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.
(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.