How Not to Promote the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

In a sense all fiction, which is by definition a story that is not true, requires the reader to buy into the reality of the tale and suspend disbelief. But the suspension of disbelief requires greater effort for the reader of fantasy and science fiction. The writer must convince the reader to accept, if only for the duration of the tale, that the impossible things that happen in the story are possible and real. Of course most readers of fantasy recognize that this is not the case, but if the tale is well told, the reader will willingly suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the story and, in a sense, enter into its reality.

A well-told tale, no matter how impossible or implausible it may be, will allow the reader to set aside the logic that says, “This could never actually happen,” or “There are no such creatures as dragons and unicorns,” or “Those feats of magic that the characters perform are utterly impossible and violate all the laws of physics.”

A realistic novel does not require such mental gymnastics. The reader knows that the characters are not real people and the events did not actually happen, but the reader also knows that they could happen, and that similar events have in fact happened to real people, just not in the exact way that they occurred in the novel.

Readers of fantasy and science fiction are asked to believe things that could not possibly happen or that may in fact occur at some future time, extrapolating from present scientific knowledge and research, but are neither certain nor imminent. Science fiction may be based on sound science, but often it is based primarily on wishful thinking. Such things as time travel, space ships that travel faster than light, the uploading of personalities into computers, and similar familiar tropes of science fiction require just as much willing suspension of disbelief as a novel about fairies and unicorns or vampires and werewolves.

People who regularly read science fiction and/or fantasy start reading a novel with not only a willingness but a desire to suspend disbelief, a desire to be immersed in another world, another time, or perhaps a distant part of the galaxy. The reader wants to believe, so the writer begins with that advantage. What the writer must guard against is anything that causes the reader to say, “I just don’t believe this.” The writer must take care to do nothing that jolts the reader out of the state of acceptance of the world the novel attempts to create.

In today’s blog I’m going to discuss ten “Don’ts”—things a fantasy writer must take care not to do to break the reader’s willingness to believe. In next week’s blog I’ll discuss some “Dos.”

1. Don’t give either your protagonist or your antagonist unlimited powers. Even the darkest of dark lords needs to have a weak spot. And the most powerful protagonist needs to have something that weakens or limits his power. Every superhero needs his “kryptonite.” Even the oldest and most powerful and invincible vampire must fear the stake or the charmed sword that can decapitate him with a single blow.
2. Don’t introduce late in the story, with no groundwork being laid, a magical being or an alien with mysterious powers or a “guru” with the answer to the riddle the protagonist must solve. If the story requires the aid of such a being, it generally means the plot is weak. Avoid at all costs a Deus Ex Machina ending—one in which a superior being of some type—angel, fairy queen, beneficent extraterrestrial—saves the day for the protagonist and brings about a happy ending.
3. Along the same line, don’t have your protagonist or another character suddenly discover a magical power or a previously unknown process that allows him to escape a terrible fate or rescue the otherwise doomed princess, or avert the destruction that will otherwise doom the galaxy. No pulling a rabbit out of a hat. ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? If it’s essential to the plot that the protagonist discover within himself some hitherto unknown ability (as was the case in my book When the Beast Ravens), there have to be hints given and reasons established for the character to have suppressed the ability and then to discover it. There must be foreshadowing.
4. Don’t have a long narrative block explaining in great detail how the magical powers came about or how the spaceship works (unless, of course, you’re writing hard science fiction in which the technical aspects are integral to the plot). Does the reacer really need to know what happens physiologically to the vampire when he turns into a bat? A long explanation stops the action and takes the reader out of the story. Needed explanations can be worked into dialog or given in small increments as the action progresses.
5. Don’t repeat descriptive details ad nauseum. You don’t need to remind the reader every time the heroine appears that the hero is drawn to her cornflower blue eyes and wants to run his fingers through her silky, golden hair, nor does the heroine have to be impressed each time she sees him by the hero’s craggy features, his glowing green eyes, or the muscles that ripple beneath his tight t-shirt.
6. Don’t try to make up an entire alien or elvish language and throw in phrases from it constantly with lots of apostrophes and no translation. A few words in a context that makes their meaning obvious will be sufficient to give the reader the flavor of strangeness you want to impart. (Scholars of the Klingon language may disregard this advice.)
7. If you are writing in your protagonist’s viewpoint (whether using first or third person), and the protagonist comes up with a secret plan or discovers a vital bit of information, don’t keep your reader in the dark. The reader knows what the viewpoint character knows.
8. Don’t make the settings so vague that the reader is unable to picture the surroundings into which you place your characters. If you are dealing with a magical world or an alien planet, the setting may well play a significant part in the story. It needs to be seen through your characters’ eyes, but the reader needs to be able to picture and experience its strangeness. Don’t give long-winded narrative descriptions, though. Show us what the characters see through dialog, interior monolog, and their actions. Are they slogging through a swamp? Let’s smell, feel, and taste it, share their discomfort and fear. Are they climbing a mountain of ice? Let us experience the danger with them, feel the slickness of the ice, look down over terrifying precipices, shiver as the cold seeps through their protective clothing.
9. Don’t think that if you’re writing a fantasy novel, you can make everything up and don’t need to do research. If your hero rides a horse, you’d better know something about horses, their requirements, the care and feeding thereof. If your heroine is an expert swordswoman, you’d better know a lot about handling swords and the moves of swordplay. If your antagonist is a poisoner, know the effects of poisons, what amount would be lethal, the antidotes, and so on. I had to do a lot of research on very early sewing machines for certain chapters of Mistress of the Wind. I also had to learn about early trains and what the first bicycles looked like. I had a bit of leeway, since the story is set in a fantasy world, not our world. But I wanted the technology to be recognizable and to be at a stage comparable to the mid- to late 1800s in our world, and I that kind of accuracy requires research.



10. If your story is set on a fantasy world or an alien planet, don’t give it an animal that looks like a dog, wags its tail, barks, has spotted fur, protects its owners, and is called a h’frlimt. Just call it a dog. Either make your animals very different from earth animals or call them by the familiar earth names. And if your story is set on an alien planet far from Earth, and you want to come up with names for the strange animals there, don’t use Latin or Greek names, thus implying either that ancient Romans or Greeks originally colonized the planet (assuming that is not your intention) or that your readers are too stupid to recognize the source for the names or that they will be impressed by your scholarly knowledge of Latin or Greek.
Bonus: Avoid cliched situations and phrases like those I’ve deliberately included above.

I’ve seen all of these “Don’ts” in books, and I’ve been guilty of some of them—maybe even several. I hope I’ve learned from my mistakes. I know that I’ve been unable to finish reading books because the story has been ruined by some of these errors.

You very likely have come across other things that keep you from believing in a story. I hope you’ll share them.


About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
This entry was posted in Books, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How Not to Promote the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Research on sewing machines sounds like fun!!!! Enjoyed this post. Very true, all of it! Thanks!

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