Posted by R. Ann Siracusa
While I was preparing a foreword to my contemporary murder mystery [The Last Weekend In October], I felt the need to explain the literary license I'd taken with the timing of story. While most readers won't notice the discrepancy between events in reality and the timing in the novel, those who do know would lose confidence that I know what I'm writing about.
The one thing I'm asking of the reader is to suspend disbelief regarding the timing.
That's true because there's a limit to what people will believe in fiction. Just because "it happened that way" in real life doesn't mean it's believable as fiction.
It comes down to suspension of disbelief. They [readers] will believe Superman can fly, but not that others won't recognize him when he puts on his glasses. -- cynicalladWGA Screenwriter
WHAT IS SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF?
This term, coined in 1817 by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, means a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable, sacrificing realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. In short, it's buying into the premise of a story and believing that it could be possible.
When a reader picks up a science fiction or paranormal novel, it's clear that suspension of disbelief will be required to enjoy the adventure. If you read those genres, you expect that. However, with or without an element beyond the real world, all forms of storytelling require some suspension of disbelief, just because the story itself it not real. It's fictitious. It didn't really happen, or happen this way.
● The Media In Which The Story Is Told
Most forms of entertainment that depend on story [movies, television, video games, plays, magic shows, and so on] require some suspension of disbelief.
A reader suspends disbelief when he/she connects with the characters, places, and situations in a book and allows them to become "real" in the reader's mind, even though the reader is looking at little black marks on two dimensional sheets of paper.
At the movies we know that we're looking at a big white surface, and that what we see isn't really happening in front of us, but that's no fun at all.
What we see on television isn't really happening, much less in our living rooms. Also, TV often compresses timing. When watching a crime show, there are many things we know to be unreal, like the time it takes to get reports regarding DNA and other forensic evidence. For the sake of the story, we suspend disbelief and accept that it can happen in one or two days.
After getting past the media issues, what next?
● Establish Commonality
Writers need to convince readers that the characters, places, and situations they write about are real by developing those reference points in detail, giving them characteristics which are typical of many.
In the case of characters, their looks attitudes, emotions, goals and motivations need to be ones we all can understand and relate to – these are the thing in common with the reader. Once the reader connects with the characters by sharing things in common, then the author can give those characters, places and situations attributes that make them individual, unique, or super-natural.
Regardless how fantastic your created world, it will seem more real if the writer uses familiar things as the basis for your fictional ones. Agent X, of Men With Pens, writes:"Stories like Tolkein's Lord of the Rings may appear fanciful and completely fictitious, but if you dig deeply, you notice that Tolkien pulled from many resources to breathe life into his works." He goes on to note that the Elven language is mostly derived from Welsh. "If something appears familiar enough, it tricks the mind into belief."
Agent X also points out that "A single scene at the beginning of the novel isn't sufficient. You must keep up the suspension of [dis]belief throughout the whole story."
However, a writer in the Writers Stack Exchange warns that "In fantasy and science fiction, direct reference to the real world can be very distracting … Even things that are similar can provoke this reaction – e.g. you don't want to name your fantasy princess Diana, even if Diana is a perfectly fine name and it makes perfect sense for there to be a Princess Diana in your world. References to the real world, our world, throw the reader out of the story world."
● There Has To Be A Reason
If your novel is contemporary or historical [not science fiction, paranormal, or fantasy], you can give a character an extraordinary skill or attribute, but you have to make that believable by establishing a background which makes the skill possible. For example, a city detective may have extraordinary accuracy with a rifle – he has never missed a shot, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Wow! Never is the operative word. That's pretty unbelievable, but that's okay -- if it doesn't come out of the blue. Our detective needs a background such as ten years experience as a top sniper in the military, or a gold medal winner in a major rifle competition.
After you let the reader in on his background and accuracy record, you can't have him miss a critical shot because he blinked or some noise disturbed him. That would be unacceptable to the reader even though, in reality, it might be possible – or even probable.
● If It Sounds Wrong…
My friend Sharan Newman writes 12th century mysteries. She does much of her research reading historical diaries from that period of time in their original languages. When we were in the same critique group, sometimes she would use an expression or some other detail that sounded, to the rest of us, too modern for the 12th century. When we pointed those things out, she would explain why we were wrong, but always changed the detail to something else.
Why? Because a phrase, description, or detail may be completely accurate, but if it sounds unbelievable [i.e. the reader doesn't accept it as accurate], it will pull the reader out of the story. That's bad enough, but if the reader loses confidence in the author's credibility, then it's over. Chances are, the reader won't finish the book or buy another book by that author.
● Set the Rules and Be Consistent
It's the writer's job draw readers into world the writer has created and to convince them that the people and places are real and the story is plausible.
External consistency -- The beginning of a novel, up to a certain point, establishes the setting and explains the world and the rules of the world the writer has created. This is true in any kind of novel, whether contemporary, historical, futuristic, paranormal, fantasy, and so on. What do the particular time and location of the setting, the social rules and technology, etc., allow? What don't they allow?
If those rules are clearly established [e.g. Time travel is possible and here's how it works in this world], the reader will accept and suspend disbelief. Those elements not explained up front, even if explained later in the story, can cause the reader to feel the story is contrived.
However, sometimes the author can get away with bending or even breaking the rules if there is adequate foreshadowing that the original rules may have loopholes or even be false.
Internal consistency – I consider internal consistency in relation to the characters, what they believe, how they act, what they say, their backgrounds and motivations. If, because of a character's background, she hates dark places, she would probably not spend her time in movie theaters or walking in the woods at night.
If there is such an inconsistency, there has to be a reason, and it has to be explained. When and how are up to the author, but that information needs to come when the reader needs to know [that is, when the question arises], not in the next chapter. Otherwise, it pulls the reader out of the story.
● The Dreaded Coincidence
In real life coincidences do happen [we can all attest to that], but an author can't base the plot of a novel on coincidences. Nonetheless, writers use them all the time … and many of those novels seem contrived or manipulated. If you must have a major coincidence in your novel, make it part of the premise and put it up front – and then don't use any more.
WRITING IN TODAY'S WORLD
Today, in the Information Age, when almost any person can access any type of facts and data about any topic, the rules of suspension of disbelief may have changed a bit. Writers have to research more thoroughly and be more informed and detailed in the information they present because the reader is generally more informed.