Suspension of Disbelief

My kid watches this show with a premise that two teenagers who are friends discover they are actually brothers –but one is Caucasian and one is African-American. I tried – in vain – to explain how this is almost genetically impossible. I was really trying to tell him the show’s premise didn’t work and got nowhere. Then I came up with what I thought was a pretty good example from something else he likes that I think IS well written:

I said, “What if Harry Potter could just whip out his wand and do the Patronus spell after the first couple of weeks at Hogwarts?” On cue, kid says: “That’s silly. He had to learn to become a wizard first with easier spells. It wasn’t until much later that he knew enough to do a hard spell like that one.” Me: “But he’s a wizard, and they don’t exist in real life. Why not just make him be able to do whatever right off the bat? Who cares? It’s all fiction anyway. The author should be able to write the story any way they please.”

I’m sorry to say the subtlety of the parallel was lost. And few people are as talented as Ms. Rowling. BUT it did make me think about this thing we do as writers (and readers) called suspension of disbelief. How does the thing work, anyway? Why am I able to completely buy the world of Harry Potter but not this other thing with the racially incompatible brothers? Stranger things have happened in real life where brothers don’t look anything alike. Or even the added oddity of these guys being friends and then finding out – whoa. We’ve been related this WHOLE TIME. I heard a quote from (I believe) an editor who said, “Fiction must be believable and non-fiction unbelievable.” We want our truth to be stranger than fiction. I wish I knew why, but it’s just part of the way we’re wired.

If you don’t believe me, I bet anything you’ve watched a TV show with cops or detectives and when something so completely implausible happens, you’re unable to stop yourself from shouting at the TV, “That’s impossible! There’s no way that plant stalk could have fingerprints on it!!!” Or whatever. That show has failed to follow some rule of life you believe in and when the rules go out the window, the show didn’t have a really good foundation (or motivation) for why.

So back to the kid’s TV show. If they’d just made the two brothers the same race, I would have bought it. Or if they’d been separated their whole lives and then found each other, I could potentially have bought it. But both at the same time just broke my ability to suspend disbelief. I firmly believe you HAVE to write things that make sense in a fictional world or your book becomes a projectile when the reader throws it against the wall.

Now, I write science fiction romance. Talk about lots of room for error. In the manuscript I’m (hopefully) about to send off to an agent for some nail-biting fun, the hero lives on another planet. Suspension of Disbelief #1-the reader has to be okay with the possibility of life on other planets. The heroine is from Earth and she travels to this other planet at the hero’s invitation. Suspension of Disbelief #2-reader has to be cool with space flight AND that the heroine would just up and go to this alien planet.

See where I’m headed? All of this is premise that the reader will most likely know prior to opening the book. If you don’t buy either one of those, I’ve lost you as a reader before you even give page one a chance. But actually, this is true of Harry Potter too. I knew it was about a regular kid who finds out he’s a wizard and goes to boarding school to learn about his powers before I even picked up The Sorcerer’s Stone, and I still wanted to read it. This same philosophy is true of romance in general – if you don’t believe in happily ever after, then chances are good you’re not a fan of the genre in the first place.

My story is a romance at its heart, but with aliens, space flight…and a whole bunch of other cool futuristic type stuff. At what point am I adding too many elements to allow for a suspension of disbelief which will carry you through an entire 400 page book? I’m struggling with this a little today and I’m curious about your thoughts. How much is too much?

8 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Hi Kat,

    I remember reading an article somewhere that discussed this very topic. The moral of the story was that as long as a writer is consistent in the rules he/she creates in a story, readers can suspend their belief throughout the story. It is at the point where you are inconsistent with your own rules that readers will have a hard time staying with you.

    BTW, I joined DARA – My next goal is a meeting 🙂

    • Yeah. Sticking with your own rules makes sense. I hope I did that…*more nail biting*

      YAY on joining DARA! Let me know when you’re going to a meeting and I’ll sit with you. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I asked Judith McNaught about this once, and she told me that you can make anything believable in fiction as long as you lay enough ground work to make it so. That really stuck with me, so when I started writing romantic suspense, I started seeing where I needed to place clues and drop in details to make the plot twists make sense.

    I also think it all comes down to that crazy little thing called motivation. As long as everything is well-motivated, readers will buy it. I had no trouble suspending disbelief when I read your book because you’ve motivated both your hero and heroine so well, and you’ve created rules/history for your planet that make sense.

    But, yes, books where things come out of nowhere are definite wall bangers for me! 🙂

    • 🙂 Thanks. I think you’re right – motivation can make a huge difference and it’s a factor I didn’t consider at all in my thoughts. Which is weird. I’ve always thought you could do anything in fiction as long as it’s well motivated, I just never put it together with suspension of disbelief. It’s a good thing I have you around. I’m totally jealous you got to talk to Judith McNaught btw.

  3. You have to lay the groundwork for nonstandard realities from the very beginning, I think. The first three paragraphs is not too soon for the first hint. As time goes on, the reality becomes less plastic, until it’s set and fixed. I once read a contest entry that had no hint of paranormality until after about 15 pages. I just sat back and said, “Nahhhh.”

    • Amber – I love how you say the reality becomes less plastic and more set. That’s awesome. I have the word aliens in the first line of my manuscript, so I think I’m good there. For once. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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