Being a Better Writer: Balancing Readers’ Suspension of Disbelief

“Go! Go! Go!” Natalie didn’t need to be told twice. With the clock ticking, the building was only minutes from coming apart in a blast that would level half the block. If she could get away before then, she had a chance, but if not …

“Go!” the voice in her ear shouted once more.

“I’m going!” she snapped, crouching by the body of the colonel and retrieving his sidearm. Some of his thugs could still be standing between her and the exit.

“Natalie, you need to be moving, and I don’t hear you moving!”

“I’m busy, Jerry,” she muttered. “Maybe you could be useful for once and tell me how to get out of here rather than just screaming in a panic?”

She checked the pistol’s clip. Six shots. It would have to be enough. She rose, grabbing the colonel’s bag and swinging it over her shoulder. She couldn’t save the building … but at least she’d save the gold. Two-and-a-half million dollars worth of gold would set her up for life.

Gold and handgun secure, she began running down the hall, no destination in mind other than away from the bomb ticking down behind her. Her heels sounded out a rapid, staccato rhythm with her steps as she exited the hall into the penthouse atrium.

A loud bang was the only warning she got as the glass near her shattered, a bullet tearing through it. She ducked, crouching as the gunman—one of the colonel’s—continued to spray bullets in her direction.

She didn’t have time to play around. She lifted the colonel’s handgun, made a quick estimation based on the direction the bullets were flying from, and fired off a rapid trio of blind shots.

The gunfire stopped, her assailant either dead or dying, and she bolted back to a sprint.

“Natalie!”

“Kind of busy right now!” she shot back as another gunman opened fire. She fired on the move, spitting several bullets back at him. How long was left before the bomb went off? She wasn’t sure.

“I’ve got a way out,” Jerry continued, heedless of her warning or the shots whizzing past her head. How many men did the colonel have? “You need to get to the elevators. The cars themselves are locked, but you can ride the cable down to the ground floor.

“Too long,” she said, firing again and scoring a direct hit on one of her attackers. They fell with a scream. “What’s outside?”

“What?” Jerry asked as she fired again, downing another mercenary.

“What’s outside?” she asked. “If I jump out of the building—”

“Jump out? Are you insane?”

“What’s outside!?” she demanded, crouching behind a couch as more gunfire tore the expensive leather apart.

“Cars? A parking lot? The reflecting pool? A—”

What side is the pool on?” she shouted as she returned fire, the gun kicking against her hand. Another gunman went down.

“Uh … West side!”

“Got it!” That was the side she was on. She rose form her hiding place, sprinting towards the glass wall, firing on the move. The glass splintered, her view of the setting sun suddenly awash with physical static.

She hit the window at a sprint, glass shattering around her as she fell into open space. She could see the wading pool below her, rushing up at impossibly fast speeds. Ten stories passed in a heartbeat.

She hit with a wet slap, stinging pain erupting across her entire body as she sank into the pool. Her feet touched bottom, and she kicked upwards, her head breaking the surface. How much time was left before the bomb went off? She brought her wrist up, checking her watch and—

Ducked seconds before a faint whump swept through the water, rattling her body like a child’s toy. Seconds later something large and heavy splashed down in the pool, sinking through the water past her, and she kicked off, swimming forward as quickly as she could.

Gradually the rumbling slowed, and she broke the surface again, standing in the pool. Of the ten-story penthouse the colonel had been using for his scheme, all that remained was a pile of twisted wreckage. His scheme was finished.

She almost sat down in the water with relief. It was over. And … She checked the bag still slung across her shoulder.

Two-and-a-half million dollars worth of gold bars glimmered back at her.

Okay, did anyone see anything wrong with all that?

I would hope you did. Because there’s a lot wrong with it. Not enough that if I’d already gotten that far into the book I’d stop reading, but certainly enough that I’d pause to roll my eyes, criticize the author, etc. And I’d definitely, upon being done with the story, likely not pick up anything else by that author.

Why? Because they would have stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. There’s just so many points where this story ignores reality in favor of other things. I mean, let’s go down a quick list:

  • You are not going to be able to run far enough away to avoid the concussive shockwave of a blast that levels half a block. Unless that’s hyperbole, you’re going to have serious issues surviving.
  • There are six shots in the colonel’s pistol, yet she seems to fire between nine and twenty later, depending on your definition of “couple.” She definitely fires more bullets than the gun holds, though.
  • Two-and-a-half million dollars worth of gold would weigh about 130 or so pounds. Gold is heavy. There’s no way that someone is A) putting that in a shoulder bag, or B) running everywhere with it.
  • Especially not in heels.
  • Opponents can’t hit our protagonist even when aiming, but she’s able to hit them firing blindly. Once is lucky, the rest goes from “maybe” to “no way.”
  • Riding elevator cables down? Hope you’ve got gloves. And equipment.
  • There is no way a leather couch is stopping rifle fire.
  • Ten story dive into a decorative wading pool? Check!
  • Swimming with 130-odd pounds of gold? Check!

