Suspension of Disbelief

Posted Sep, 2006

Most writers have heard of Suspension of Disbelief, but very few have an appreciation for what it truly is, and how important it is. It is the foundation of any story.

Suspension of disbelief is what happens when your reader forgets that this is just a story, and becomes a participant of the story, vested in the outcome.

It is easiest to see in movies. Has a movie ever made you cry? Have you ever jumped out of your seat? If it’s just a movie, and we know that it’s not really happening, how is it that people have had heart attacks during horror films? Suspension of disbelief. Our imagination is so powerful that we put ourselves into what we see, hear, and read.

Suspension of disbelief hinges on the audience not realizing that this is just a story, that it’s just pictures on a screen, actors on a stage, or words on a page.

Without suspension of disbelief, people have no interest in any story they see. None. Ever. No exception. Lawyers often have a hard time watching law shows, Doctors watching ER, and police watching CSI… Why? Because one technical mistake, and they are pulled out of the story. They no longer believe it, and thus no longer enjoy it. Laymen can’t catch these mistakes, and are drawn to these shows.

Even a true story needs suspension of disbelief. If a story sounds made up, people will loose interest in it. If you can convince them of the voracity of the story, they may enjoy it longer, but in the end, your audience’s attention is based on their emotional belief in the story (even if they know its fiction).

There are many things which impede suspension of disbelief. These are usually called “tripping points”, points where the reader trips along the path of your story.

ANY tripping point can cause a reader to put your story down. They are reminded that this is just a story, they loose interest, and if they’ve lost enough, the book gets put down. If your book reaches a wide enough audience, any tripping point will cause you to loose SOME readers.

As much to the quality of the story, a writer owes success to having only a very few number of tripping points. It is impossible to remove them all – the breath of human experience is so vast that there will always be somebody who finds a particular scene unrealistic, even if it rings true for 99% of your readers. But if you hope to have any success, you must try to have as few tripping points as possible.

The first common tripping point is typos. Any misspelling can “wake up” your reader, remind them that this is just a book. Imagine being in the middle of the scariest Stephen King scene you’ve ever read, and then you see an obvious typo. You are reminded instantly that this is just a story, you’re just reading. None of this is real. Imagine watching the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy, and as Frodo decides not to destroy the ring, you see the boom mike come in at the top of the screen. That would ruin the movie for most people.

Many argue that so long as it is legible, spelling is irrelevant. That is simply wrong, and more often than not just an excuse to be lazy. The truth is that bad spelling and grammar interrupts the flow of ideas and reminds the reader that this is just a story, the last thing you want to remind your reader of. It is a hiccup during Pavarotti’s performance, the cell phone ringing in the theater. In short, it is a cruel intrusion of reality into your fantasy world (which, even if non-fiction, is still a fantasy in the reader’s head. The reader is not experiencing it, only fantasizing it).

Another tripping point is having unclear sentences. If the reader needs to re-read your sentences, they loose their pacing, and you have a tripping point. Can they recover? Sure. Most do. But not all will, and the more tripping points you have, the harder it will be for people to enjoy your work.

A good example of an unclear sentence is “John loves money more than Susan”. This sentence has, for the sake of brevity, left out some words, but it is impossible to know what words were left out, and thus the reader is stuck with two possible interpretations of the sentence; that John loves money more than Susan loves money, or that John loves money more than he loves Susan. I’ve seen numerous works averaging one or two ambigious sentences per paragraph, and make the work nearly impossible to read.

Dialog is also a common tripping point. For example, having the farm boy speak like a scholar, or the scholar like a farm boy. So too, by the by, is having speech which is TOO realistic. I’ve seen dozens of writers, in an attempt to make “realistic” speech in their work, write illegible dialog. They write out a thick southern accent, making the dialog impossible to read easily. Or they write a science fiction piece where all the aliens use “S” instead of “R”, making the reader break out the decoder ring if they want to know what was said. All are tripping points.

Sometimes writer’s use dialog as exposition, which is foolish (people tend to do this because of the influence of movies and television where a narrator usually does not exist, but as a writer you have a narrator for your story), and a tripping point (we don’t use exposition in real life when talking to third parties already aware of events).

One should never use dialog as exposition, or have the dialog so accurate that it causes difficulties for the reader, or so inaccurate that the reader doesn’t believe it. Dialog must come in the middle. How is that done? Skill, practice, and patience.

The theme of choices is strong in these essays. Your choice is how to balance all your dialog’s opposing needs. Reality, Readability, Originality, and Believability. How you balance these is unique to you, and part of your voice as a writer.

Point of view is another tripping point. Suddenly changing perspective or tense (“Sam hoped that the wall would hold, that he could keep the vicious horde at bay, but in his mind, he knows he can’t”) can cause tripping points. Changing from a first person to an Omniscient narration causes tripping points (“I was tired. I hadn’t slept in days. John was thinking that we should go home, give up all together”).

There are many other types of tripping points, but they are covered in other chapters.

Tripping points CAN NOT be avoided. Sometimes you will even intentionally leave them in. Sometimes to cut them would cut elements you need. That’s okay. A perfect writer could cut the tripping point and save those elements, but a perfect writer has never been born. It’s okay to leave tripping points, but only so long as you are aware of their existence, and have consciously chosen to allow them to remain because to cut them would be an even greater crime. Do not keep them out of laziness, out of a refusal to put in the time to polish the work. That is sloppy writing, and it will be seen for that. That is the excuse of poor writers who can not be bothered to make sure their work is easily legible, and who think their ideas are so superlative that the reader should be happy to burden themselves with cumbersome writing to glimpse the author’s ideas.

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