On Monday, I talked about how fiction helped me have some of my teenage dreams. So today, let's talk about how to keep somebody immersed enough in your fictional world that they can feel it's real.
I was an English major in college, which basically means I spent five years of my life reading until my eyes shriveled up, and writing until my fingers cramped. And yes, I loved (almost) every minute of it.
One thing we talked about very early on was what's called "a willing suspension of disbelief." It's a term in fiction used to explain a reader picking up a book and willingly suspending their disbelief that dragons/spaceships/a handsome English gentleman named Mr. Darcy don't actually exist. We know it's all outrageous, but we are willing to hang up that knowledge and pretend for a little while that it's all real.
But have you ever read a book where you WANTED to suspend your disbelief, you WANTED to imagine it was all real, and you just couldn't? For me, those are the most disappointing books. It might not even be an outrageous premise, but maybe I just didn't buy that the character was real, or that events would actually happen that way. I'd start to sink into the story, and BAM, something would happen that would jolt me out, thinking, "Not buying it."
That's the last thing anyone wants to make a reader think when they write a book. So how do you make sure that you construct a premise, setting, plot, and characters that somebody will willingly suspend their disbelief for? Here are a few things that come to mind.
1. Make sure your setup is relatable.
The key to making someone believe the unbelievable is to include "human interest and a semblance of truth" (as per Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Depending on what you're writing, the world you create might be some fantastical place or it might be in our contemporary world. It doesn't really matter. What DOES matter is that the places, history, culture, people, etc. relate to the human condition. It needs to seem like it could be true, even if it isn't. If people in your story are awarded commendations for committing heinous crimes, you have to explain to the reader how the society came to be that way-- and it has to be something that the reader, as a member of the human race, can understand.
I once read a book with a fascinating premise that I hated because I just couldn't buy the backstory. The history of how society had come to be the way it was went completely against human nature. The vast majority of a society had agreed to do something that I could NEVER see the vast majority doing. It ruined the whole book for me. So make sure that your world, characters, and story have a setup that is relatable.
2. Include specific and meaningful details.
Incorporating small but meaningful details into your story is what makes it real to readers. You can describe the most outrageous two-headed, toothless, six-armed, tailless furry bird that exists in the Amazon jungle, and nobody will buy it. But if you mention the bird sheds like a German Shepherd and your characters track it by following the fur clumps...well, that suddenly makes it a little more believable. (Or not, in this example. But you get my point.)
In re-reading Harry Potter, I've found the magical system is easy to believe because of small details we get about it. The way words are pronounced matters (WinGARdium LeviOsa), certain spells require specific wand movements, and there is theory behind it all (in book 4, Harry has to write a report on how transfiguration must be modified for trans-species changes). All of those small, specific, meaningful details make me believe this magic could be totally real.
3. Don't step outside your world.
Stepping outside the world you created is one of the quickest ways to prompt any reader to pick up their disbelief from where they hung it by the door. This can be done in any number of ways. Remember the whole "show, don't tell" rule? There's a reason for that. When you TELL the reader something, that's you as the author stepping in, just a little, to explain. When you SHOW the reader something, they're seeing it through the character's eyes, so it stays within the world.
Point of view slips (such as describing something your POV character wouldn't know/see/understand) are another way you might accidentally kick the reader out of the world. If you want to keep the reader in the book, make sure that every single word happens within that world so that you, as the author, are invisible.
So, my friends, have you ever read a book that really suspended your disbelief, and became real to you? Have you ever read a book where you absolutely COULDN'T suspend your disbelief? Do you have any tips of your own that help you keep readers believing in your story world?