Will They Believe It? 3 Ways to Help Readers Suspend Disbelief
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One of our challenges as writers is to help readers suspend disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is critical if we want to grab and hold our readers’ attention. Suspension of disbelief has been defined as a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.[i] In other words, suspension of disbelief refers to readers' ability to put aside the fact that what they are reading isn't real and immerse themselves in the story. Although this is something readers do, they rely on the writer to help them achieve it.
A few tips to help your readers suspend disbelief
Start with what’s familiar. I once heard someone say that the best lies contain a grain of truth. The same may be said of fiction. Create the fictional world with some elements of a real or already-imagined world. Let’s take the Percy Jackson series as an example. Percy Jackson starts out with a seemingly regular, albeit troubled, kid who discovers he’s a demi-god and we are quickly pulled into a world of magic. Aside from the fact that people just love stories where the kid who’s been underestimated gets superpowers, we also can suspend disbelief because the stories of Greek gods are familiar. Rick Riordan could have made up his own world, but using Greek mythology as a basis gave readers an easy jumping off point to suspend disbelief.
The details make the world. If you opt to create your own world rather than fall back on the familiar, pay attention to the details. Spend time mapping your imaginary lands (or universes) and plan ahead so you’ll know what kinds of people live there. What are their customs? What are their strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and fears? What language do they speak? Sci-fi and fantasy have tons of examples of great world-building. The best books have loyal followings. For inspiration, re-read The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone for a refresher on what makes for great world-building. All of the magical details contribute to the readers’ suspension of disbelief and keep them turning the pages.
Research deeply to make it feel real. You don’t have to be a historian to write historical fiction, but you do have to research the period. Research is easier than ever with today’s technology. Use the Internet and its billions of online resources to learn about all facets of society for the time period you want for your setting. Go to the library. Don’t just look for books; speak with the librarians. Librarians possess a wealth of knowledge and often can point you to resources you would not have easily come across on your own. If possible, visit the places you want to write about. Some writers have gone so far as to move to the town where their books will be set. That’s not possible for most of us, but, here again, technology can come to the rescue. Use the Internet for research and then pick up the phone and schedule telephone or Skype interviews with experts and locals in the area so they can give you details that add flavor to the story.
Suspension of disbelief is up to the writer to create so the reader can experience it. That suspension of belief can make the difference between a reader staying up all night to finish a book or putting it down and forgetting about it. Use the tips above to develop your story so your readers, no matter what the genre, can dive into your book and come out of the other side feeling like they were a part of the story, not just watching from the sidelines.
[i] Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/suspension-of-disbelief Accessed 10-17-2016.
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