Walking the tightrope: the suspension of disbelief

Following on from the slightly controversial (which turned out not to be at all controversial) Likeable Characters, is the second Unbreakable, Suspension of Disbelief. I wonder if I can turn this one on its head too ūüėÄ

There is, on the surface,¬†nothing remotely controversial about suspension of disbelief. Everyone I’ve ever met accepts it without question and everyone I’ve never met seems in agreement. Which would quite naturally raise the question, does it even merit a post? It¬†even more¬†naturally raises the question because most people assume its something the reader does, not the writer. The reader or film goer, or theatre luvvie chooses to suspend their disbelief going in, thus¬†unburdening the writer of any need to consider it when writing.

A boy kidnapped by aliens grows up to lead a rag tag bunch of mercenaries including a racoon, a green skinned assassin and a talking tree? I am soooo looking forward to this. Others aren’t. It sounds ridiculous and they don’t understand how anyone can sit through it.

Everyone has to choose what and where they are willing to suspend their disbelief and we use lots of stuff to help us make that decision going in. For some fiction holds no appeal at all, they aren’t interested in make believe. Others eschew certain genres like fantasy as it is simply too far from reality for them to invest in. That choice is vital and very personal, but it doesn’t entirely rest with the reader. I know people who to their own surprise have been lured into reading genres they would normally automatically avoid, almost as though the writer is holding them against their will.

In no way do I believe on an intellectual level that a boy was kidnapped from earth and has grown up in space¬†with a racoon and talking tree for friends. I don’t believe Rachel and Ross lived happily ever after or Hannibal Lector is running around looking for a nice wine to go with his dinner guest’s liver. The first and probably most vital component to suspending disbelief is emotional. Engage your audience on this level, make them care about what’s happening and however ludicrous it might be when stripped bare, they’ve stopped noticing. This connects back to likeable characters. We could be labelled utterly narcissistic, or simply human-centric, depending on your level of self hatred, but fundamentally we look for ourselves in almost everything. Watership Down is not about rabbits – rabbits don’t behave like that. Its about us with cute velvety noses and little bob¬†tails.¬†We can look at this and see ourselves.

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Its why you are always advised to start a query by introducing your character, not your world. Why the right voice can keep you turning pages. I won’t go into character too much as I already have here, but I’ll repeat, the key is likeable, n. easy to like, because what you are doing is asking your reader to care. If they don’t all those other little niggles suddenly get much much much bigger.

This carries more stories than you can imagine, and it is particularly relevant in novels. Films and theatre can offer visual spectacle and a night out with popcorn to sway us when all else fails. But there is a second component to suspension of disbelief. This is the intellectual part and its also, I believe, the part that will engage the reluctant reader against their will. I know one reader who has never willingly made it past the first pages of a fantasy novel who is now knee deep in Game of Thrones. I imagine she’ll be buried by the time she actually¬†finishes it ūüôā

The second part is trickier, trickier to pin down and also trickier to achieve. Some might define it as consistency. A trust is built between reader and writer – a trust that you, having brought them into this world, introduced them to these characters, will not betray any involved. A couple of recent storms have shown that some writers don’t honour that trust. In the series The Tomorrow People the end twist saw one character betray his friends. Through constant threat of death they’d fought side by side, but when threatened with death he turned on them.. see the issue?

Consistency is something¬† I know I appreciate in any story, particularly when it comes to character, but I have to admit I don’t think its quite the right word. In the example above, was the real issue inconsistent behaviour or the fact we saw¬†a likeable character turned into a bastard? And without any credible reason?

Soaps have made a feature out of complete undercutting and rewriting their own history. Story can survive even without consistency. And even while I would agree any story is the better for it, I would equally say a consistent story can still leave me fundamentally unable to suspend disbelief. It isn’t just that you maintain your rules, its the very nature of the¬†rules you set up in the first place.

The only word I can think of is realism. I admit this might seem questionable, certainly within the more fantastical genres and¬†I would qualify it by saying contextual realism. It’s definitely not about limiting the imagination. We can have flying unicorns and realism..

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Think of it this way: every writer aims to engage the reader, to have them caught up with their characters as if they were real, caring about their story as if it were really happening. One way or another you have to get that effect across.

