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On Suspension of Disbelief

Time for a personal story!

It was freshman year, during lunch. My friends and I had been sitting on the brick ledge that lined wall on one side of the cafeteria when one of my friends handed me a spiral notebook.
"Hey, would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?"
"Yeah. Sure."

So I began reading. Oh dear.

After maybe less than a minute of reading, I looked up, and as politely as I could (which, being kind of a dumb kid, was probably not as polite as I intended) started asking my friend questions. Paraphrased:

Does this take place in Japan? If it does, how did she (the MC) get a gun at the age of sixteen, in a country with strict gun control laws? If it takes place in America, why is her name Japanese? Is she an immigrant? Are her parents?
Oh, and why would she just be standing around in some vaguely urban setting in the middle of the night? Why does this setup seemed literally identical to those countless horrible fics on Quizilla?

My friend snatched her notebook from me, annoyed. "It'll be explained later in the story, Jesus! Why are you nitpicking so much?"

The answer, and the focus of this post, is suspension of disbelief. To copy-paste from Wiki: "Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literary works of fiction. It was put forth in English by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative".

Even your most dedicated reader will have trouble accepting everything you throw at them if you fail to maintain Suspension of Disbelief, and anyone who's not as dedicated will have put the book down at that point. People say writers are professional liars. To succeed, you've got to make your lies plausible.

There are several strategies to help maintain Suspension of Disbelief. Feel free to include any I missed in the comments.

First, if you bring up something weird or something that seems out of place, either explain it when it's introduced-you can at first be vague and then give more explicit details as the story progresses- or give the readers hints that there will be an
explanation, and hints to what that explanation will be. Make the reader curious; make them want to read what comes next.

Second, write what you know. Contrary to what many believe, this doesn't mean you can only write a character exactly like you in a real-life setting that you've been to doing only what you've done. It's not that restricting. It means using your real-life feelings or experiences as a basis in your story. It's like drawing your own face from a mirror and using what you learned from that to draw people from your imagination. You learn how the skin hangs, how shadows affect the definition of the cheekbones, the relationship between the nose and the eyebrows. Applying this principle to your writing could mean the difference between a gripping story and a story that sounds like it was written by an senseless, emotionless robot.

The third strategy I got from the Plinkett Star Wars reviews, which actually have a lot of legitimate writing advice between the black humor and profanity. It applies mostly to fantasy and science-fiction, and is meant to help your audience accept any fantastic elements in your work. To make your protagonist an average person, or the setting's equivalent of an average person, is a technique that has been used in innumerable pieces of fiction. Readers, not knowing anything about your story, will connect to a protagonist who is also initially unfamiliar with the more fantastical elements of your story. Examples of this type of character:

Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
Frodo Baggins (LotR)
Harry Potter
Sarah Conner (Terminator)
Marty McFly (Back to the Future)
Tiana (Princess and the Frog)

They're regular people who's routine lives are interrupted when they get involved in an extraordinary situation or conflict. Their goals are usually very relatable- restore normalcy; protect friends or family; get the girl (or guy). Even conflicts that seem huge have personal elements. For example, Frodo's motivation to destroy the ring is to protect the Shire, as well as preventing Sauron's return. His home is threatened. That's personal. That's relatable. We get emotionally involved and so Suspension of Disbelief is maintained.



The Fiction Writer's Academy

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