Yeah, there are more, but look at that list. None of what happened in that story was remotely real.

And yet … it’s something I could totally get away with writing. If I aimed at another audience.

Right, time to get down to brass tacks. Today we’re talking about the suspension of disbelief in writing and reading and what it means to you as a writer.

We start with the basics: What is the suspension of disbelief? Simply put, it’s the act of the reader to suspend, or call to a halt, their own acknowledgement that the story they are experiencing is not a real event.

In other words, though a story such as Dune may just be words on paper in reality, we accept that read in sequence, these words on paper spell out a tale of far-off adventure. We ignore the fact that we’re sitting at home, work, on a bus, whatever, and instead embrace the idea that we’re observing another time and another place.

Well, Max, you might say. That’s reading in general. And yes, you’re right, but there is still a willing suspension of disbelief there. I have met (and I’m sure others on here have as well) people that refuse to read fiction, and one of their challenges is their inability to see it as anything other than words on a page.

That aside, this suspension of one’s disbelief carries over not just from reading a work of fiction to what occurs in said fiction.

For example, take The Martian, for example. There are people who read fiction books who did not like The Martian. Why? Because they found the premise to unbelievable for their suspension of disbelief. And, to whit, one can find reviews of the book online that talk about how they didn’t find the constant problems to be that realistic, in that there was always something going wrong. Others? Not bothered by it.

Basically, the suspension of disbelief and what a person is willing to “ignore” in a story varies. Some people can read something like the above example I wrote out and be completely satsified. They won’t care that surviving a ten-story drop into a reflecting pool is pretty ludicrous, and not very survivable. Or that a leather couch won’t stop bullets. They just want to read the story and be entertained, realism smealism.

Others, on the other hand, were probably twitching as they read that same example, as parts of their brain shouted “That’s not how that works!” or “It’s called a magazine, not a clip!” or some other such complaints. But here’s the thing:

These are valid complaints.

You see, as writers, we all have to fudge a little bit. For various reasons. For starters, few of us are ever going to write a story that is absolutely perfect with regards to all the science, etc. And even if we did, how many would want to read it? Look at science-fiction stories? How many sci-fi stories out there don’t bother to explain how their spaceships have artificial gravity? Colony sure doesn’t. Nor do a ton of other books. And, let’s be fair, if any of us writers knew how to make artificial gravity, we wouldn’t be writing sci-fi books anymore except as perhaps a hobby. We’d be relaxing a beach somewhere, contemplating philanthropy while our inventions took mankind to the stars.

All fiction fudges things a bit, either for ease of reading or for the story. Sometimes authors gloss over details in order to keep the flow of the story going. Other times they skip over things that most people may not be interested in reading. Other times it’s simply for the sake of what’s going on, ie in the example above where the protagonist needed to take cover in a penthouse atrium. There’s only so much available to take cover behind, so … couch! It’s not bulletproof? Eh, the readers won’t care, it’s just for the flow. Set dressing!

See my point? Especially with that last one, all these things count on the audience not being bothered by what is (in most cases, at least) a known omission of detail. A case of “sure, a real car couldn’t make this jump, but we want this to be a bit fantastic, so the car is going to make it.” Though the author may throw a nod to realism by having said car barely make it or even lampshade the fact by having a character comment that the car really shouldn’t have made it.

Right, I’m sure you’ve got the gist of it now. The suspension of disbelief is what your readers need to have in order to appreciate the writer fudging the numbers a little bit so that the story works. So what?

Well, here’s the thing. You, as a writer, need to know exactly how much fudge your readers expect! Remember what I said earlier? About some people reading what I wrote about and being completely fine with it? That’s because these people exist. Crud, they’re why Dirk Pitt novels continue to exist.

But those readers, by and large, also likely aren’t reading dedicated, no-fudge stories. Likewise, those that devour stories that require very little suspension of disbelief probably aren’t going to enjoy a Dirk Pitt adventure. All the hand-waves and general disregard for rules of causality of rule of cool will frustrate them.

Simply put, you need to know what your audience expects from your books, and adjust your writing accordingly. For example, those who pick up my books expect to find well-thought out, carefully developed, interlocking worlds. Where in someone else’s book, a hero may jump a border without consequences or even a care, in the stuff I write, such an action can carry consequences.