I have friends who, having enjoyed several series in the beginning, found the ever more ludicrous developments left them unwilling to keep reading. The last book of the Twilight series for many seemed to break the (bewildering) spell that Meyer had cast. Why? We have sparkly vampires, what could really be more absurd than that?

The answer highlights what is at the heart of contextual realism. Meyer gave us a world¬†utterly bereft of consequence. It’s a basic truth of life, and much more importantly is at the very core of what Story means to us, that for every action there is a reaction. Story is our way of figuring out ‘what if?’. If we then take away any consequences we fundamentally undermine this.

Its a very fine line to walk and it’s definitely the part¬†where most writers fail. Not least because again every reader is different.¬†Meyer offered a world where vampires can live amongst us untroubled by anything except sparkly skin, for many of us that was too little consequence as vampirism is essentially about what we lose in humanity versus what we gain in power. For others however it wasn’t until she offered Bella everything and took nothing from her, that suspension of disbelief broke. Yes, it was inconsistent with her own world rules, but it was the lack of consequence that really made eyes roll in disgust.

It is worth looking at trends when thinking about how much this is relevant to your work. Time and time again we see readers respond strongly, favourably, to increased realism. Take Harry Potter, its fantastical, upbeat, fun, about as far from the traditional image of gritty realism as you can get,  yet Rowling never skimped on detail, building a world of immense depth and imagination yet never failing to show how it might slip by us muggles, functioning within, alongside and at times hand in hand with our world. I strongly believe, as a kid who was too often disappointed with other magical offerings, that this was a vital part of her appeal.

Game of Thrones has become synonymous with a new gritty type of fantasy that more closely matches our world. While The Bourne Identity has spawned a multitude of copycats, even forcing a rethink of the entire Bond Franchise at its base level, and Batman has ushered in a new age of realistic anti-superheroes.

Going even further back Tolkien, father of modern fantasy, presented the ultimate in invented mythology and was so intent on grounding it that he kept having to write more volumes to show us how those consequences played out.

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Filmmakers often think they can present the fantastical and with all the advances in special effects, make it look so real that no other effort need be put in to maintain suspension of disbelief. Good news is they’re wrong. It might be enough visual spectacle for some, but¬†if you care about good story, and¬†again trends suggest we do,¬†the better effort is put into the smaller, seemingly insignificant details of character action and interaction. The human¬†element¬†is ultimately what most of us will connect with. Carry through their actions, show the consequences within their relationships, their lives, their future actions, and most specifically their emotions. A prime example of a film that failed to do this is World War Z. Great special effects, utterly unbelievable characters. A tragedy given the book was founded on making believable something utterly absurd and was a major part of the reinvigoration of the zombie genre. At the heart of which is realism, and the consumers demand for it.

As we covered in likeable characters, imagination should not be limited there either. Jack Reacher is unlikely to react in the same way as I might in most situations, yet the underpinning emotion may well marry and allow me to connect with him. You can make your characters as physically indestructible as Superman on a sunseekers holiday and it won’t touch a viewers suspension of disbelief as long as we see the emotional cost play out.

One thing I have noticed is that although I hate clich√© and overused tropes, there are a few which apparently irk some readers that don’t trouble me and in fact, I have even used. For instance, a character looking in a mirror and describing what they see. But perhaps that’s because I don’t use it to set up a ‘how beautiful am I’ moment, but rather do as I would do in real life. I have them notice what is relevant, however minor or unattractive, in that instance. I’ve used it twice, both times fairly far through the tale because it naturally arose and it felt right. The point is I have drawn from life not from fiction. It’s easy for writers to rely on what they have read to guide them, but this creates clich√©s in phrasing, in form and even if the act started life as relatively realistic, years of copying has worn it into pure make-believe. Think of it like clones, a copy of a copy of a copy.. For me the approach you take always bleeds through your prose; if you are drawing from the closed circle of fiction it will tell and it will undercut any chance of realism.

As I said its a tricky line and one many just don’t bother themselves about¬†that much. But the point with Unbreakables, isn’t that you must follow them or else, there’s no such thing in fiction and even if there were I’m not going to dictate, however if you choose to heed them they will always benefit your story and the more you chose to, the more they will enrich it.

 

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