December has gone by way too fast for my liking.
Anyway, before we all head off to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens and get some final holiday shopping done, I though I’d talk about something completely unbelievable.
There’s a phrase you may have heard called willing suspension of disbelief
. Simply put, it’s when a reader is willing to ignore or forgive obviously false things for the sake of enjoying a story. They deliberately choose to ignore the impossible. It’s why we can enjoy Lord of the Rings
when we know there’s no such thing as elves, dwarves, or invisibility rings. It’s also why we can enjoy Star Wars
when our adult minds realize the Force, lightsabers, and hyperdrive are all a little questionable, logically. And if there really was a hockey-masked serial killer
taking out a dozen kids per summer up at the same lake… seriously, shouldn’t someone have caught on by now?
Fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, a lot of horror—the genre stories
are the ones that we immediately think of when it comes to willing suspension of disbelief. But the ugly truth is that any
story can make a reader shake their head and toss it aside. There is no genre, no point of view, no style of writing that is immune. Sometimes a writer asks us to make a leap and… we just can’t.
Why is that, y’think? When was the last time you shook your head at something you were reading? Has something ever happened in a movie or television show that just made you decide you couldn’t take it seriously any longer? Or maybe you just shut it off?
I have a few thoughts on this topic…
One of the biggest things that’ll make a story believable—any story—is the characters. I may have mentioned once or twice or thrice that good characters make for good stories. I can’t have a believable story without believable characters. It’s just not possible.
Yeah, even if I slap “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events” under the title. Once it’s on the page or on the screen, all anyone cares about is if it’s a good story about believable characters. This is a common mistake—one I’ve made myself
. Whether or not they’re real is completely irrelevant. If that’s my only selling point… I’m in trouble.
If my characters are going to be believable, they’ve got to be consistent—or at least consistently inconsistent. I can’t have them acting and reacting in whatever random way happens to move my plot along. My readers need to see motives they can understand. Natural-sounding dialogue
. Relationships that are somehow relatable to the average person.
This is important because once my readers believe in my characters, they’ll believe in what happens
to my characters. If I believe in Phoebe and Phoebe ends up meeting Santa, then—by extension—I have to believe in Santa. Stephen King is a master at this. He gives us very normal, relatable folks, lets us get to know them, and then plunges them into nightmarish circumstances with inhuman, otherworldly threats. We believe there’s a weird clown-spider-elder god thing living under this small Maine town because we believe in the kids-who-become-adults who encounter it and decide to fight against it. Just saying that up above—clown-spider-elder god thing—makes it sound kind of goofy and silly. But millions of people were terrified by IT
and completely believed in that creature… because they believed in the characters Pennywise the clown was terrorizing.
Now, something I haven’t touched on yet. How can I make someone believable in a completely fictional world
? Star Wars
is set on other planets centuries ahead of our own, technology-wise (don’t be that person arguing about “a long time ago…”). The Game of Thrones
books are set on another world that’s arguably thousands of years behind us. The Harry Dresden series by Steve Butcher is set on a different version of Earth. The whole Marvel Universe (comic book and cinematic) may have been vaguely close to ours once, but is far off into sci-fi at this point, even right in the middle of Manhattan.
A lot of this will depend on how foreign I make my world. The more difficult it is for a reader to find relatable ground, the harder it’ll be to find something relatable in the characters. And as I mentioned last week, being relatable is a key to good characters.
Let’s consider Star Wars (no, don’t worry, no spoilers). The first movie (episode IV if you want to be pedantic) starts with a battle between massive starships, but quickly shifts to a boarding party—one on one action where we see people being killed and captured. And then it’s revealed this is a spy mission and the Empire is looking for some sort of stolen plans. Good so far—all of this is very understandable stuff.
Our hero, Luke, works on his uncle’s moisture farm where he drinks blue milk and is expected to work on droids who will work on the vaparators. This is all vaguely understandable, yes. But, as quickly becomes apparent, Luke doesn’t want to work on the farm his whole life. He’s suffocating here. He wants to go off and do big, exciting things. And that’s something we’ve all heard before. Hell, a lot of us have probably felt that before, right? So even though it’s set on spaceships and desert planets, Star Warsimmediately grounds us with familiar, believable characters and situations.
Okay, so once I’ve got good characters, that whole disbelief thing is taken care of, right?
Well… not exactly.
Another thing that can mess up willing suspension of disbelief is if I get my facts wrong. If I tell my readers there are only six countries in Africa, that the human heart is made up of just one cell, that Ronald Reagan was the 25th President of the United States, or that Hitler died in 1958… well, most people are going to see the mistakes there. Even if they don’t know the right answer, they’ll know I got these wrong. And that knowledge is going to jar them out of the story for a minute. It moves us from experiencing the story to analyzing it
. We start looking
for wrong things, and that pokes holes in our suspension of disbelief.
There’s also a flipside to this, one that takes a bit of empathy. I can also blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief by using completely true facts that are unbelievable. There are lots of things that are statistically possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to happen, or happen that often. Likewise, there are tons of late night cable shows that will tell you about amazing true coincidences or billion-to-one events that actually happened. If I’m basing a whole chapter—or a whole story—around these things, it could cause problems.
I spoke with a documentary filmmaker years ago. He’d just finished a film about the botched invasion of Iraq and the even bigger mess that came after it. One of the most amazing things he told me, though, was how much he had to cut out of the film. There were points of such complete incompetence in the year after the invasion that—if he had left them in the film—nobody would’ve believed them. And he was telling me this three years later, when it was becoming pretty clear to everyone how poorly things had been thought out over there. Even then, he had to cut some things so his documentary wouldn’t get dismissed as a hatchet job.
If I present something that’s too hard to believe, even if it’s true, it’s still going to make the reader pause and shake their head. As I mentioned above, nobody cares if it’s true or not
. There’s a phrase you may have heard that started with Lord Byron, passed through Mark Twain, and has even been used by Tom Clancy—the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. And when it doesn’t make sense, it’s going to knock people out of the story and chip away at their disbelief some more.
Y’see, Timmy, this is the big thing. When our suspension of disbelief is broken, even for a moment, it breaks the flow of the story. The more often the flow is broken, the harder it becomes for my readers to be invested in the story. And soon they’re setting it aside to do something more exciting… like the dishes or thank-you cards.
So keep it believable.
Next time… Heck, next time is Christmas Eve. Wow. I may try to jot down something really quick for that morning, but I’ll understand if you have other plans.
Until then… go write.