Helping the Reader Suspend Disbelief

In last week’s blog I discussed ten “Don’ts”—things a fantasy writer must take care not to do to break the reader’s willingness to believe. As I promised then, this week I’ll discuss some “Dos.”
1. If your novel is set in a fantasy world, do help the reader see and understand the setting. This can be done without a long block of description. It helps if there is a character to whom the setting is as alien as it will be to the reader, and who can therefore note, remark upon, and be curious about the strange landscape, the presence of unfamiliar plants and animals, the dangers posed by the terrain and by the animal life and perhaps even the plant life. That character may be adversely affected by elements of the flora and fauna and have to be warned about it, injured by it, etc.
2. But you may not have such a character. All your characters may be very familiar with the land around them, its climate, its animals and plants, its beauties and its dangers. This makes your job more difficult. Do avoid long descriptive paragraphs. Show the strangeness (to the reader) in small increments, through dialog when you can, through the characters’ actions, through their thoughts. You might, for example, have a character think, “I’ll sneak away from the family compound after the second sun sets and before the large moon rises. I’ll have to make my way by the light of the two smaller moons, but I’ve done it before. I can do it tonight.” Of course, you’d probably give the “second sun” and the various moons names, but you could still distinguish between them, letting the reader know there are two suns and several moons of different sizes without an explanation that obviously comes from the author, not the characters.
3. When you’re writing about matters of magic, alien landscapes, or urban settings haunted by ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, or other unreal entities, your human characters anchor the novel’s reality and allow the reader to suspend disbelief, providing they are well portrayed. So it is vitally important to know your characters thoroughly and allow the reader to identify with them. Therefore, do spend sufficient time on background work on the principal characters. The author should know much more about these characters than she actually includes in the novel. Know the past history of each character, that character’s goals, motivations, the factors that shape his personality, his attitudes, likes and dislikes, and above all, his fears. Use those fears to heighten tension by having the character forced to overcome them in order to achieve his goal. And be sure that no matter how weird the dangers confronting the characters may be, the emotional reactions should be genuine, the sort of reaction your reader may have experienced under different circumstances. And the kind of reaction that fits the personality of the character as you’ve depicted him.
4. Along that same line, when a character experiences some traumatic event, perhaps of a magical nature or perhaps due to the peculiar customs of the world, it doesn’t matter how unusual or implausible the event might be, the character’s emotional and physical reaction to it should be realistic. Use experiences in your own life or that of a friend or family member to guide you in crafting the character’s reaction. The event to which the character is reacting will be very different, but the reader should feel the reality of the reaction and will if it is based on reactions to actual experiences.
5. Do let the suspense or anticipation build up before bringing about a resolution to a scene or to the novel as a whole. Do this by having a character or characters fear something, giving hints of how terrible that something may be, show their bravery (or cowardice) in the face of the danger, perhaps have lesser events that the characters deal with successfully at some cost to them, but which point to an escalation in the opposition’s efforts. In the case of a romance developing between principal characters, allow a build-up that increases the reader’s anticipation—an escalation of desire that may clash with doubt or resistance, so that tension is created by the conflict between the characters’ desires and their fears or doubts or perhaps opposition from others. Then, when the two finally yield to their mutual desire, the reader will savor the scene all the more because she’s been anticipating it for so long.
6. Make your dialog sound as realistic as possible without mimicking too closely actual dialog, which can be filled with “uh,” “see,” “you know?” and similar meaningless phrases. You may want to give a character an annoying speech habit or a characteristic style of speaking, but in general you should avoid dialog bits that don’t further the plot. Break up long speeches and have characters interrupt each other or contradict. A character may ask a question that goes unanswered. One speaker may change the subject in the middle of a serious conversation so as to avoid an uncomfortable topic.
7. Be certain that as your protagonist faces obstacles and fights to attain his or her goal, he or she changes, grows, possibly even changes goals. In my book A Perilous Power, the protagonist starts out as cocky, too sure of himself, and unwilling to take advice from others. He’s a real jerk. When the artist did the cover for the paperback edition, she portrayed several characters and events but the most prominent figure was clearly not Trevor, my protagonist, but Les, his sidekick. I asked her why she hadn’t put Trevor on the cover, and her response was that she liked Les and did not like Trevor. Les is unquestionably a more likable character throughout most of the book. But it’s Trevor who needs to change and does change, while down-to-earth, sensible, loyal Les remains the same throughout.
8. Make certain as you approach the book’s climactic scene that your protagonist is present at that scene and that the protagonist’s actions bring about the resolution. With everything stacked against him, he must either succeed or fail as a result of his own actions.
9. Be sure you tie up important plot points, but it’s fine to leave the reader with unanswered questions. Real life is full of those, and you want your novel to reflect real life. I’m not advocating cliff-hanger endings, though. Personally, I hate them. Though I write trilogies and series, every novel has a story complete in that volume. That is a personal preference. Many people don’t mind cliffhanger endings, and some people really enjoy them. However, what I’m talking about is raising philosophical, political, theological, or cosmological questions in the reader’s mind that will leave the reader thinking about your work long after he finishes the book.
10. When you finish your first draft and begin the editing process, look for inconsistencies that would puzzle the reader, explanations that don’t make sense, characters who don’t have any real role to play, needless repetitions, explanations that go on too long or aren’t needed, narrative blocks that the reader would most likely skip over—anything that would break the reader’s absorption in the story, pulling her out of the dream. Think of it as housecleaning, getting rid of all the clutter that can obscure the story. If it’s too painful to send your precious words, scenes, or characters to the Recycle bin, save them in a file to use in another novel at some other time.

Obviously my list is not all-inclusive. Far from it. It’s only a few highlights that came to my mind because of books or stories I’ve read recently that have either kept me enthralled or have made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief, even when I very much wanted to.

You might come up with a list very different from mine. You may disagree with what I’ve said or have noted some important omissions. Please share your thoughts: As a reader, what causes you to willingly suspend disbelief in a novel? What keeps you from doing so? What advice would you give to writers?

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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