Worldbuilding 101: On Suspension of Disbelief

Sep 11, 2015 · 4 min read

People are fickle. People are hard to please. As a writer or worldbuilder, you’ve got yourself a difficult job to do in convincing people to believe in what you’re telling them. The good news: if someone’s reading your book, playing your game, or using your world, you’ve already had half the work done. The bad news: if you don’t get this right, they won’t stay. So without further ado, let’s get into Worldbuilding 101: how to tell people unbelievable things in a way they’ll believe.

Suspension of Disbelief

Quick history lesson: the term “suspension of disbelief” (which I affectionately refer to as an old SoD) was coined in 1817 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He suggested that if a writer could inject some “human interest or semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, its reader (or otherwise user) would suspend judgment regarding the plausibility of the narrative. [source — yes, I’m a wiki-advocate.] End history lesson.

This is important to you because the responsibility for injecting that semblance of truth lies squarely on your shoulders. In telling others about your world, you must tell in such a way that they either believe your fantasies plausible, or otherwise don’t care because they’re enjoying listening.

#1: Inject Interest

The old primary-school-teacher example of a boring narrative (“I got up and then I had breakfast and then I got dressed and then I went out and then I did something else and then I did that and then I got bored of writing this”) applies very well to this situation. If you sound bored or your writing sounds bored, the people reading it will get bored. [Note: I say “writing”, but this can apply to any medium.] You need to inject into your writing things that people will be interested by.

The best way to do that is, surprisingly or not, to write well. If you write simple subject-object-verb sentences every time, without any linguistic twiddling, it makes for a surprisingly boring result. Write with more complexity — I won’t tell you how, because everyone does this differently, but longer, complex sentences and varying the pace of your writing often help.

Interest can also simply be about keeping your reader engaged — it’s like conversation. You can use techniques like longer bits of dialogue, interspersed with some other long bits of prose, or some humour between characters to liven your work up a little. If you can get some interest like this into your work, people are far more likely to keep at it because they enjoy it — and if they enjoy it, they won’t be thinking about how much all of this doesn’t make sense.

#2: Science is Logical

Many creative works like stories and games have some science conveyed to the reader at some point. Even in a completely fantastical magical world, there are usually natural laws governing everyday life — I have yet to come across a world where the author has simply left everything to be random.

Top tip when writing in that science: all science is logical. OK, some science in our world seems pretty weird — but there are constant laws governing at least most of it. Gravity doesn’t change day to day, because there’s a natural law behind it, from which we have derived a formula, for which the inputs don’t change.

Keep a note of your science, and keep a note of your thought processes that went into it. Your final aim should be to have a note of the laws behind your science. Once you’ve got that, apply them to every related bit of science that governs your work — the logicality will show, as will the interconnectedness. Having that injects some semblance of truth — which, you will remember, is a key element in SoD.

#3: Be Consistent

Almost a superset of the last point, this — apply your ideas consistently across your work, or have reader-visible reasons for it if you don’t. You can have a magical world not governed at all by science (though that would be interesting — do tell me if you do that, I want to read it), but you still have to be consistent about the world’s governing principles.

The best example I can come up with here is the power of mages/witches/wizards in a story. If at one point you say “older mages are more powerful” (with or without reasoning), then that rule applies everywhere, always, unless you tell the reader there are reasons otherwise. You can’t say that at one point, then on the next page have someone else say “younger mages are more powerful”, unless the reader knows why you did that. It might be the case, for example, that older mages are more powerful in one country, and younger mages are more powerful in another. That associates a reason with the change in rule — the country is different.

I’d also advise — though it’s not completely necessary — that if you have a reason, you also have an explanation — why does the fact that it’s another country affect the power of mages? Is the magic level there different, perhaps, or is the magic governed by a different supernatural entity?

It’s not as hard as it looks

Making people believe in something is hard. Making people believe in something they want to believe in isn’t quite so hard — that’s where half the work has been done for you. If someone’s reading your book or story, or using your world somehow, they’re open to believing things they wouldn’t normally for the enjoyment of the world. As long as you don’t do anything that will actively push them away, it’s not that hard to suspend disbelief.

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