Ever wonder why it is that readers can accept Jason Bourne’s amazing military skills, Batman’s abilities to deal swiftly with arch-villains, or how much Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay resemble each other in A Tale of Two Cities? The answer: willing suspension of disbelief.
When it comes to creating situations that would be difficult to accept in real life, writers must work to suspend the reader’s disbelief. The problem isn’t in the concept, though. The problem is in making a situation that works within the world you create.
So how can writers successfully suspend disbelief? Fortunately, writers have the advantage that most readers sit down hoping to be transported. This can be a challenge if a reader isn’t used to a genre. However, readers tend to avoid genres which require tropes or fantastical worlds they personally can’t accept. What requires more nuance is holding a reader’s attention within a genre they love. Here are some ways to help readers to accept the world you’ve created.
1. Know the rules of your genre.
It can be a challenge sometimes to know what genre of fiction you’re writing. But if I can offer a word of advice, it would be this: always try to figure out your genre before you start writing.
Why is this? Many of us writers want to throw off the “shackles” of rules. Write what we want to write. And while that’s all well and good from a creative point of view, writers also have to accept that readers of certain genres are expecting certain things. The tropes that exist within genres will make it very difficult for readers of those genres to accept huge changes.
For example, a historical fiction reader may not accept a polished society lady in the 1800s suddenly behaving in a way that feels very 2021. A romance reader may however, be willing to accept a duke swearing off ever having children to get back at his dead father. (Even if they wouldn’t understand it in real life. Thanks, Bridgerton).
Knowing the rules of your genre is important. It allows you to better understand what is a sticking point with readers of your genre. Something that readers of your genre aren’t used to accepting may prove to be more problematic than its worth.
2. Know the rules of your world.
In some ways, even more important than genre rules, is knowing the rules of your world. Because there are so many different subsets of genres, you can find some wiggle room with certain ideas–if you establish ground rules.
For example, that polished society lady that is constantly acting very modern? If you establish that she comes from a long line of women who speak or act a certain way, it may be easier to digest. It’ll also be easier to digest if the people within that world react according to the conventional historical standards.
If you establish certain rules in your world which make the unlikely understandable, readers will accept it more easily. Think about the television show the Big Bang Theory, for example. There are many times that Sheldon Cooper behaves in a way that, in the normal world, we would never believe. Yet the show ran for many years with great success. Why?
Because the writers established the rules of Sheldon Cooper. Literally. He had routines, contracts, schedules, habits that were established from the start. So when he needs to use his eidetic memory, we’ve known about it all along. He doesn’t just suddenly remember the impossible to remember whenever it’s convenient. If he did, viewers wouldn’t be able to buy it.
3. Limit coincidence.
Coincidence is the death of willing suspension of disbelief. Say your protagonist is bitten by a rare, poisonous snake. If they just so happen to have the antidote–readers will be turned off. Why? Coincidence.
As much as possible, you should limit the coincidence that occurs within the pages of your novel. One too many and readers will stop believing. One too great and readers will stop believing.
How to avoid this? See the point above. If the rules of your world have established a truth that readers can buy, coincidence will seem believable. Let’s revisit that snakebite. How could we make it work? Maybe earlier on in the novel, we establish that there’s famous snake handler who roams the woods where the protagonist is headed. If that nugget is already planted, when the protagonist is bitten by the snake and the snake handler appears…the coincidence is easier to accept. Also, if this snake handler happens to have the antidote, it just makes sense.
Remember: at the end of the day, most readers want to be transported. When it comes to suspending disbelief, you don’t have to work too hard to attain it. What you absolutely must avoid? Ruining it.