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.