Image: Matthew Loffhagen
‘Suspension of disbelief’ refers to the ability of a reader to accept the ludicrous events of fiction enough to be immersed in them. By rights we should laugh when confronted by the nonsense that comprises most fiction, whether it be fantastical worlds or an impossibly unlikely series of events, and yet somehow we can set that response aside and have a real emotional connection to the story.
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.
How does it work?
Thankfully, it’s a reader’s natural impulse rather than a conscious effort, but different people have different thresholds. 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.
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.
Suspension of disbelief is tricky, and far from a catch-all tool. In fact the term is a poor indicator of what’s going on: what a reader is actually doing is accepting an alternate rule set.
When a writer begins their story they subtly, often subconsciously, establish the ‘rules’ of their world. The way that characters behave and speak, 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.
Where’s the line?
When constructing coherent worlds there isn’t one. 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.
Considering how elastic suspension of disbelief can be in consistent narratives, it’s surprising how quickly it can all fall down. Disbelief can come down in just a few sentences if you commit one of these sins:
1. Relying on the unlikely
Man can believe the impossible, but can never believe the improbable.
– Oscar Wilde
Readers will believe in a fantastical archer who has trained his entire life and become the perfect shot. They will not believe that he just so happened to lose the big archery contest because some grit blew in his eye.
The same goes for long lost children who coincidentally end up employed by their parents, characters who just so happen to look like other characters and sidekicks who stumbled across the one copy of a villain’s comprehensive history years before meeting them.
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 then falling back on this kind of lazy narrative device is a betrayal.
Or course, any of these plot points can be redeemed: it’s when they’re used as a convenient get out clause that they become offensive. Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper uses an unlikely 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 author is asked to believe in, rather than a chance occurrence along the way.
2. 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 readers unless you address the rule that made it unsolvable.
These mistakes are easy to make and even the smallest can completely destroy a reader’s experience. In K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series it is established that the main characters can morph into animals so long as they begin their transformation from a human state. In The Prophecy, the 34th book in the series, a character transforms directly osprey to whale (calculating the exact moment to transform fully is used to build tension.) Though it’s a minor detail, only skipping an intermediary state, it invited derision from its dedicated fanbase.
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?
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 as relevant 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 earlier 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. The spirit is such a violent presence that it feels more realistic.
This departure from genre rules in favor of something that feels more authentic can both surprise and satisfy an audience. 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.
Suspension of disbelief is vital to the enjoyment of any fiction and a little planning will make sure it works for you. For advice on the balance between planning and freestyling check out our article on the subject. Or for more tips on writing a novel that satisfies your audience try Five Story Elements You Mustn’t Forget.Are You In Danger Of Losing Your Readers’ Suspension Of Disbelief?Click To Tweet