Peggy Bechko: Suspension of Disbelief

Awesome artwork by Miranda Lake. See more - & buy it - here.
Awesome artwork by Miranda Lake. See more – & buy it – here.

by Peggy Bechko

All writers have heard the term.

We all expect it of our readers when we create that alternative world where our characters live and stuff happens.

So the question is how do we as writers get our readers or in the case of movies or TV our watchers to go along with us, suspend their disbelief and live in our world – through a book a movie or a TV show?

The term generally refers to the writer hooking the audience, whether reader or watcher, into accepting the core of a story as a truth, if just temporarily. Frequently it’s something like magic (Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Nick Cage), space travel or space wars (Ender’s Game series of books by Orson Scott Card) or maybe a twisted past (like Pirates of the Caribbean – the movies) or paranormal romances (like author Christine Feehan’s GhostWalker Novels or Vampire novels). And that’s not to let main-line contemporary fiction off the hook.

Keeping that unbelievable element believable is both easy and very difficult. Most of us love a book or a movie that tweaks the imagination, drags us in and dares us to immerse ourselves in another world. It’s exciting and it’s fun.

But here’s the kicker for the author. The writer must keep the audience, the reader; whether one reading a novel or a reader for a script, or a watcher of a movie, engaged and willing to accept this unbelievable world at every twist in the plot, through every complication that comes along. The creator of the story must reinforce that world and prove its existence time and again.

So what to do? How to accomplish it?

First the rules you create for your world have to stand. You can’t just arbitrarily change them through the story. Few things, if anything, throw a reader out of the zone faster than changing the rules.

Throw your best writing at it – always. And edit like crazy.

Your characters in your world have to react in a way that fits with the story and the character you’ve created. If their actions are way off base the reader isn’t going to remain in that ‘zone’ of suspended disbelief – they’re going to disbelieve! Keep it real within the world you’ve constructed.

Keep those small details alive. Bring them in whenever you can to the story (but don’t overdo or drop those details in randomly). It’s the little things that capture and hold attention. Don’t overlook them.

Don’t forget to tie up those lose ends at the end – answer questions you’ve raised, reveal those mysteries that have been on the fringe or in the shadows. Readers don’t like being left hanging.

Create and convince. Make your world plausible and hook your readers with the kinds of details that’ll keep them reading. It’s difficult, but it’s easy.