The suspension of disbelief is the readers’ willingness to accept as credible facts and characters they would ordinarily consider incredible.
The suspension of disbelief is an essential part of modern storytelling.
Modern readers know that stories are not facts. They know that events and characters aren’t real, even when they look like they are. Yet readers accept them as real for the duration so to be able to enjoy the story.
British author and literary critic Samuel T. Coleridge was the first to call this attitude suspension of disbelief in 1817. The concept was of special importance for a Romantic like him because Romantic authors wrote stories that not only weren’t real, but they also didn’t look like they were. Fantastical elements were included in these stories, and even if readers knew these didn’t exist in the real world, they were still willing to pretend they could and read the story in the same way they did a perfectly realistic story.
Coleridge theorised that this happened because of a conscious, temporary act of belief on the readers’ part.
Good stories don’t just allow the suspension of disbelief, they encourage it.
In modern storytelling, the focus of the suspension of disbelief has increasingly shifted from the reader to the author. Readers must be willing to suspend their disbelief, which they may do selectively — this is why, for example, some readers don’t read fantasy, or don’t read romances: because this kind of stories stretches their suspension of disbelief too thin. But authors must do all they can to make it easy for their readers to suspend their disbelief. Good stories don’t just allow the suspension of disbelief, they encourage it.
When readers come to think that a story may be real, somehow, somewhere, they become willing to believe, if only for the time it takes to consume that story. Then their involvement becomes complete, and a strong emotional bond is born.
How may authors help readers to suspend their disbelief?
There isn’t just one element that makes the suspension of disbelief acceptable to the reader. Rather, this is a process that works at all levels of storytelling and is utterly pervasive. But there are some areas where it is more essential.
Have you ever felt that a story transported you there? That you could almost see, smell, touch, hear what a place looked, smelled or sounded like?
The stronger this sensation, the more the reader will be willing to believe, and it doesn’t matter whether the place where the story happens is a real place or it’s imaginary. Whether it is New York City or Middle-earth, if the reader may place themselves there, they are likely to believe all the rest.
This kind of immersive feeling is often created by details. Generic settings or descriptions rarely do the trick. Sometimes one well-chosen word specific to a place or a situation will do more than any long description.
Characters Are the Lifeblood of Storytelling, But Not All Characters Are Equal
Let’s have a look at the categories of characters that will appear in your story
If the setting is where the reader is transported to, characters are the reader’s travel companions. They know the way and will accompany the reader in the journey that is the story.
But to do this, they need to be trustworthy. Whether soldiers from WWI or little mermaids with a dream, characters need to be coherent.
Coherence works at different levels.
- Personality. All characters will react to events in the story based on their personality. An impulsive character will have a very different reaction than a reflective character to the same event. And if a reflective character has an impulsive reaction, there’d better be an excellent reason for it.
- Culture. All characters belong to a specific cultural environment that will have shape the way they think and feel. This is what most links characters to setting. If the setting is strong and vivid, characters will need to behave in ways logical for that setting. Breaching the code of cultural conduct is far riskier than breaching the code of personal conduct.
- Logic. The way a character acts and reacts needs to be overall logic. It needs to be the way people tend to react to an event, no matter their personality. When it isn’t, actions and reaction become mere gimmicks that allow the story to progress in the direction the author wants. If a mother loses her baby and she acts as if nothing had happened, it will take a lot of work and excellent reasons for an author to convince a reader that that is believable.
Handling characters’ actions and reactions is one of the trickiest aspects of storytelling, but also one of the most powerful. If a reader comes to consider a character as good as a real person, and maybe one of their friends, investment in the story (and so the suspension of disbelief) will be almost unbreakable.
The Plot: How Manipulating the Order of Events Defines the Meaning of a Story
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Action is strongly related to the plot. Therefore to the sequence of events and motivations. Therefore to the structure of the story. Coherence and logic are paramount here.
The relation cause/effect that propels the story has to make sense regarding both the plot and reality. Events need to be inherently logic. This means that most readers will accept it because they have experienced something similar in their lives. They’ll be likely to take it no matter the circumstances of the story.
But events also need to make sense inside the plot. Random events that don’t cause a forward movement in the plot will weaken the story, its likeliness and therefore the reader’s willingness to suspend their disbelief.
The suspension of disbelief is genre insensitive
It could seem that the suspension of disbelief is easier with stories that mimic reality, but is more needed with speculative stories with magical elements.
This is not the case.
It may be tempting to think that readers will accept stories that mimic reality more readily than speculative stories.
Readers are indeed more likely to accept stories that happen in actual locations. Besides, when a place does exist, readers expect to ‘recognise it’. For example, if I’ve visited New York, inaccurate details may break my suspension of disbelief and cause me to abandon the story.
A speculative story generally needs more work on the suspension of disbelief, because the reader needs to make an initial step, conscious and hard, towards the fantastical environment. Some readers never take that step. But if they do, they’ll be more tolerant towards the imagined world… as long as it is credible.
But other important elements, such as coherence in characters’ behaviours and logic in plot development, work in the same exact way whether the story is mimic or speculative.
What convinces the reader to suspend their disbelief isn’t the genre of the story. It is the skill with which the author creates characters, plots and conflicts.
Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/