But the thing is, readers who aren’t ready or expecting that level of realism may find themselves put off. I actually had a number of complaints regarding the opening chapters of one book I wrote, Beyond the Borderlands, as it opened with a wanted criminal from one country escaping across the northern border to what was essentially a lose confederation of fairly lawless city-states. While a lot of readers rolled with it, there were a number of readers who didn’t understand—and vocally complained—that the protagonist’s pursuers didn’t simply rush right across the border in large numbers and arrest her. They were expecting Hollywood-style “Rule of cool” logic. I finally had to make a detailed post explaining to these readers exactly why rushing a large, armed, military force without warning across the borders of another nation is a bad idea.

Now, does that mean I wrote something wrong? No, the majority of my readers sailed past that part without any issues. But for those who expected a level of realism other than what I had aspired to—even though it was a less-realistic one—the “level” of their suspension of disbelief pulled them out of the story.

This is why knowing your audience is such a vital part of writing and selling a story. You can’t sell Martian-level science to someone who wants Star Trek very easily; they just expect something your story is not.

Of course, if you’re new, than you probably don’t even know what or who your audience is, in which case you may have to experiment a little. But once you’ve got an audience that you enjoy writing for, you’ll need to keep track of what you write and what you “fudge” so that your primary audience is going to be satisfied.

Okay, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked this portion of things to death, so let’s switch gears a bit. What about that actual tailoring? What should that be like? If you come to the conclusion that you’re going to fudge some stuff for your story and write an action-thriller that doesn’t care much about physics, or a soft Science-Fiction story that doesn’t worry about the math, well then, that’s fine. You can write this book. But make sure you keep it consistent throughout.

Basically, whatever “level” of realism you decide to go for, regardless of setting, plot, etc, you need to make sure that you not only keep that level, but that it plays consistently with your story. Take Star Trek for example. Star Trek, in all its forms, has been one of the Sci-Fi bastions of technobabble. If something bad happens on Star Trek, you can bet that if there’s a technical ‘problem” there will be deflector dishes, polarity reversals, and plenty of made-up sciencing words thrown at you.

But here’s the thing. Even with all that made up “fudging,” Star Trek does two things that keep it from breaking the suspension of disbelief with its fans. The first is that in never changes the level. There isn’t one episode where the story gets super realistic and then another where things become cartoonishly insane (well, outside of a few bad apples that are well-remembered and mocked by the fans). They keep the overall level of “what do we hand-wave, and what do we keep grounded?” consistent across episodes. Likewise, you’ll want to do the same thing across linked stories or even across all of your writing. The same reasons that a fan can sit down and joke “Hey, I’ll bet they fix X with technobabble about Y” is one of the reasons the show does well. It keeps it’s level of “fudgery” (I’m just inventing all over the place today, aren’t I?) consistent.

But the second thing that it does is that it also keeps track of this fudgery in-universe (well, as best it can, anyway). There’s consistence with the characters and the way the act around things. Using the example I wrote above, a direct comparison of keeping things consistent would be if all the characters who held the shoulder-bag full of gold  never acted as if it was as heavy as it should be. Or if all couches in the story were capable of catching bullets. But if one character suddenly spent a chapter struggling with the bag of gold, or a couch didn’t block bullets out of nowhere … well, suddenly there’s an in-universe consistency problem.

See, not only do you need to keep your fudgery (I’m liking this term) consistent for the audience, but also for your characters! The rules that your readers expect to see, regardless of how “loose” they are compared to the real thing, need to play consistently with your characters throughout the story, not change and flex. If a character makes three ridiculous car jumps, the only reason for the fourth to fail would be for the comedy sake of “Well, eventually this won’t work” or something similar.

So, wrapping up, as authors we need to acknowledge several things. First, that our audience expects a “level” of realism in all aspects, and we need to be sure that we’re writing towards that level … or if we’re not, towards another audience’s level. Second, we need to keep this level consistent through connected works, but also consistent for the characters in those works.

Recognize what “fudgery” we’re writing. Acknowledge it. Then keep it consistent.

Good luck. Now get writing.

And watch that audience.

 

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Balancing Readers’ Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Detective novel authors who have no idea about firearm’s laws and can’t be bothered to do any basic research. They are constantly talking about checking to see if suspects have any registered guns in states where you couldn’t register a gun if you wanted to.

    Recently read a book by an author who was otherwise promising but who halfway through his book set in Texas had the sheriff tell a story about a shoot-out over parking spaces and opine about the lack of support amongst police officers for people carrying guns. Both so ludicrous if you know anything about firearms owners and police that it just really detracted from an otherwise very good book. I haven’t read any more (although I may still) just because his obvious errors (whether politicking or ignorance) was so jarring.

    Not limited to beginning or small name authors either. Michael Connelly misrepresents California firearm laws regularly. Good enough books and small enough errors that they can be easily (by me anyway) overlooked but still annoying since it seems like he should know better, having been a crime beat reporter.

    Like

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