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.
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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