Suspension of Disbelief, by DeeAnna Galbraith

The technique whereby a person’s beliefs, or what they think they know to be true, are altered. People have been suspending disbelief ever since they could communicate. A hominid embellishing the story of taking down his prey; a tribal elder keeping alive the tale of his peoples’ origins; or a sixteenth century actor and playwright whose famous Sonnet 18 – compares a lady to a summer’s day. All edging out what our senses, or common sense, tells us is true.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, nineteenth century poet and philosopher used the term “a semblance of truth.” So if you tell me the hero of a contemporary romance lived in a building with four walls made of uncontained water, I would have to take my business elsewhere. Or not. True, it’s a contemporary romance and not sci-fi or paranormal, but maybe the hero is a scientist on the cutting edge of force-field technology. Maybe the contemporary romance has elements that bleed into other sub-genres. Convince me.

Some writers assume since they are writing fiction, it’s the reader’s responsibility to use his or her imagination when given a scenario that falls outside the realm of the five senses or the world of physics. The responsibility, as I see it, lies with the writer. He or she lays the groundwork, and if they’ve done a credible job, the reader suspends disbelief.

Movies are an excellent example of the suspension of disbelief. The making of movies is over a hundred years old. People watched in awe as a horse galloped, a man sneezed, or a train pulled into a station. No color, no sound, and certainly no special effects, yet for the people at the turn of the twentieth century, it was hard to get their brains around pictures that captured and kept, moving images. These early audiences sometimes lacked the sophistication to distinguish what was real and what could be attributed to the screenwriter’s or director’s imaginations. Today we happily suspend disbelief for movies full of special effects, poorly- and well-written television, and every permutation of fiction.

Since I’m a writer and an editor, and love to read, I can attest to coming across some prime examples of what I call the more is better approach. Like magic? Stories written about people with exceptional powers? Other worlds? So do I. The issue I have with some of the fiction written without considering the reader’s belief system, is that there is no plot or story arc because there are no obstacles for the protagonists to overcome. Everything that gets in the way of story success is conquered by waving a wand or calling on a super power. Can’t see to travel in the forest at night? Wave a wand and the path is lighted. Rescue boat can’t find you? Have your super-powered friend swim out and tow it to you. Losing the fight with highwaymen? Have the good guys’ swords empowered by magic so they can’t lose. Although the reader accepts these acts at first, the suspension of disbelief fails because the author uses it time and again to move the story forward instead of coming up with an interesting plot. *head desk*.

With the advent of self-publishing, there are many new authors out there. Part of learning the craft of fiction writing is knowing how to balance the suspension of disbelief. It’s okay to create a beautiful heroine (practically a prerequisite), but making her beautiful doesn’t mean you can balance that with stupidity or a whiney personality. It’s also mandatory when creating characters to keep those characters honest. By that, I mean it’s not fair to your reader if you create a woman who has spent all her adult life behind a desk, then turn her into a martial arts expert who can outfight the hero when they are threatened. You get the idea. Build characters who are honest and who fit your story.

New writers of romance are taught to give the protagonists obstacles to overcome in order to grow. In some cases this is taken literally. I recently read a multi-published author whose heroine was tall, gorgeous, loyal and kind. She also had no clue she was beautiful. Right. She cried over everything and wrung her hands when faced with opportunities that could help her because she thought she was too stupid to make the right decision. Well, guess what? This heroine had been given so much to overcome she was paralyzed into making bad decision after bad decision. Everything was wrapped up in the last few pages of the book, which was very unsatisfying. Needless to say, I wanted my $2.99 back.

The point of these bad examples is that suspension of disbelief is a powerful asset to fiction writing, but you also want readers to believe in the interactions, character personalities, and the world they inhabit. Throwing in absurd physical issues and solving problems with deus ex machina solutions is the sign of an amateur; a writer who can’t sustain a story without using suspension of disbelief as a hammer.

If you are unsure about the balance in your work, search for recommended classes or books on the craft of fiction writing. You can also look for a solid critique or local writers’ group or even a developmental book doctor or editor. Lots of options. Good luck with your projects.

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