5 Ways You’re Preventing Readers From Suspending Disbelief

Unlike non-fiction or memoir, the whole point of fiction is that it isn’t true. Or rather, that’s half the point. The other half is that this untruth is constructed in the pattern of truth, in order to shine a light on the reality of our lives. As Pablo Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.”

Readers open a book with the understanding that everything to follow is fake. But they also open that book with the understanding that the author is going to do his darnedest to make part of the reader’s brain believe it’s true. Enter suspension of disbelief.

This is fiction’s secret sauce—its magic bean—its linchpin. Without suspension of disbelief, the whole thing falls apart. Every time a reader fails to believe, a story dies. Fortunately for us, readers are more than happy to hold up their end of the deal. They begin our stories with every intention of keeping their disbelief firmly at bay.

In other words, the game is ours to lose. Today, let’s take a look at the five most common ways authors kill their readers’ suspension of disbelief—and, by extension, their stories.

1. Incorrect facts.

Fiction and fact are often presented as opposites. In reality, they’re more like symbionts. Without a foundation of solid facts, fiction folds in on itself like a house of Jell-O. Readers are smart. Some of them are as smart as you. Some of them are smarter. You may not know how fast light travels, what koalas eat, or what year Napoleon died, but you can be sure they will. And if you mess up too often and too spectacularly, they’re not going to invest any belief in the rest of your book either.

2. Unrealistic character reactions.

Human psychology is at the root of all fiction. The characters that populate our stories—their personalities, their psyches, their choices, and their reactions—drive the plot. If your characters can’t pull off a believable similitude of realism, readers won’t buy them. And nowhere is this realism more evident (or not evident, as the case may be) than in your characters’ reactions to the events that are thrown their way. They may react passively, aggressively, stupidly, or emotionally. There’s no rule on how they have to react, just that they
must react in a way that comports with their personalities, motives, and emotional states.

3. Lack of character reactions.

The only thing worse than the wrong character reaction is no character reaction. A character who never reacts—or one who always reacts in the same way—is going to fall short of a believable human being. Worse, he’s going to lead the reader down the slippery slope of predictability and monotony. When something tremendous happens to your character, take the time to let him react. Don’t brush over it. Let readers see what’s going on in the character’s head. Beware of the pitfall of assuming your character’s reactions are discernible from the context. Subtlety is good, but to quote Vonnegut:

Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

4. Clichés.

Clichés almost always become clichés by starting out as brilliant ideas. But when you choose to redo something that’s already been done a gazillion times, you’re surrendering creative control of your story. By trying to give your cliché the air originality (whether intentionally or, more likely, obliviously), you’re offering readers a prime opportunity to chortle in your face. They’ve already seen this bit more times than they can count. The fact that they’re seeing it again is not only yawn inducing, it’s also disbelief generating.

5. Plot holes.

Finally, let us not forget to pay ode to those gaping caverns of inconsistency. The more complicated our plots, the more difficult it is to tie up all the loose ends. Leave one of these ankle breakers out in the open, and you can bet you’re going to have a reader step in it and sue for damages. Everything that happens in your story requires a plausible source of existence and
a logical explanation. In other words, if you can’t pay off in the end, don’t promise in the beginning.

In his classic Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain wrote,

Fiction is built on a suspension of disbelief. If your story people behave irrationally or without cause, normal discernment rises to shatter the illusion you’re trying to create.

If you can avoid these five illusion destroyers, you’ll be well on your way to a happily suspended and blissfully disbelieving audience.

Tell me your opinion: As a reader, what jars your ability to suspend disbelief?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. All of these points should be second nature – but a reminder now and again is always welcome – thank you.

  2. Excellent points, all. Characters acting in ways that don’t make sense given what’s been told is my biggest pet peeve. Pulls me out of the story every single time. And there’s nothing I dislike more than being yanked out of a perfectly good escape.

  3. I recently read an excerpt from a novel and went, “Whoa! These two are so wooden. They are merely prose puppets mouthing words. Where’s the flinch, the gasp of pain, and the words that should tumble out of their mouths from what just happened?”

    It destroyed the story for me. You are right in all your excellent points. Roland

  4. @Chris: The biggest challenge of writing well is just remembering all the components we have to keep track of.

    @Mshatch: Just watched a favorite TV show yesterday, which had a main character acting in a totally uncharacteristic way. Completely popped my suspension of disbelief bubble.

    @Roland: As the great Dwight V. Swain talks about so often, reaction is the life’s blood of fiction. A story is all about how the characters react to the situations their lives are throwing at them. Take the reaction out of the mix, and the whole thing falls apart.

  5. Anonymous says:

    In addition to the five points listed above, the one other thing that really blows up my bubble when I’m reading is when I find a character named after someone we all know, especially when an author names a character after another author. UGH!

  6. Now you’ve got me thinking about it, but I honestly can’t remember ever running into a character named after someone famous – unless it was a joke.

  7. For me, badly named characters are a huge belief-suspending killer. Whether the name is that of a recognizable person in real life or even a well-known character from another story (especially if it’s the same genre), unpronounceable, or just plain silly, it will yank me out of the story every time my eyes see it on the page.

