How Authors Kill Suspension of Disbelief by Calling Attention to Themselves

This week’s video discusses the pros and cons of in-jokes and how to avoid using them to kill suspension of disbelief.

Video Transcript:

I’m totally a fan of in-jokes, the little nods to shared knowledge or experiences that make those in the know feel just a little extra awesome for being able to pick up on what’s going on. This is something authors can take advantage of, especially in series, in which we can stick in little references to other aspects of our characters or stories. Devoted readers are delighted to pick up on these references because it feels as if the author is giving them a little wink of comradeship.

But you got to know this can be taken way too far way too easily. The moment your in-jokes or references become too author-centric, that’s a clear sign that you’re about to yank your readers out of their suspension of disbelief. For example, there was a book I read a long time ago (I don’t even remember the book’s title or what it was about), in which the author planted another of his own books on one of the character’s shelves. Immediately, I was yanked out of the world of the story and smack dab into my world, where the author may be real, but the character who owned his book sure wasn’t.

As another example, I recently read a mystery that took the bizarre twist of having its protagonist turn out to be the author of the actual author’s most famous series. That was weird on a number of levels, but the biggest problem was—you guessed it—it smashed my suspension of disbelief. Or how about Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, in which he has a tour guide describe the capitol dome as the thing the aliens blew up in Independence Day, famously directed by—who else?—Roland Emmerich. Very occasionally an author can get away with something like this. But before you jump right in with what may seem to be a clever in-joke, take a moment to evaluate whether it’s worth the potential risk of endangering your readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever included an in-joke in a story? What was it and why didn’t it kill suspension of disbelief?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. We do this all the time, however, it’s for our webcomic parody. In visual media, it’s easier, and when the overall theme is humour, it’s easy to lay the groundwork first. The first thing we did was establish our two main characters as people who often say random things. Then we simply did not point out the joke (we really feel that it kills the funny when you point out the joke). For example, the Fairy in the story (which we represent as a circle with wings) injures her wing in a dungeon fight. In the very next chapter, she is in a floating wheelchair for the entire chapter (well, she couldn’t fly if she was on crutches, could she?). We never once pointed out that she was in a wheelchair, or made reference to it at all. Sometimes we will draw the main character with his sword drawn and ready to go AND on his back at the same time. Our characters will often have random and totally unrelated conversations. Our readers accept this as part of the reality of the story because we laid the groundwork early Once we had our two main characters rob a bank with finger-guns. Everyone in the bank reacted as if they had real guns and were in real danger. Not once did our characters ever mention “gee those people were sure stupid – these are just our fingers, not real guns”. THAT would have killed the gag.

    Because we’ve laid all this groundwork down (and break the 4th wall a lot) we had one of our characters reading a copy of the webcomic they were currently in and complaining about how bad it was. One shot, one panel, one comment. We’ve even had our characters playing the actual video game that we were writing about (one shot, one panel).

    It can be done…but we have to agree with you that it has to be done in such a way that it doesn’t take your readers out of the story at all. If the Tour Guide in White House Down had mentioned other locations where movies directed by other people as well as Independence Day had been filmed…it would have made the gag funnier and seemed more natural. It’s almost sad when they can’t get it right in visual media, because that is so much easier to do that in.

    But being able to suspend disbelief is something we have lectured on over and over again in the panels we teach at conventions.

  2. Good advice, KM. I write a regular column for a semi-monthly print magazine called Women2Women Michigan (feel free to snicker). The column is titled “Don’t tell my wife I wrote this.” Obviously, it’s a humor piece. Naturally, all my material is taken from real life events, especially involving my wife (I advise against this, by the way). So, naturally, I often catch myself writing something that will be hilarious to my wife, but completely miss the mark with my general audience. While this is different than what you’re talking about, it’s important to remember that a great deal of our life experience will make no sense to anyone but us. By the way, when I do cut those pieces, I still share them with my wife. She is still my number one fan and it’s priceless when I make her laugh.

    • Very true. The only thing worse than sharing a hilarious in-joke with a friend and having him glaze over because he has no idea what you’re talking about – is sharing it with hundreds or thousands of readers.

  3. If it’s done correctly, I don’t mind. I’ve enjoyed such books. If it’s weaved into the story and nicely written, I consider it plausible.

