In life, we face many situations that we just know will have a particular outcome. Even knowing that we still hold on to hope, to doubts, and to the belief that maybe, just maybe, we can change the outcome. Sometimes these are good situations and other times they are devastating. When a loved one is ill and the outlook is bleak we cling to hope, we cling to it even as we prepare. Prepare for the inevitable. The outcome is inevitable, and yet we have hope.
When we write stories with this element we must master the art of “suspending belief.” We give our readers hope before we dash it away, and yet we must keep a thread of believability in it.
What is Suspension of Belief?
When we open a book of fiction we go in knowing that the story is not real. We understand that the people, events, and even places painted in our imagination do not really exist. A good writer, however, will make you forget that as you disappear into their world and connect with their characters. When they wrought emotion from you and make you forget your immediate surroundings. That is suspension of belief. Lewis Carroll is an author who mastered the suspension of belief. His ability to pull us so deep into such a fantastical world is something I strive for as a writer.
What Breaks the Suspension of Belief?
The biggest way to pull a reader out of a story is with facts that don’t add up. The rules of your world needn’t be realistic per se, but they need to work within the framework of your story. Keeping certain details (location, character personalities, even weather) consistent is imperative for maintaining suspension of belief.
Another issue that comes up is character reactions. Every character reaction needs to be believable two-fold. First, it must be believable within the situation. Second, and even more importantly, it must be believable for that character. The connection your reader has with your characters is pivotal to the story, to the belief.
Sometimes the key to the suspension of belief is in the actual suspension. Cliches and tropes that follow expected outcomes will kill the story for a reader. They need that proverbial hope or even doubt, whichever way you spin it. You don’t want a reader drifting to grocery lists and daily tasks because on some level they already know where your story is headed.
And of course, there is the dreaded plot hole. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes but all have the same end result. An unsatisfied reader. When you leave breadcrumbs throughout your story, your reader is subconsciously filing them away. When they close the book they will dwell on unfinished story/character arcs. One of the biggest holes I have seen is making a character or event important enough to name it but never bringing it up again. If you give me a name, I am waiting to learn why.
Making Suspension of Belief Work
- Set the rules of your world early on and follow them. If you switch from “reality” to fantasy make sure the transition is smooth. If your story is fantasy, you want to present implausible factors early. Introducing magic 6 or 7 chapters into the story is a surefire way to kick your reader out.
- Do your research. You should know enough about careers, work, religion and any other topic you introduce to present it well. Incorrect facts will red flag a reader.
- Maintain your POV pattern. A reader may not know about POV but they will feel they change when it happens. If it is a jarring change you’ll lose them. Additionally, POV should be true to the character. If we’re in a character’s head, we don’t need info dumping that they wouldn’t naturally know.
All in all, the key to suspending belief is consistency. Your world, your characters, your technology…find your consistency and let it carry your readers through the more implausible details of your fantastic story.
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Until next time, scribe happy and stay sassy,