  8. Urgh. Yes! That one gets me too. I remember reading a historical years ago, in which a male character was named Dallas. It was so out of time and place that I stumbled over it every time I read it.

  9. For me, it’s when everything coincidently comes together–always. I mean, sure, there have to be a certain number of coincidences, but sometimes there are just too many, and sometimes they are just too obvious. For example, I was watching a movie last night, where the MC happened to stroll through the same stretch of nowhere that his love-interest was about to be shot in. Okay, coincidence, I could almost deal with that except–he was looking for her, and didn’t know any more about where she might be except for the country she was in. He didn’t stop to ask people if they had seen her, or even mapped out where she might have travelled to in order to look there. He was just wandering aimlessly through the country side and BAM! he got to save the day. That was just one example of the many, many coincidences in the story. It drove me absolutely nuts!

  10. The space and time constrictions of a story do demand a certain amount of reader forgiveness when it comes to coincidences. But it’s always better to err on the side of safety and provide logical explanations for seeming coincidences. Even just a sentence is all that’s needed sometimes.

  11. I dislike one-dimensional characters with vapid dialogue. They toss me out of the story, but I get revenge by tossing the book. 🙂

  12. @Brinda, that’s called “Deux Ex Machina”.. and it’s an easy trap for writers to fall into.. 😉

    Names that are long, hard to pronounce, or two characters with really similar names will get me.
    And, please.. no more cliche endings “And she kissed him.”… bleh.. I finish reading an awesome story, and then get jarred into real-life by a lame ending.

  13. @Nann: Toss-fest! 😀

    @Gideon: Coincidences don’t necessarily have to be deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is where we have an outside force coincidentally intruding into the story to take a care of a problem. So having a main character find the lost love for whom he’s looking, just in the nick of time, doesn’t technically qualify as deus ex machina, since both the character and his hunt for his love were already established.

  14. Plot holes are the most annoying because usually you’ve invested in the whole book before you realise they’re there. But saying that wooden characters, or difficult prose tend to prevent you even getting that far.

  15. In a book I’ve read recently, it came down to the ending, though I had problems with the characters throughout, but for me, I like a book even if it’s in a series to count alone and not merely be a “chapter” in a character’s life. The ending left everything up in the air, evil winning over good, and the heroine forced to do the bidding of the bad girl in the story.

  16. Anachronisms! Writers are often careful about using only historically correct items and clothes, but neglect the language. I am popped right out of a story when an eighteenth of nineteenth century character says things like, “awesome” and “brilliant!” in the modern sense of their meaning.

  17. My bugbear is Incorrect Facts: I love anything historical, archaeological, ancient history oriented. I ALWAYS check the author’s facts. Sometimes witers take chances. I picked up on a MG adventure where the young heroes go back in time to a Mayan city under seige from attackers. The author specified an exact date. The author also mentioned historical people. Problem was: that Mayan city had been abandoned 300 years earlier. Those historical figures were never near that particular city… That sort of poetic licence makes me angry. I wonder why the publishers don’t ask their writers to double check their facts, or do they think people won’t notice? However, given the terrible plagiarism stories going round the writing world, is lack of research/accuracy such a big issue these days? NY writer Jonah Lehrer admitted to fabricating quotes by Dylan Thomas. (No longer an) Author Quentin Rowan plagiarised whole chunks of other people’s books for his novel ‘Assasin of Secrets.’ It’s very sad. One expects more from writers. I can forgive wooden characters, vapid dialogue etc, but fudging the facts is something blatantly wrong and insults the reader’s intelligence.

  18. When dealing with intentional anachronism, which may include altered facts, what throws you out of the store and blocks suspension of disbelief? Think alternate history books in the steampunk or fantasy genres.

  19. @Raewyn: The bigger your promise (the more convincing you are in getting readers to invest themselves), the more angry they’ll be in the end if you don’t pay off. Not to put the pressure on or anything, right? 😉

    @Traci: Often, authors (and publishers) use the the ol’ cliffhanger routine to try to get readers invested in buying the next book. And, undoubtedly, it works sometimes. But they also have to factor in the inevitability that a good number of readers are going to be too irritated to keep reading.

    @Joanne: Anachronisms are tough sometimes. “Awesome” and “brilliant” *should* be no-brainers, but it’s easy for even the most research-conscious author to let something slip by now and then. But, I agree, there comes a point where you just want to throw your head back and howl at the wrongness of it all.

    @Fiona: Many readers (myself among them) look to novels as educational as well as entertaining experiences, so when the facts are wrong, I feel led astray. That’s one of the reasons I approach factual storytelling very carefully in my own writing. I don’t want to lead others astray either, if I can help it.

    @AFOdom: Except for technological or societal amalgamations that just don’t make logical sense, I’m not likely to be thrown by intentional anachronisms. In fact, they’re usually a blast!

  20. Facts and anachronisms are my pet bugbears. Especially English characters written by American writers who speak in Americanisms (e.g. fall, not autumn).

