With fiction, a fine line exists between stories we can relate to (no matter how fantastical the setting, characters, or plot) and those we can’t. We’ve all heard the phrase “suspension of disbelief” in relation to movies and books to explain how we accept the impossible.
Every genre has different “But that’s impossible!” hurdles to overcome with readers. Science fiction authors have to make the technology sound believable. Legal thrillers have to play out according to set laws. Paranormal authors have to decide if modified DNA, magic, or other things determine the rules of the world.
How Should Writers Make Readers Believe?
According to Wikipedia’s article on the suspension of disbelief, there are competing theories about how writers should best go about making their stories “believable enough.” Poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested:
“[I]f a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”
While fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien argued:
“[I]n order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world. By focusing on creating an internally consistent fictional world, the author makes secondary belief possible.”
So which is it? Does suspension of disbelief come down to injecting an element of truth and making the characters relatable? Or is it all about making sure the rules of the world are consistent? Or is it a combination of both?
Genre Makes a Difference
I write paranormal romance and urban fantasy. My stories take place on Earth (usually in contemporary times) where the supernatural aspects are hidden (unlike Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series of True Blood fame, where everyone knows vampires exist).
Because of the genre I write, my settings have to be recognizable to readers. My fictional worlds have to feel like this world. Readers should think that if only they knew the right people, they’d get to meet some of my characters from the clandestine societies of paranormal beings.
But even in non-fantasy-like genres, authors still struggle to make their stories realistic and believable. Romance author Julie Leto recently blogged about how romance novels are often dismissed for being “fantasy”:
“One of the criticisms romance writers (and I’m sure, readers) often hear … is that romance novels give an unrealistic view of men and of romance and relationships in general.”
It was Julie’s post that triggered my thoughts about this issue. Why are romance novels considered unrealistic? And beyond that, what can writers of all genres learn from that insight?
A Deeper Look at One Genre
Let’s take the first assumption: Romance novels give an unrealistic view of men. Sure, some romance novel heroes are impossibly rich or powerful, but most of them are damaged in ways that most people should stay far away from. And at their core, whether the hero is a sheikh or a fireman, their personalities are often very realistic.
What about the second assumption: Romance novels give an unrealistic view of relationships? At Julie’s post, I commented:
[W]hat makes it a romance–and thus what makes it feel like fantasy–is that [the hero and heroine] are perfect for each other.”
Is it unrealistic to think normal, real-life people like you and me can find someone who’s perfect for us? Not perfect. But perfect for us. I’ve written before about how much I think real men have in common with romance heroes. As long as both parties are working toward a good relationship, real-life romances do exist.
In other words, the unrealistic aspects of romance novels (at least for those who bother to read them before making judgments) aren’t about a lack of truth (what’s more true than the power of love?), relatable characters, or inconsistent world rules.
The romance novels I’ve found to be the least believable were those where the author didn’t do enough with motivations and/or actions to show why the hero and heroine were perfect for each other. Believability is broader than either of those theories up above.
So What Can We Learn?
I think the basic rule for suspension of disbelief comes down to this:
Keep the reader in the story.
As soon as readers remember they’re reading a words on a page rather than living and breathing with the characters, the suspension bubble has burst.
Many things can take readers out of a story:
- Writing that calls attention to itself: poor grammar, sentence structure, poor formatting, overly “writerly” writing, etc.
- Writing that makes the reader have to reread: convoluted sentences, point-of-view issues/head-hopping, etc.
- Plot issues: plot holes, contrived plots, overly complicated plots, etc.
- Character issues: unrelatable, too perfect, backstory and behavior don’t match, missing/inadequate motivations for actions, etc.
- Story or premise issues: premise doesn’t make sense, inconsistent world-building rules, too shallow (no element of truth), etc.
The interesting thing is that some stories can fall victim to several of these issues and still be popular (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer comes to mind). So these mistakes aren’t necessarily the end of the world. *smile* But authors who avoid them will keep more readers invested in the story.
What stories have felt unrealistic to you? What made them feel that way? Does the level of realism you prefer affect which genres you enjoy? Can you think of other things to add to the above list?Pin It