Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief

by Susan

Like half the world, it seems, I caught Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the theater this last weekend. WOW! I hadn't seen the first one, so I had to run out right away, rent it from the library and watch it twice.

Both movies were absolutely entertaining and also, frankly, ridiculous. Yet, I was more than willing to go on a journey that involved faster than light travel, a talking raccoon, and a sentient tree with limited vocabulary.

Ah, suspension of disbelief. A story is a spell the writer weaves, and the goal is to not do anything to break the enchantment.

I'm a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy reader, so I'm willing to play along with almost any concept. Waking up transformed into a giant cockroach? Let's see where it goes. An infinite improbability spaceship drive? I'm in. A world resting on the backs of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle who swims through space? Great setting!

Still, there are books I struggle to finish or can't get through because they snap me out of the spell. One Thousand White Women lost me with a main character I couldn't believe and a supporting cast of stereotypes, some offensive. I love a good Earth-ending asteroid story, but when I read Shiva Descending, I noticed that the meteor strikes seemed to only hit cities, leaving the 97% of the world that is rural land and ocean untouched. (Spoiler: Ogallalla, Nebraska, gets it.)

So what makes me willing to enter into and believe a writer's world? Clearly, given my reading and viewing tastes, it's not strict compliance with reality. Instead, these are the factors that stand out for me.

  • Convincing characters: This, to me, is the most important of all. Make me love them or hate them. Give me a rich, fully-developed character whose motivations I can grasp and whose actions are consistent with their own personality, history, and society.
  • Internal consistency: The story's world doesn't need to be consistent with the real world, but it does need to be consistent with itself. This is where your hidden backstory -- the things you know, but don't include in the story -- will come in handy. Readers will feel particularly cheated if the writer changes the rules of the world to extricate the hero from a sticky wicket. Superman can't suddenly develop a tolerance for kryptonite halfway through the comic book.
  • Getting the facts right when they matter: When Andy Weir first wrote The Martian, he posted chapters online on his blog and invited readers to fact-check him on the science. The result? A riveting story that became a best-seller and was made into a major motion picture. Even thought it's a fantastic premise -- one man inadvertently stranded on Mars -- the attention to how the science works keeps the spell intact. 
Finally, tell me a good story. Frankly, make it worth my while to believe you. You're a writer -- I know for a fact you're lying to me. Give me a good enough ride that I'll become willingly gullible.


  1. Another great post, Susan. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury speak once about the fact that people often denigrated him because he just ignored science, although he was a science writer. He said essentially what you have written here, that he tells a good story with believable characters in a consistent universe. I love and continue to reread The Martian Chronicles.

    1. Love Ray Bradbury. Read a lot of him as a kid, but hadn't in a while until I picked up "Something Wicked This Way Comes" recently. I don't have a problem with sci-fi writers ignoring the science when they've given me a wink and I know not to expect it. It can go awry, however, when you try to act all science-y and then go off the tracks. That was my problem with "Shiva Descending."

      You know, I should probably reread "The Martian Chronicles." I'll add it to my stack.

  2. Next thing you'll be writing haiku. Then you're hooked. ;-)

    1. Who says I'm not already? :-D


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