Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Suspension of Disbelief vs Research and Realism

Suspension of Disbelief

When a reader picks up a work of fiction, he or she will suspend his disbelief. He will happily believe whatever the story require he believe, whether this is faster than light space travel, alternative histories, the existence of dinosaurs in the modern age, etc.

But this suspension of disbelief comes at a price.

Breaking the Suspension of Disbelief

A reader can only suspend his or her disbelief so far. Eventually this suspension will lead to the disbelief breaking. Break the disbelief too hard, or too often, and it will shatter. A reader whose disbelief has been shattered will put your book or story down, and will not pick it back up. They often won't read anything else you write, either.

Keeping the Disbelief

So, obviously, you have to suspend the disbelief, but not break it. Right, great, fair enough. What we need to be aware of when writing is what breaks a reader's SofD.
  1. Badly researched facts
  2. Laws of physics/nature etc broken
  3. Rules of storytelling broken

Number One

Badly researched facts (or unresearched facts) will pull a reader out of the story. The only way to combat this is to research, research, research. The old adage to "write what you know" should really be "know what you write." You can bet your backside that at least one of your readers knows.

I know a lot of people on the net who have read my work. One knows a lot about horses and has rode cross-country. One knows a lot about space, and works with satellites. I believe she has a degree in astrophysics. One knows a lot about computers and the internet. If I'm going to write in any of those subjects I had better have my facts right.

But then there are people on the internet, probably reading this right now, and I have no idea who they are, what they do, or what they know. Everything I write (everything you write) has to be researched.

This is the Rule of Research.

Number Two

Laws of physics and nature are the laws of the world you write about. If these laws include magic, that's fine. If they include life after death in the form of ghosts or whatever, cool. But stay consistent.

Consistency is the essence of number two. This is the Rule of Realism.

Number Three

The Rules of storytelling involve staying in character, staying in POV, not using deus ex machina or plot devices, and various add-ons.

This is a tricky one. Some of these rules can be broken, but the key to breaking these is knowing that you are doing it. If you know the rules, then you can learn how to break them.

In Summary

Readers will suspend their disbelief whilst you write about magic talking yoyos, if that's what turns your fancy, but get your facts right, be consistent in your world's logic, and in the story's logic, and your readers will keep reading.

NB: This is assuming you have a grasp of grammar, can spell, and can write a good story.

1 comment:

  1. I remember when I was watching the original Star Wars movie and Han Solo claimed that the Millennium Falcon could do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Ack. A parsec is a measure of distance, NOT a measure of time.

    According to the Star Wars wiki, Han's claim was just a lie meant to impress provincial bumpkins that wouldn't know any better. Umm, except that Han Solo is an ace pilot and should know the difference. Why wouldn't he lie convincingly?

    However, terrible research is an even greater problem in Live Free or Die Hard. Government agents that really should know better had to deliver some painfully bad lines of exposition. It was pretty obvious that none of the screenwriters had ever taken a class in computer science before.