Thursday, 24 June 2010

SUSPENDING DISBELIEF

Crikey - I can't believe I haven't spoken about this before...

The weird thing about fiction is that the reader knows perfectly well that you are making it up – you are a professional liar – and yet demands to believe utterly in the whole story. Novelists can have impossible things happen, which the reader knows are impossible, and yet you must simultaneously make him believe, in that part of his brain that engages fully with the characters. A novelist can make a reader believe that a character can fly, read minds, turn spinach into brandy, or live forever; but if you get it wrong ... even the most ordinary and highly possible act becomes unbelievable. And it matters, really matters.

This art of the suspension of disbelief is the mystery of the fiction writer. There are certain keys, but after that you have to sprinkle magic fairy dust. I think I have so far omitted to mention that you do need magic fairy dust if you are to be published.

The keys to suspension of disbelief
  • Consistency of character. Your characters must behave consistently, even if inconsistency is common in real life. (I, for example, am consistently inconsistent.) If your character does something that he or she would be unlikely to do, just so that you can drive your plot in the direction you want, your readers will see through this and they won’t like it. They will stop believing whatever happens next.
  • Consistency of magic. If you have anything supernatural / impossible-in-this-world going on in your book, the magic must be consistent and follow a pattern, even though magic is a damned stupid thing to believe in. You have to set the magic up, and give it rules. The more wacky the rules, the harder it will be to believe. For example, a magic power that only works on Tuesdays between lunch and tea, and not if it’s rained more than three times in the last nine and a half days, and only if the empowered person had half a boiled egg and mango chutney for breakfast and washed her face in the dew while wearing blue chiffon, is hard to believe. The reader will think you’re making it up. Which, of course, you are, but not in a good way.
  • Consistency of plot. Does this incident fit the storyline or does it feel out of place? If you have created your world well, and then you insert something that jars, we may not believe it. For example, since you believe that I wear fabulous shoes, if I told you that I'd borrowed Jane Smith's shoes, you would not believe me. And you would be right.
  • Reason. If you make it clear why something happens, then your readers are more likely to believe it than if you simply say it is so. For example, if Jeremy’s special ability to see the future comes because he is descended from a long line of wizardy people going back to the year dot, or because a special amulet was left in his cradle as a baby, or because … well, you get my drift: humans need to make sense of things, and when something has an explanation, we tend to believe it.
  • Your strong narrative voice. If you have drawn your readers in and lulled them into a true sense of security through the real strength and consistency of your writing, they will tend to believe more. If you are all over the place, revealing your weaknesses at every turn, they will roll their eyes and accuse you of making it up as you go along.
Important point: just because it has happened in real life does not make it believable in a story. If someone says she doesn’t believe such a thing would happen, it is no defence for you to say, “Oh, but that did happen! In 1982 I was walking along…” It pains me to say that I fell foul of this in Wasted. There’s a scene where a pigeon comes smashing through a window. One reader said she hadn’t believed that bit. It was no defence that I could truthfully say that this has happened to me twice, despite the fact that my pigeon incidents are well documented on this blog: the fact is that I’d failed to convince that reader that it would happen. Slapped wrist and abject apologies.

(Yes, I know - newbies amongst you really want to read the pigeon stories. Well, go here (my dormant silly blog) and here.)

The point is that it is not enough that a certain thing could happen and even has: the reader must believe that it would and did. There are many extraordinary things that happen in real life about which one says, “If you write that in a story, they’d never believe you.” So, don't write it...

This, to me, is the whole magic and beauty of fiction: the mysterious thing that our brains do to fiction when reading well-written made up stuff, where we will believe the impossible and yet disbelieve the perfectly ordinary. The skill is in getting that right.

Because fiction is stronger than truth.

30 comments:

Helena Halme said...

I so absolutely agree with you that it's ridiculous and unbelievable (gettit?). Seriously this is such a good point. The same of course goes for dialogue. Writing down a real conversation word for word does not make good dialogue in a novel, as crazy as that sounds.

Great post as always.

Helena xx

Leigh Russell said...

This is spot on, regardless of your genre. I try to make my books as authentic as I can, the narrative sliced through with sudden dramatic incidents (OK, murders - I write crime fiction). I want my readers to believe the narrative is really happening, because I think that makes my books more "tense and gripping" (which is how many reviewers characterise my writing). Yes, this is a great post.

Ellen Brickley said...

Brilliant post, Nicola. I have often found that I've been completely jolted out of my enjoyment of a book because a character does something that I don't feel they would have done.

One of the better examples I've found of consistency in magic is 'You can't apparate in or out of Hogwarts, Ron, how many times do I have to tell you?' Arbitrary, yes. Consistent, also yes. That works.

Sally Zigmond said...

I can't believe you haven't talked about this before either because it's absolutely crucial to fiction, whether one is writing fantasy, crime or literary fic. I have lost count of the times, when working as a short story editor I having rejected a story because I found it totally unbelievable. the rejected writer would write back with a snarl that 'it actually happened, so yah boo sucks to you know Ms holier-than-thou editor.' Ah, I would reply (if I could be bothered, it doesn't work like that. You failed to suspend my disbelief. Truth doesn't automatically make good fiction.

Rin said...

Ellen, very good example.

Nicola, great post, particularly the 'but it really happened' line. I often think that about place names - I live near Frampton Cotterell, Chipping Sodbury and Niblet, but I wouldn't dream of using name like that in a story for fear they're so twee they'll sound made up!

Ebony McKenna. said...

I believe you, because I remember the pigeon episode!

I think this is a quote from Tom Clancy?
"The difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense."

