Monday, June 15, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief - How to Get Readers Behind Unlikely Happenings



As readers, most of us do it to a certain degree. Whatever genre we prefer, from historical to contemporary fiction, adventure to sci-fi, and even non-fiction, something will crop up that, to our minds, seems a little too good, or coincidental, or convenient to be true.

We have the choice of wincing and closing the book, or for the sake of finding out what happens next, deciding to give the unlikely circumstance the benefit of the doubt.

Obviously, as writers, we want to avoid presenting our readers with this choice, and we want to have a logical explanation for everything. But sometimes an unlikely happening is an unavoidable part of the road to resolution, and sometimes logic is not enough to convince a reader into suspending his disbelief.

When you read three novels back-to-back by the same author, you may get to see a pattern of absurd happenings and the tricks used to make them enjoyable rather than cringe-worthy.

By the time you’re on book 3 of the Dickson McCunn trilogy by John Buchan, king of Ruritanian romance (political adventures about outwitting Communists, overthrowing dictators, and restoring monarchies), you can begin to feel unsure about how a handful of ordinary Scottish folk can have a direct hand in world events. You begin to wonder if you should take a break from rollicking yarns, so as to be able to enjoy them without being too critical. He used that plot device last time. He bluffed readers with logic again. Oh, that’s convenient, isn’t it?

And yet—if you’re me, you begin to feel as though the author is smiling and holding out a hand. “Just close one eye, and listen to the reasonable arguments—though I know the situation is fantastical—and you’ll go on a thrilleratin' adventure. Promise.”

And if you’re me, you’ll probably accept.

But How?

How do you get a reader to suspend disbelief? How can you construct a tantalizing set-up that keeps pages turning, even if unlikely situations are unavoidable? How can you smile and hold out a hand of invitation through your words?

  • Characters. We spoke about them last time; if your reader is invested in a character, she will be more likely stick through high water to find out what happens to him.
  • Explanations. Let dialogue answer readers’ questions. If readers think, “Why can’t he just do [X]?” and never get an answer, they may become frustrated and emotionally distant. Use other characters to ask and answer the questions that are sure to come up.
  • Gripping premise. Your premise is probably the reason your book was picked up in the first place. Make sure it delivers what it promised.
  • Enjoy yourself. When the author is having fun, it shows!
  • And, used sparingly, humour works too:
“The scarecrow looked at Jaikie and saw something there which amused him, for he set his arms akimbo and laughed heartily. ‘How nature creeps up to art!’ he cried. ‘Had this been an episode in a novel, it would have been condemned for its manifest improbability.’” - John Buchan, The House of the Four Winds
Despite well-laid plans and careful thought to alternative routes, you may have to include improbable situations in your book. You don’t want to draw undue attention to them (readers will notice without that!), but sometimes extra care has to go into making them just as enjoyable as the more believable twists.

As a reader, do you suspend disbelief? What techniques have you noticed in other authors or used in your own writing to make unlikely circumstances work?

  
Caitlin R. Hedgcock is a Christian author who aspires to use storytelling for God’s glory. She lives with her family in England's picturesque county of Hertfordshire. Visit her website or Facebook page to find out more.

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