    • The reverse is also problematic. I’ve read American characters written by English authors doing the same. (e.g. “I’m going to take the lift to my flat and ring my mate.” instead of “I’m going to take the elevator to my apartment and call my friend”.)

      • K.M. Weiland says:

        Americans get a bad rap for Americanizing foreign characters. But this definitely isn’t a problem exclusive to us. Whenever an author is writing a character from a foreign country, he needs to be extra careful about making sure he’s got his facts straight.

  21. Sadly, I’m just reading such a novel. It is a mixed genre novel (?) – half historical fantasy and part present day romance novel.
    (I just bought a kindle and am on constant look out for new, but – alas – cheap stories. Obviously there are a lot of stories out there that aren’t just cheap in price.)
    The idea and theme of the plot isn’t even bad. But the heroine (her part is in first person narrative) constantly reminds the reader why she doesn’t believe in love anymore. Until – boom – the hero (from another time and place) arrives on the scene and has some (rare) encounters with her and she is – boom – in love all of a sudden. I mean, there hasn’t been really anything all too life-changing happened. I just don’t get it.
    (The hero knows he loves her because she is the reincarnation of his lover from earlier times. But he doesn’t really do anything to her that she might fall in love with him again, because there is a curse and he has to obey the rules.)
    I guess there is the cliché of the-boundary-of-death-breaking-love. But still it is very out of character and very unexplained why she would fall in love with him.

  22. @Iola: As an American author who often writes British characters, I don’t blame you at all – but I also gotta tell you, that one’s tough! There are so many terms we use without even thinking twice about the possibility of their having different connotations in British English. Ultimately, unless one is immersed in the language themselves, the only way to ace it is to have a British speaker go over the manuscript.

    @Chisa: In our need to create the change that fuels our characters’ arcs, we can sometimes dig ourselves in too deep. If we create characters who are too far gone in any direction in the beginning, we’ll have to work even harder to bring them to change later. Otherwise, as the book you’re reading shows, the logic lapses.

  23. Good list!

    I’ve struggled with all the things on this list at one point in time in learning how to become a better writer.

  24. It’s kind of like a juggling act really. We have to learn how to keep all these balls in the air at the same time.

  25. I agree with all five, although I should note that one of my principle characters in my current novel almost never reacts at all—he’s almost absolute in his detatchment. In order to make that work, I had to have my narrative voice (which is first-persony) make note of it several times. Otherwise, his non-reactivity came off as wooden or robotic.

  26. If non-reaction (or any of these “no-nos”) are done on purpose with good cause, there’s no reason they can’t work. We just have to take the proper steps, as you have, to help readers get past any possible lapse of logic.

  27. This is great. I especially like Abby Geiger’s comment about difficult to pronounce names. Glad it’s not just me stumbling over them.

    One I haven’t seen mentioned specifically in this list is unbelievable dialogue, although I guess that would fall under point two, unrealistic character reactions. That’s the major challenge I face reading prose in translation. All the characters sound, well, like characters.

  28. To some extent, dialogue sounding dialogue-esque is unavoidable. If our characters talked like real-life people, they would be largely unreadable. The trick is to fool our readers into thinking this necessarily unrealistic dialogue sounds just like the neighbor next door. It takes practice, a good ear, and more than a little experimentation.

  29. @ K.M. Weiland I love your responses to the comments. You show real sympathy for the challenges writers face in trying to follow advice, even when we totally agree with it and offer the same ourselves. Sometimes those who offer suggestions and advice seem to believe that it is as easy to follow as it is to give–forgetting that they themselves had to work at it–they assume that perfection is easy to achieve, or they believe that there is only one right way to write.

    • We tell new bicycle-riders that you turn by turning the handlebars, and you stay up by leaning–when the truth is that you stay up by turning the haandlebars and you turn by leaning.

  30. I learn from other writers just as much (if not more!) than they learn from me. Writing is a journey, and we’re all in together, no matter how far along the road we’ve gotten. Thanks for stopping by!

  31. These are interesting posts. Some people, before they start writing a fiction book, they go in some place that helps them to be creative, a place that doesn’t bother them with nothing at all and it’s preferably that it’s very quiet too. It is important to put yourself as the main character in you book and just visualize all the world.

  32. I definitely need that place of solitude, although I don’t like it to be too quiet. Got to have some music pumping!

  33. I know what suspends my disbelief; the same old formula used over and over again.
    For instance take vampires, they are always beautiful , super human strength, they fly and grow limbs back! Major yawn! Because of this everybody is sick of vampire stories.
    Speaking of vampires I hate that untrue facts are presented about them. I.E They sparkle! Or that vampires always have to be undead. Instead of making something new and interesting about vampires, writers do the same thing over and over again.

  34. Cliches almost always start as something brilliant (I’m not on the vampire fan wagon myself, but the trend obviously worked for a lot of people back in its beginning). It’s only when it loses that freshness that it becomes a cliche. Our goal should be to create the *next* cliche!

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