Suspension of Disbelief

Hi, gang. Craig with you once again to talk about something directly related to the kind of fiction I write. It’s called the suspension of disbelief.

Most of you’ve heard of this, but likely glanced off it and didn’t give it much thought. Specifically, it means that to enjoy the story a reader is going to have to give control to the author and give up the idea that certain things cannot happen in the real world. (Hint: this isn’t the real world.)

You know by now I always talk about film because more people understand what I’m referring to. Think of all the superhero films that have taken over Hollywood in the last few years. To enjoy them, people have to suspend disbelief. Superman flies, get over it. People can’t fall twenty stories, then catch a flagpole with one hand either.

You can see how this applies to science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal tales, horror, too. It actually goes farther than that today. We see it pop up in all kinds of urban fiction now. You’ve seen those machine gun battles where nobody ever gets hit, the cops never show up, nobody runs out of ammo, cars wreck and explode and there’s enough brass on the ground to build a statue of John Wick. It requires a suspension of disbelief.

Now that we’ve got the basics down, there’s more to it than asking for it. In fact, the author shouldn’t ask at all. Go about your business and expect readers to understand. Seriously. I think a better place to explain what a reader will experience is in your blurb.

I write a series with a magical talking hat. I offer the idea that he’s a creature from another dimension, then shut up about it. Readers are either along for the ride, or they aren’t. I don’t offer a lot of explanation.

In fact you can pick apart any of the speculative genres to the point of ruining them for yourself. The classic example is, “Why didn’t Gandalf and Frodo just ride the eagles to Mt. Doom in the first place?”

Rather than explain why the killer’s chainsaw always starts on the first pull, just write the tale if that’s your thing. I’ve never had a chainsaw that starts that reliably. Writers should present it just that way. Readers don’t want to stop and pump the bulb, maybe clean the spark plug while the tense moment is happening.

As a personal example, my hat is a limited kind of shape shifter. He’s been everything from a hair clip to a diving helmet. I don’t stop to examine mass, physics, elements, or any of the rest. When he needs to transform, he does it and we move on.

If you write in any of the speculative genres, don’t spend too much time selling the functionality. Describe things and paint a vivid picture for sure, but don’t go into how it works. Star Wars was a lot more fun before metachlorians.

I suggest that if you have a fantastic element that you include it early in the story. Don’t wait until the last chapter, where the rest of the book seems pretty normal. Give readers a clue that things are different here. “A drink for Bob, to celebrate that time when he fired an arrow over half a mile and it landed in the goblin king’s head?” That can set the stage for something readers will experience later, but you don’t need much more than that.

Feel free to weigh in down below. I love chatting with all of you.

63 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Pingback: The Stakes are High | Entertaining Stories

  2. Excellent post, Craig! As long as the writer makes sure it makes sense in their story, I’m game to go along for the ride! Then again, I love fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, superheroes, and everything in between! Lol! 🙂

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  3. I think it depends on the type of story, Craig. Fantasy books, and supernatural and paranormal books are not based on reality so the reader knows to expect the ‘unreal’, and is geared to accept it. However, a merger mystery, for example, needs to be bedded in reality and the possible. I personally get irritated when such a book has improbable and unrealistic circumstances.

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  4. I’m fine with the suspension of disbelief as long as it still requires some degree of logical thinking. I”m much more willing to accept it if the author does an excellent job of setting it up

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  5. I have to agree. When authors start over explaining that’s honestly when I start questioning the situation more. Or it gets irritating. Currently reading a book set in a fantasy world with magic, we’re already cool with all this crazy magic. Then the main girl remembers a past life basically set in our world where there isn’t magic, and for reasons that explained in a rather believable way it makes her powers in this world even greater. Which was super cool until every time she uses her powers she feels the need to mention that she’s so powerful now because of her past memories. No one is still asking why when we’re 3 books in and are already aware of this fact. It gets old and takes you away from the story at hand.

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  6. I’m a big fan of suspending disbelief as long as it fits within the world inside the book. I’ve come across some where actions didn’t fit with the characters or things pop up out of nowhere (like you said, don’t wait until the last chapter to add in the unusual stuff) and I just can’t buy into it. I still remember a review of Subject A36 where the reviewer mentioned she just couldn’t read the book because things like that couldn’t happen. Duh. That’s why it’s called science fiction.

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  7. I’m fine with suspending disbelief and going along for the ride. Sometimes you just want sheer popcorn entertainment. If you think about it, even a lot of old classic TV and movies were that way. But they entertained, and I loved that.

    I read Falling last year, a book by a debut author. The novel incited a bidding war in Hollywood after it was released. Universal won the rights with a seven-figure deal. There is a scene in the book that a lot of people bashed as unbelievable, but it was one of my favorites. I imagined a theater full of people breaking out in applause during that scene. Was it realistic? Nah. Most of the book wasn’t, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

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  8. I loved this post, Craig 🙂 You make some good points about suspending the disbelief in fiction and showing up front what it is. I have no problem diving ito these stories will the full knowledge that aren’t real in our small existence. I also enjoy writing them too. I think making the reader wanting it to be real or not adds to the story.

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  9. I think for some readers, suspension of belief is a tough thing to do. I fully embrace the concept when I’m reading. In fact, your books put me in that frame of mind right away. I never even thought about The Hat’s physics before now. Supr post, Craig.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Excellent post, Craig. Your suggestion about the blurb is right-on! I depend upon it to prepare me as a reader. Beyond that, I don’t need explanations about this fantasy element or that. I expect the surreal, the imaginary, the magic! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree that you shouldn’t explain too much. It takes the magic away and makes the reader think too much about the logistics rather that the content of the story. Let the writing stand for itself.

    I didn’t mind the midichlorians in Star Wars because of a disbelief problem. They did bug me a bit from a continuity problem. In the earliest trilogy, we were told by Obi-Wan that the Force surrounds and binds all living things. In the prequels, with the midichlorians, we’re told only a special segment of the population has that power. I’ll believe either for the benefit of the story, but pick one and stick with it. (I guess we’re stuck with the midichlorians now.) And I’ve got questions about that! But this isn’t a Star Wars post, so I’ll stop now.

    Great post, Craig.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Pingback: Suspension of Disbelief | Legends of Windemere

  13. A lot of people tend to forget what fiction actually means. I hear them complaining about details and I want to scream at them, “what part of fiction don’t you get?” Of course, it is the writers job to establish the facts, no matter how improbable…

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  14. Some good tips here, Craig. I like to use this technique in my poetry. It gives a jar to the syntax and symmetry of a piece and draws the reader back to the earlier part of a poem. Like you say, always works better in the parts where the emotion of the work is more stable.

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  15. Works for me, but as you say, you have to set things up sooner rather than later. If things are ordinary in the early chapters, and then a character develops some kind of superpower when they get into trouble, readers’ suspension of disbelief will bottom out.

    Liked by 5 people

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