    La Caverna de las ideas, for example, where the hero, who thinks he’s the translator, discovers he is actually the hero.
    Or some of S.King’s books, where his heroes get to meet him and have him interact.

    It’s certainly more realistic than a heroine sleeping stark naked in a train, next to her “strictly-business” partner, while a couple of assassins is after them, then claiming she didn’t think sex would happen. Now that killed my suspension of disbelief

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Don’t get me wrong: I love a well-executed in-joke. Every time a Firefly reference shows up in a Castle story, I geek out. But it’s a fine line to walk sometimes.

  4. K.M.
    Are you talking about something like Alfred Hitchcock walking in front of a bus stopped at a traffic light in one of his own films? Fine if you’re Hitchcock, not so fine otherwise. Long ago, I taught (among other things) technical writing. The fundamental lesson at the core of the course is transferable to everything else that gets written: never, ever lose track of who your audience is. If a writer tries an in-joke that blows up the reader’s sympathy for what he/she is reading (suspension of disbelief), that means the writer has lost track of how the words on the page will be received.

  5. I have a friend who writes in third person but with a sides that asides written in such a way that they could only be the main character’s thoughts. I have tried to tell her to italicize them so they would appear more like the main character’s thoughts, but she insists that it is OK for the narrator to address the audience in such a way. Seems very strange to me when I read her work.

  6. Stephen King does it quite a bit.

    He usually has a character or two from a different novel, or will sometimes mention Castle Rock, the town where most of his stories occur.

    Of course he never points out who they are – for instance Dick Halloran from The Shining is mentioned in another book of his- so it never seems unnatural.

    It’s more like seeing an old friend unexpectedly.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it *is* kind of fun. But on the other, it still messes with my suspension of disbelief.

      • I guess it depends on the person. There’s a term in educational psychology called metacognition, which technically means “knowing about knowing.”

        In education it refers to a person’s ability to think about how they learn, not just what they learn. Not everyone can do it; some find it difficult to think about two things concurrently or close in occurrence.

        Probably the same type of thing here.

  7. Agreed. As a reader this tend to bother me. (although I kind of liked the reference to my ever favorite movie “Independence Day” in “White House Down” – I just love everything Roland Emmerich does, period.)

    Having said that, in “The Museum of Innocence”, the author, Orhan Pamuk, inludes himself as one of the minor characters (as well as some of his real life family members) towards the end – but it is done so masterfully, it actually works really well.

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Talent is the key to everything. You can break any rule if you do it brilliantly. But that, of course, is the catch!

  8. I don’t know if I’ve included in jokes… I probably have. I do, however, make nods to fandoms that I consider myself to be a part of… I’ll use “Shiny” or make a reference to Converse shoes and Doctor Who… One of my characters is obsessed with “Star Wars” so her friends use quotes from the movies against her. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland says

      Fans love in-jokes. We gobble them up. If it’s something well-known, like the things you’ve mentioned, authors/director have a lot more leeway to play around with.

  9. I saw this somewhere recently–can’t remember where. I just know I didn’t pick up on it because I hadn’t read the author’s other works and wasn’t aware it was an inside joke. But I remember people being very upset about it in their reviews. I guess this kind of thing is limited to Disney/Pixar when they do stuff like sticking Buz Lightyear in Finding Nemo. 🙂

  10. This concept you describe reminds me of the plot of “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeves, where *spoiler* he manages to travel back in time by putting himself in an environment that wouldn’t remind him of the present time and only the time he was trying to get to. He even bought a suit that was from that time period. He accomplishes it and meets the woman of his dreams and as they start really getting to know each other, he accidentally pulls out a penny from the year of his present and is transported back.

    So when us writers make a universe, we remove all elements of reality that doesn’t fit into that universe, and each time we have an artifact from outside the universe inserted in, it takes the reader back to their reality.


  1. […] read an interesting aticle from K.M. Weiland about Authors killing the Suspension of Disbelief.  It is a great article, and has a video too if you don’t want to read (it’s a […]

  2. […] read an interesting article from K.M. Weiland about Authors killing the Suspension of Disbelief.  It is a great article, and has a video too if you don’t want to read (it’s a […]

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