Thomas Taylor said...

How fast main characters themselves suspend disbelief and accept extraordinary things is important too. Giving a shrug and saying, 'oh wow! So werewolves are real?' just won't do.

catdownunder said...

And I cannot believe you have managed to write about it without mentioning Samuel Taylor Coleridge - or am I wrong in believing he was the one who coined the phrase, "the willing suspension of disbelief"? I might be wrong. I am quite often.

Dan Holloway said...

Marvellous. This is one of THE most important things for most writers - especially where there's even a hint of the weird in the world you're writing about.

The very best writers at this I've found all follow the very simple rule that they never explain. If something would be normal to their characters then they just present it. The worst for taking you out of a story is clunky dialogue or asides to explain what a zarglefarter or what ever does - just show us a charcter using one, or even just "Julie picked up her zarglefarter, sprayed twice on the back of her palm and popped it in her handbag".

Getting people to remove all explanations "as an exercise" (they just won't do it "for real because they don't think people will understand) is very useful - it's often more comprehensible as well as a better read afterwards.

And people who don't believe that should be made to read A Clockwork Orange.

Linda Strachan said...

You are so right, the best accolade is when a reader asks - 'so did that really happen?'

Sometimes things that actually do happen are so incredible that no one would believe it if you wrote them into a book - but on the other hand some of the best fiction is so compelling that you are taken along for the ride and don't for a moment stop to question anything that happens.

Mary said...

Excellent post! I've put it in my notebook as a reminder.

Mary
Giggles and Guns

Phillipa said...

Um...where can I get a zarglefarter? Is it like a vuvuzela?

Great post. Thanks for the reminder, as ever.

Colette said...

As usual -- some awesome advice!

And for the record... I believed the pigeon thing.

Elizabeth West said...

Ooh! What Thomas Taylor said!

Poorly-conceived reactions to things that happen in a narrative are a pet peeve of mine.

writeidea said...

This post should go in every writer's toolbox. Thanks for that.

Robin said...

Good post, and spot on as always. I've had a pigeon- through-the-window experience myself. My pigeon swayed on the hearthrug for a few seconds, then went back through the hole, neat as neat, without grazing a feather. But I wouldn't put it in a book, along with all sorts of other weird things that I know are true. Pity, but there it is.

hampshireflyer said...

One of the things (all right, two of the things) I enjoy in oral histories and so on *is* (all right, *are*) the inconsistency and disconnectedness that can go on in people's lives.

I really admire the few fiction writers who can create something that looks like the same thing but actually still has the causality of a novel! (And I really, really want to know how they can do it...)

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

You nailed it! You've got to lay the foundation. Now to make sure I did that in the scene I'm reading tomorrow at my writers group. ;)

Harry Markov said...

What bugs me personally is writing in contemporary "insert city" and writing the streets and the sights and the what not.

I cannot stop fretting over those things, because I am sure that there will be people from these cities will read it [if they get published, but you know what I mean] and will see hideous inconsistencies.

So yeah, Google Maps and Google Earth all the way.

behlerblog said...

As always,you speaketh the truth. Same points I've been yammering about for years except you probably said it better. Brava!

Emma Darwin said...

Good post, Nicola.

To my mind, John Gardner nails it in The Art of Fiction (if you read no other how-to-write book, read this one. Just be prepared to argue with him.)

He roots the whole fictional deal in the contract between the writer and the reader. The reader AGREES to "forget to disbelieve" what you write - to go along with your imaginings - on condition you as the writer deal "honestly and responsibly" with her/him. (Gardener says "him", but he's writing in the 1970s, and he's in the US where they're more traditional about pronouns). This doesn't preclude inadequate or unreliable narrators, but it does mean that what you DO write of sound, touch, taste, smell, proprioception and sight, you write as truthfully as possible.

It's not just the contract, either. It's in the convincingness of those things - not just the senses but how people think, behave, see, react - that as a writer, you PURSUADE the reader to go along with you, as you imagine outwards from the documentary, probable, reality of the world, to the imaginative, possible, 'as if' of fiction.

Emma Darwin said...

Doh!

or even PERSUADE...

Eeleen Lee said...

I never write anything that insults the reader's intelligence, 'suspend disbelief' is fine as long as it does not beggar belief

Pippa said...

I think it was Stephen King who said, "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."

Thanx, Nicola, for your excellent advice (as always!)

Pippa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DJ Kirkby said...

Thanks. For the advice and the laughs!

Cozy in Texas said...

I stopped by your blog today - great points. One thing I have found that stops me from reading is point of view shifts. I started reading a book this week and I couldn't for the life of me figure out who was actually narrating it because "thoughts" jumped quickly from one person to another. Having a good critique group for writers is invaluable.
Ann
Cozy In Texas

Bacchus said...

I remember I nearly got into an argument with a friend over something to do with this recently.

If you were standing on the porch of a house, and a creepy old man attempted to threaten you with a knife to make you enter the house, what do you do?

Why, GO INTO THE HOUSE OF COURSE, I mean gawd he's go a knife! Never mind the open road behind you!

Because this is a story about vampires and werewolves. Therefore 'fantasy.' Ergo, 'plausibility doesn't really come into it.'

Thing is, at the end of the day, you're dealing with 'people.' And even in a fantasy were everyone can turn into turtles that yodel, and wait at bus stops for kiwi's driven by blind people using yodeling of the mind, if people don't have a degree of common sense, the whole thing just falls apart.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Beautiful post! And I love your bio. I have to become a follower now!!

Derek said...

A brilliant post. But I could still use a few friendly contacts! Keep up the good work.