3 Keys to Promoting a Willing Suspension of Disbelief for your Readers

Aug 17, 2011

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?

21 comments:

Krista said...

This is excellent. I will add that writers need to be very careful with narration. Stay in the point of view you've chosen. It's jarring to all of the sudden read a thought, opinion, or observation that isn't from the POV character, but is the author's, or another character's. It pulls the reader out.

Thanks, Shallee!

mshatch said...

I think any time we read fiction we enter the book willing to suspend our disbelief for a while. What's disappointing is when the fiction remains just that, a story, rather than a world we were hoping to escape to. I can't think off the top of my head a particular book that didn't do that but I can think of many where the characters themselves didn't ring true. They may have started out fine but at some point they did something that didn't make sense. A good example is all those scary movies where someone does something you know is going to get them killed. I mean c'mon, after the first gory death are you not going to get as far away as possible just as quick as you can?

as for doing it right, Steven King comes to mind. He is a master at writing a story that completely allows you to suspend your disbelief and of course, JK Rowling. Sometimes I look at certain objects and wonder if they just might not be a portkey.

Margo Berendsen said...

I think your example of the six armed bird shedding hair like a German shepherd is perfect!!! Great point about the magic in Harry Potter, too.

I'm always impressed when writers can pull off the omniscient POV and still keep us immersed and willingly suspending disbelief. I agree its safer to stick to a close POV.

Laura Josephsen said...

I've read both sorts of books. Great tips on how to suspend disbelief when writing. I loved your Harry Potter examples, because that is definitely one of the things about those books--how everything seems so real and how there's a reason behind the magic. I write a lot of fantasy (magic and non-magic) and finding those little tidbits that make it real is so important. I want to feel like it's real when I have to go back and read it.

Ruth Josse said...

That's some good stuff, Shallee. Thanks! I agree that it's those little tidbits of reality and reason that keep the reader believing in the world you've created.

Laura W. said...

This is such a great post...For me, the disbelief factor of Twilight was what made me put the series down. The vampires and werewolves and superpowers I could swallow, but I just couldn't believe a guy as perfect as Edward Cullen could exist, lol. There's a moment where he pulls out his CDs from his car (first of all, who carries around CDs anymore?) and they're the EXACT SAME CDs Bella has in HER car. Obviously, they're meant to be soulmates because they like the same music. :P I mean, give me a break.

Mark Noce said...

Great post! I think that suspension of disbelief is one of the most powerful tools at a writer's disposal, but requires very subtle handling. Too little and the story falls flat, but too much and you lose the audience. Groovy blog:)

Angie said...

Excellent post! That is all such great writing advice. I think you hit on exactly why I couldn't read the Hunger Games. I just couldn't suspend my disbelief. Harry Potter on the other hand, Lord of the Rings--those are all real!

Stacy Henrie said...

The second time I read These Is My Words it really became real to me. I think that's also why I love the movie Dan in Real Life - it's almost like watching a reality TV show about family!

Jess said...

This is a wonderful post! I'm working on editing my first draft of my novel and it's UNBELIEVABLE how much I just TELL things instead of SHOW it!
I find that writing in the First Person POV makes things a little more believable because the reader feels that they are the main character. (Though I've read MANY awesome and believable stories that aren't in First Person... I just writing that way)
Anyway, awesome post! I'll definitely refer back to this post while revising!

Abby said...

This is wonderful! I have been contemplating this the last 48 hours, so this came in perfect timing! I think especially when we write fantasy, sci-fi, or paranormal we really need to make sure the reader can still relate and BELIEVE!

Meredith said...

So, so true! I've read dystopian books where I just didn't believe society would end up like that, and I couldn't get into the book. I can believe a lot of things when I read, but they have to be well-supported. Great post!

Kittie Howard said...

Great post, Shallee! Loved your German shepherd example - how true it is - life's little realities turn the unbelievable into a good read - hadn't thought about that before. Thanks!

Kelley said...

GREAT post. I've read amazing books like that and some not so much, but when they manage to get me invested, I'm hooked.

David Powers King said...

Yes to both questions. I really got into Ender's Game. Something of a mini obsession, really. The one I didn't get into? I better not say it, though I can't believe I read most of it and put it down with fifty pages left.

If you make your reader interested in your characters, and love them for who they are (even with faults), that glues me to the book. Establishing that connection in the very beginning. VERY big!

Great post, Shallee! :)

Madeleine said...

Great points Shallee
I just recently audio-read (as I couldn't get a written copy) the short story by Philip K Dick on which the film 'The Adjustment Bureau' is based. I was constantly being taken out of the world because the langauge was so terrible. Lots of telling rather than showing, too much description, not enough really happened in the story and while the reader was expected to suspend belief because of the bizarre occurrences, had I not seen the film I would have regarded the story as really bad!

Linda said...
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linda said...

Oops, wrong account.

I think most of the recent crop of YA dystopian novels suffer from high-concept premises that make no sense but are absolutely necessary for the novels to work. I have to force myself to accept that utterly unbelievable premise to get through the book, and while it doesn't always kill my reading experience it does bug me when I allow myself to reclaim my disbelief, haha.

Emy Shin said...

Great post, Shallee. I'm bookmarking this.

Without a doubt, the Harry Potter world is one I felt I were living in while reading. There a lot of books, recently, especially dystopian ones, where the sketchy world building and spotty premises pulled me out of the story. If it was compelling enough, I'd still finish. But I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I'd have done otherwise.

ale jest said...
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ale jest said...

In step #3, can you also mean not to editorialize? I see your point, and its true that sometimes narration steps over the boundary of a "good showing" of the story.

 
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