Reasonable Suspension of Disbelief

Posted by on Apr 28, 2015 in Writing | 0 comments

I just stopped reading two books today. They were similar genre, but were very different. Neither was, however, what I would consider a good book. I finished one just to see if it got better. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. I couldn’t finish the second one.

Now, both of these books were edited for grammar and punctuation, they had compelling themes, and could have been good stories. The problem? Reasonable suspension of disbelief.

The definition of reasonable suspension of disbelief is: the temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. (www.phrases.org.uk) basically, it means that you can put a character in a lot of unbelievable scenarios that couldn’t necessarily happen in real life, and as long as you have created some authenticity, people will enjoy and continue reading your work.

People will suspend their disbelief on a lot of things. People will believe that there are vampires and werewolves and zombies; they will believe that parallel worlds with magic exist, but they will not believe when people change the physics of the world that the author has created. People will believe that a magical world with no technology exists, but if we as authors end the story by bringing in tanks, airplanes, and technology, there had better be a good set up and a good reason, otherwise we’ve lost the reader. This goes for everything in that world¬†too.

If a human from this world goes to sleep one night and wakes up in a completely different world the next day, that person cannot just automatically accept that they’ve been transported to a new world. There has to be a reasonable reaction to something that unbelievable. He or she can’t just wake up, look around, and say, “Oh, I’m in a different world. Neat. Let’s go explore.”

A reasonable reaction to this scenario could be anything from anger, to violence, confusion, panic, even to looking around and wondering what the hell he or she had to drink the night before. Simple acceptance would not work for that scenario.

Human emotion is probably one of the most difficult parts of reasonable suspension of disbelief, especially for writers. Writers tend to live in their own worlds most of the time, so some of the scenarios that we put our characters into wouldn’t seem so weird to us, but would be peculiar to those who don’t have multiple worlds running through their heads.

There are some terrific resources these days that help writers with creating believable characters. Typing “building believable characters” into any search engine will provide any number of references on the subject.

I know this is a long blog post, but I did want to touch on one other thing: there is such a thing as being too real or too close to reality. People read books to escape from reality. It’s one thing to show a person’s struggles with bills and have them thinking about the possibility of selling plasma to make ends meet; it’s a completely different story to walk a reader through every last mundane thing they do in a day. Walking a person through over analyzing every single move in a day, unless the person is OCD, is too much. Walking the reader through every argument, making the main protagonist overly obsessive or whiny without any character growth is real life, not an escape.

Taking the emotions out of a scene and walking a reader through a person’s day is another way to lose your reader. We are human, which means we have emotions and that most of them don’t make any sense at all. It doesn’t mean we don’t question the irrationality of it, it just means that all of those messy, irrational, infuriating emotions have to be there, otherwise we lose the reader.

The moral of this rather long diatribe? Be authentic and do your research. And if you really want to see whether your characters are believable or not, give your book to someone who doesn’t like you. They will be more honest about the things they didn’t like than friends and family. Just remember not to take everything they say to heart.

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