“Oh, come on! That would never happen in a million years.”
Have you ever read a story that captured your imagination for a moment or two, but had too many twists and turns that defied logic? You might have found yourself saying something like the above. It’s not that you wanted to be critical of the story. You almost feel betrayed—as if the author took advantage of your investment of time and energy.
It might seem like a trivial complaint, but it’s not. It’s one of the most important elements in the relationship between a writer and their reader. Without what poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called “that willing suspension of disbelief,” fiction doesn’t work.
But what is it—and more importantly, how do you achieve it in your writing?
How to Write a Novel That Suspends Disbelief
If you’ve ever been to a play, you know the production designers depend on the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. You’re not really in the Kensington House from Peter Pan; you’re in a high school auditorium. But you go along with it for the sake of entertainment.
Similarly, readers are willing participants when you’re writing fiction. They know they’re reading something the author sat down and made up. But they still need some semblance of reality and credibility to buy what the author’s selling.
Let’s rewind. Here’s the original quote from Coleridge:
“My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817
To get readers to suspend their disbelief when you write fiction, you need “human interest and a semblance of truth.” In other words, readers need to feel an undercurrent of reality in a story, no matter where it takes place.
Let’s assume you have the essentials of writing down pat. Now you need to focus on the first element: human interest.
Write Believable Characters
In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—the book series that launched Game of Thrones—we’re struck by two immediate elements.
First, a fantastical setting. Westeros is a continent in a world where seasons last years at a time, with unpredictable intervals. There are dragons. Ice zombies. Strange magic. If we were being logical, we wouldn’t buy any of it.
But we do buy it because Martin also gives us the human element. He captures our interest by downplaying the magic at first. In the prologue to A Game of Thrones, the emphasis isn’t on the ice creatures known as the Others, but on the real people who are afraid of them.
As we meet our main cast of characters, we come to know their human struggles: hopes, wants, dreams, and fears.
If you want believable characters in a story with fantastical elements, stick to a rule of thumb: The characters should react the same way we would react. An audience can accept the fact that a dragon attacks. What an audience won’t abide is a character who isn’t afraid of the dragon.
Create a Sense of Internal Logic
Readers love the works of fantasy author Brandon Sanderson because of his intricate world-building. He creates specific rules for the magic in his books. There is a sense of internal logic: the reader might not know this world, but the reader believes the writer knows this world. It’s fiction writing 101. And it’s what you can use to make any spark of inspiration work for the reader.
In writing, it’s common advice to write what you know. Why? Because effective writing should invite the reader to another world. If you can write about something with credibility, you can check that box off.
It doesn’t have to be a fantasy setting. Let’s say I’m writing a mystery set in suburban Wisconsin. If I can accurately describe minute details of life in suburban Wisconsin in such a way that you 1) believe it and 2) learn something new, like how even the convenience stores sell cheese curds, then voila!—there’s a sense of internal logic. You believe in this world, even if you’ve never been to Wisconsin.
Whether you’re writing literary fiction or high fantasy, the rules are the same. The world should have consistent internal logic.
Capture Their Suspension of Disbelief From the Beginning
Creative Writing Essentials: Writing Stand-Out Opening Scenes
Elements of Fiction to Transport Your Readers
This all sounds great. But how do you know if you have a story that readers find believable? Why do so many accept the “galaxy far, far away” of Star Wars, but have trouble when a soap opera toys with the details of its medical drama? Why is a two-foot-tall green man lifting a spaceship with his mind acceptable while a character coming back from a three-week coma strains credulity?
Let’s look through these critical elements of fiction:
Suspension of Disbelief
Getting the reader to suspend their disbelief is all about how you go about it. Consider any of the following approaches to get readers on board with your in-fiction universe:
- Emphasize the human element: In A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin turns the volume down on his world’s magical elements until we’ve had a chance to meet the human characters in whom we will invest our hopes. His characters are complex, flawed, and multi-faceted. He’s so effective at writing characters that throughout the book, there are times we forget we’re in a fantasy setting.
- Establish the rules of your world off the bat: Star Wars doesn’t pretend to be a realistic story. It even starts off with a cue: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Later, characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi establish the rules for “The Force.” We don’t accept that it’s how our world works. We only look for consistency in that galaxy.
- Give your characters realistic reactions: In one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Inner Light”), Captain Picard experiences an alternate lifetime within the span of 15 “real-time” minutes. He even has a wife and a child in this alternate lifetime. Then he comes back to the Enterprise, back to the old life he’d forgotten. This situation is so extreme it would strain credibility if he didn’t have some sort of human reaction to that. The episode ties it together nicely with its last scene, in which Picard plays a flute he’d learned during his time in the alternate life. His thoughts and his actions show the real impact those imaginary years had on him. It’s a world-within-a-world, yet we buy every second of both worlds because of a simple writer’s device: the flute.
What is a MacGuffin? It’s simply a plot device that motivates your characters. It comes from a lecture by master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock, who called the MacGuffin what “the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”
That’s a key element. The reader might know that James Bond isn’t real and the world isn’t really in danger. But if we can enjoy a story in which Bond believes he has to save the world, we’re right there with him.
