Magic & Suspension of Disbelief

Somebody somewhere along the way in my lifetime (maybe an English teacher–I no longer remember who), said that reading fiction (or watching it in the case of plays or movies or TV) is about suspending your disbelief and constituting some poetic faith. A good story, whatever its media or genre, pulls you in such that the maybe not quite believable stuff gets overlooked. You don’t care because a skillful storyteller makes you believe in the unbelievable.

You will, of course, always run into the determined non-believers like my husband. He is totally that guy who points out everything they did wrong in a movie. Example, we were re-watching both the Bourne movies in preparation for seeing The Bourne Ultimatum this weekend. He pops out with “It takes 3-4 minutes to kill somebody through strangulation. They never get that right in movies.” He’s particularly vehement when it comes to the apparently mildly anachronistic use of technology or the simple misuse of it. In a fifteen year flashback on a recent episode of Kyle YX he bursts out, “They didn’t freaking have LCD screens in 1992!” I believe my response was “Shut up! I don’t care!” What is my point in mentioning this (other than to elicit sympathy for the cross I must bear…I get lots of “No, that isn’t right, nobody will believe that.” about some tiny technical detail that most people don’t even know, let alone care.)?

Well I’ve had this on my mind lately because of a scene I just finished (which was, in fact, the scene he referred to in the above quote), and today’s post on Murderati sort of drove the point home. Browne quotes Patricia Storms as saying that writers are like magicians. And I fully agree. I don’t hear my hubby making all these cracks when he watches Cris Angel: Mindfreak. So clearly with folks like him, there’s a higher standard for establishing believability. There are slightly differing standards for each genre about what will and will not be believed, but there are some things that are important to focus on in any genre.

1) Keeping your characters’ actions consistent with their…well, character. Unless your timid librarian has a double life as Leona, headliner at the Kit Kat Klub, she’s not going to flash folks when she’s stone cold sober at Mardi Gras. Make sure that whatever you have your characters do, they would really do.

2) If you’re writing about a real place, do some research to make sure you’re not sticking a mansion in the middle of the slums or making any other equally egregious errors in setting. I prefer to write about fictional towns so that I can avoid this altogether, when possible (as I’m not keen on taking a lot of time for that sort of research). It’s also useful to plug the name you’ve made up for your fictional town into Google maps or Google Earth to make sure that you haven’t made up a real town.

3) Don’t force your characters to do something that they wouldn’t normally do, just because of the plot you envision. Don’t have your otherwise sensible heroine ignore all warnings from others and rush headlong into danger just to provide an occasion for the hot Alpha hero to rescue her. Just don’t. It’s annoying. I find it works better to somewhat let the plot evolve from the characters. But then I’m mostly a pantser.

4) Unless you are writing a book about time travel, when you write in a time period other than the now (and even when you are writing in the now), spend a little time researching things. If you are writing about pre-revolutionary America, don’t be talking about an electric light. It’s a little touchier when you get into modern technology. My bad guy has access to some sort of holographic technology that he’s been using to make the heroine think she’s having flashbacks. This is the thing my hubby was so vehemently objecting to. The thing is, I know the technology exists, and I’m going to stretch the truth a bit about how it specifically works. I am hoping my readers will forgive me. All the other technological gobbledygook is accurate and researched, and I think readers will find it more unbelievable than the holographic stuff that’s been used in movies for years.

I’m sure there are others I am not thinking of just now, but my point in all of this is that if you stay true to your characters and true to your setting–if you do your job as a writer/magician, the reader will be so sucked into the story that s/he has suspended her/his disbelief and taken the ride you offer on poetic faith that you won’t lead them astray. And that’s what this business is all about. Taking the reader along for the ride.

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