experience and respond to events. Whether it feels right for characters to quickly put death aside, dwell on it for a few chapters, or be forever changed by loss isn’t generally judged by how it replicates real experience but rather how true it feels to the world in which those characters live.
Where’s the line?
Because suspension of disbelief is tied to the underlying logic of your world, there’s no single rule that will fit every author. As long as the events and characters of your story are consistent to the narrative rules you’ve established, your readers will be along for the ride.
However, considering how elastic suspension of disbelief can be in consistent narratives, it’s surprising how quickly it can all fall down. Disbelief can come crashing back down in just a few sentences if you commit one of these sins.
Relying on the improbable
Readers will believe a character has trained for fifteen years and become the single greatest archer in history. They will not believe that she just so happened to lose the big archery contest because some grit blew in her eye.
The first of these very unlikely events is big enough to be accepted as part of how your fictional world works, but the second is merely improbable, and that makes it much harder to accept.
Man can believe the impossible, but can never believe the improbable.– Oscar Wilde
A lot of what makes an unlikely event feel verisimilitudinous is how foreshadowed it is in the story, either directly (via literal clues that it’s going to happen) or indirectly (by existing in a world which makes it feel more possible.) That a character can accrue such absolute skill so quickly is a fun, entertaining idea, and so it’s easy to accept. That they could be defeated by random chance is more true to life, but it’s an uncomfortable and unsatisfying truth, so the reader needs a reason not to push back against it (for example: other, similar acts of coincidence earlier in the story.)
If a reader has trusted you to construct an entirely new world and has bothered to learn the new rules that go along with it, falling back on this kind of lazy narrative device is a betrayal of their investment, and the moment it happens is the moment they realize they’ve been wasting their time.
Of course, any detail can be redeemed. Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper uses an improbable resemblance as its central conceit, but the narrative approaches it in a way that allows the reader to accept it. It is the unlikely event which begins the entire adventure, part of the world the reader is asked to believe in, rather than a chance occurrence along the way.
Changing the rules
If you want the hero to be immobilized for a while then feel free to wrap them in unbreakable chains, but appreciate that the solidity of the chains is now a rule. Readers will be offended if your hero ‘summons the strength’ to break free just because you want them back in play.
Writers invent moments of unimaginable peril without planning a solution and have to invent a deus ex machina device to progress. A deus ex machina, named after the moment in ancient Greek plays where a God would appear on stage to right the wrongs of the plot, is a device which appears with little warning and with the single intent of fixing a problem that can’t be fixed any other way.
Deus ex machina can come in any size or shape: a cruel character having an unexplained moment of charity, an otherwise invincible army being decimated by a surprise hurricane, or a door that can never be opened having a secret key.
The same is true of unhackable computers, unbreakable locks, and villains who can’t possibly be outwitted. Having a character suddenly be able to solve an unsolvable problem will irritate your reader unless you address the rule that made it unsolvable.
If you rely on the unlikely for the plot to progress then readers will find it difficult to forget that every moment from that point onward depends on an event they can’t believe.
This is most common when readers feel a character has acted unrealistically. Readers will claim with absolute surety ‘she wouldn’t have done that’ and carry that irritation with them through the rest of the novel.
With the stakes so high, what can you do to make sure a reader remains invested in your narrative reality? Well, there are two key things you can do to avoid testing your audience’s immersion:
1. Know your rules
Identify and write down the conceits that make your world and characters work. How does magic work in your story? Why is that character so reckless? The more you know about why your story works the way it does, the less likely you’ll be to break the rules accidentally.
2. Plan ahead
In the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling establishes the villainous Voldemort as the most powerful wizard in the world and the hero Harry as a newly empowered wizard who hasn’t even grown up around magic.
One of several devices she uses to make Harry’s early combat with Voldemort believable is that their wands cancel each other out. That the wands share identical cores is suggested in the first book, with the relevance of this information only being revealed in the fourth. This provides a satisfactory reasoning for Harry’s victory because, although the reader isn’t informed what the effect will be, the relevance of the twin cores is established early on.
Foreshadow any unlikely event your plot depends on, no matter how minor. Need a cruel character to free a child? Establish that they were an orphan early on. If a hurricane comes along to destroy that invincible army then they should have desecrated a storm god’s shrine earlier on, or at least ignored warnings about bad weather.
Turning disbelief to your advantage
The rules by which a reader understands a story can be broken into two groups: narrative rules and genre rules. Genre rules are tropes which have become attached to a reader’s perception of a certain genre. While you can lean on these to establish your own rules, you can also subvert them to great effect.
In Koji Suzuki’s novel Ring, the protagonists believe they can end a curse by giving the former body of a vengeful spirit a proper burial. This addresses the horror genre staple of the unquiet grave, but it quickly becomes apparent that the rule does not apply and the spirit attacks them anyway.
This is not a changing of the narrative rules (nothing Suzuki has established is reversed), and in fact feels more authentic to the world he has created. This departure from genre rules in favor of something that feels more authentic can both surprise and satisfy an audience. Likewise, if the hero is revealed to have suffered a wound after an unlikely escape from gunfire, the realism of the situation is complimented by the genre expectations of the reader.
In this way, there’s a big difference between the disbelief you ask your reader to suspend and the things you know they won’t question but which you can subvert without breaking any of your own rules.
Maintaining suspension of disbelief
Suspension of disbelief is a natural impulse – not something you have to help your reader achieve, but rather something you have to avoid ruining.
Understand the new rules of your story and how your reader understands them, then use foreshadowing and rewriting to make sure you never break them. At the same time, remember that the impossible is a lot easier to sell than the improbable, and that genre rules can create assumptions that it’s actually fun for your story to go against.
How do you maintain your reader’s suspension of disbelief in your writing, and which writers do you think do it best? Let me know in the comments, and check out Here’s Why Your Writing Needs Realism (And How You Can Get It) and You’re Making A Mistake In Your World Building: Here’s How To Fix It for more great advice on this topic.