A MacGuffin can be anything that gets your characters moving. In Star Wars, the Empire needs to know the secret to the hidden rebel base. The novel The Maltese Falcon gets its title from its MacGuffin, a falcon made of jewels by the Knights of Malta.
Why is a MacGuffin so important? If you’re going to write the human element into your story, you need something that motivates your characters. Without that motivation baked into the cake of your story, it’s hard to accept any of the action that takes place.
A Believable Setting
It doesn’t matter if you’re taking us to the galaxy far, far away, or to your neighborhood diner. The reader needs to feel the reality of it in some way.
In fiction writing, the fastest way to accomplish this is in the selection of concrete details that remind us of the human experience.
Take Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, set in the mythology of ancient Greece:
“My father’s halls were dark and silent. His palace was a neighbor to Oceanos’, buried in the earth’s rock, and its walls were made of polished obsidian. Why not? They could have been anything in the world, blood-red marble from Egypt or balsam from Araby, my father had only to wish it so. But he liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”
Consider all the relevant details that make the passage come to life. Not just obsidian; polished obsidian, hard to accomplish. Balsam from Araby—such a specific choice, we almost have to believe it. Or consider the human details about Circe’s father, Helios, and his narcissism. Does that not sound like a real person who might walk in halls like that? Even if he is ostensibly a larger-than-life figure, a Titan?
The passage is so vivid, we can practically hear the flicker of torchlight.
But let’s rewrite it and imagine if Miller had made worse choices. Vague choices.
My father’s halls were dark. His palace was deep in the earth, with high walls and a large gate. This is where the gods lived. There was a lot of gold in this palace. My father liked to walk within the halls, contemplating the world.
It sounds so vague, it’s up to the reader to fill in the details. “Huge” and “large”? That doesn’t put us in the setting. Gold in the palace; what palace doesn’t have gold somewhere? We have no specific qualities that make this palace unique from the rest. Helios “contemplating the world” tells us nothing about who he is or what’s on his mind. Except, of course, the world. But that could be anything.
There’s nothing inherently incorrect or wrong with the fiction writing in the second version of the passage. But because it’s too vague in its choice of details, it fails to put us in the setting. It doesn’t transport us to another world the way Miller’s writing does.
What ultimately captures a unique setting isn’t describing it. It’s describing what makes it different. Specific detail choices like “balsam from Araby” and “blood-red marble” do that in a way “high walls and a large gate” never can.
Tips for Getting More Readers to Suspend Disbelief
Want more ways to ensure that your unique settings and storylines deserve your readers’ suspension of disbelief? Consider the following:
Writing Fiction Tip: Give Your Characters Real Humanity
Miller achieves this to great effect in Circe by setting her novel in ancient mythological Greece—but focusing on a protagonist who starts out as a lonely outsider.
If the story was only about the gods of ancient Greece having parties, it would get old quickly. Readers need real humanity to make the story seem real. We want someone with whom we can empathize, or else we can’t imagine ourselves in the setting.
Writing Fiction Tip: Infuse the Story With Tension and Conflict
Imagine your spouse comes home and tells you a story about work. What motivated them to come home and share a story? It certainly isn’t a day where nothing happens.
We only feel compelled to share our stories when there’s conflict. A co-worker was giving us the stink-eye during a meeting and when we confronted them about it, it turned out they resented how we left them out of last week’s meeting. That’s conflict! Now we have to tell our spouse.
The story of doing three hours of work and completing a project? Not exactly headline material.
If your story has tension and conflict between its characters, then it doesn’t matter how fantastical the elements are. If it reminds us of our own human experience, readers will buy it.
Writing Fiction Tip: Stick to a Single Voice or Format
Consider the opening to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground:
“I’m a sick man…a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me. I think there’s something wrong with my liver. But, actually, I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me.”
The opening hook (“I’m a sick man”) continues with specific details (“I think there’s something wrong with my liver”). We understand immediately that we are in a strange character’s head. Right off the bat, we’re willing to buy this story. We believe this is a real person.
But imagine if Dostoevsky had made the wrong choice and didn’t stick to this single voice. Let’s rewrite it to make it less effective.
I’m a sick man….a mean man. One morning, I went to the market and bought my groceries. I saw Mrs. Hellene there, and said hello. She was doing great! Her kid just got into Berkeley.
An extreme example, sure. But you can see how we ruin the effect of the opening voice by presenting a story that completely erases away the central point of the hook. This pleasant, neighborly character is not a “sick man.” There’s nothing to believe.
Readers will look at this opening and something will grate them, even if they’re not quite sure what it is.
Give Your Readers a Reason to Believe You
Storytelling doesn’t work unless it jives with our human experience. The challenge for authors? They want to write about Westeros, about ancient myths, about a galaxy far, far away, and none of this is within the realm of human experience.
Fortunately for authors, readers want to be taken away to these places, and they’re willing to buy a story if you take the time to make it credible.
Ultimately, getting readers to suspend their disbelief comes down to one element: Can the author infuse their characters and settings with enough real details to make the fantastic seem plausible? If you can learn how to write fiction that seems believable in any setting, you’ve got your readers right where you want them.
Infuse Your Setting with Conflict and Tension!
Writing Fiction: 5 Exercises to Craft a Compelling Plot