There are many reasons we need beta readers, critique partners, or other sources of feedback. One of the biggest reasons is to help us fill in the blanks for things we can’t see.
For example, we often fail to get everything from our head onto the page. Or even if we think we’ve captured all the aspects of our story, subjectivity means every reader will interpret those aspects differently. A character’s gesture intended as sweet could be seen as controlling, etc.
Feedback is essential for understanding how others might interpret our words. Especially if we get similar feedback from multiple readers, that’s probably a good sign we’re not getting across the message we want.
However, there’s another side to reader interpretation that we might run into occasionally as well. In this case, we’ve included the story elements we wanted on the page, and readers aren’t misinterpreting our writing per se.
Rather, the problem is that readers see our words and understand our intentions, but they don’t believe what we’re telling them. Let’s take a closer look at this problem…
The Many Faces of Disbelief
Readers’ disbelief can take many forms. A few examples I’ve seen include:
- Readers don’t believe two characters would fall for each other in a romance. The characters seem like they end up together just because they’re in the same book, not because they’re “perfect” for each other.
- Readers question the historical accuracy of a story element (whether a major element or a minor aside, such as if a certain word was in use during the time period).
- Readers find a story element unrealistic, whether that refers to a character’s actions, a plot twist, or the specifics of a character’s situation (“A hospital would never allow XYZ to happen to a patient.”).
Research Isn’t Always Enough
In some of those cases, we might be in the right as authors. Maybe we did our research and know that, yes, turn-style doorknobs were in use by the time of the story. Or maybe the idea for our story element even came from a news article about a hospital doing the very thing a reader doesn’t believe.
Facts aren’t always protection against disbelief. Sometimes real-life is stranger than fiction—too strange to believe.
Case Study, Part 1:
Stone-Cold Heart & the CST Program
Early in my brainstorming, I knew the heroine for my story Stone-Cold Heart had a military background, so I started researching stories of female soldiers for inspiration. One story I came across was that of Rachel Washburn, a former NFL cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles who left to serve as a member of the U.S. Army Cultural Support Team program.
Cultural Support Team—that’s a vague name by design. It was purposely chosen to hide the capabilities of the members and allow the women soldiers be seen as less intimidating by Afghanistan and Iraqi citizens (all the better to gather intel).
In truth, these women went through a grueling selection process, testing physical, mental, and psychological fitness, just to be considered. Those who made the cut then endured a several month training regime to make them fit to embed and serve alongside U.S. Army special operation forces (Rangers and Green Berets—and the U.S. Navy had a similar program for SEAL teams).
No aspect of my story garnered more disbelief from early readers than my heroine’s background as a CST member. Many questioned how she could have been in combat. How she could have been on her own with a special ops team (while CST members usually worked in pairs, there were exceptions). How she could have had a female interpreter. How she could have moved around without a special ops escort. Etc., etc.
It didn’t matter that her experience was based on facts. Those facts contradict many common assumptions (especially given that her military experiences take place before recent U.S. policy changes), so they were easy to disbelieve.
The Problem of Disbelief
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.
Whatever our genre, however, we want to keep readers in the story. We recently discussed here the importance of story immersion. A reader knocked out of our fictional world with thoughts of disbelief is more likely to close the book—and keep it closed. Not good.
A few years ago, I wrote about the types of issues we tend to encounter with unbelievable plots, characters, and worldbuilding:
- Plot: coincidences, too convoluted, too easy, etc.
- Characters: lack of motivation, too perfect, too stupid to live, etc.
- Worldbuilding: inconsistent, too vague, etc.
But as I mentioned above, sometimes readers choose to disbelieve our story, even when our story doesn’t suffer from the typical issues. Is there anything we can do to win those readers back?
3 Steps to Overcome Reader Disbelief
- Use feedback to identify where readers disbelieve.
We can watch out for feedback that points out (or hints at) where readers aren’t buying our story.
- Try to identify why they disbelieve.
Did we not give enough details or create enough emphasis to “sell” the idea behind a story element? Is the premise itself hard to believe?
- Make changes to address their disbelief (as appropriate).
We can’t fill in every hole for every reader, but if we hear the same message from multiple sources of feedback, we likely want to make some changes.
To a large extent, those steps are common sense. However, at step #2, I mentioned two very different issues behind the problem of disbelief.
Sometimes the problem is one that we can address in our writing, doing a better job of “selling” the reader on the fiction we’re offering. But sometimes the problem goes deeper.
When readers don’t buy the premise, we have to do more than fill in the blanks. We have to overcome their preconceived ideas about the story element itself, and that’s not always something we can do with just our normal story writing.
Fixing a “Selling” Problem vs. a Premise Problem
For example, if readers don’t buy why a couple would get together in a romance, the cure depends on the source of the problem:
- If it’s a problem of selling, we can figure out what makes a couple perfect for each other and weave those character traits and aspects throughout the story. Then, we could have the characters specifically touch on those compatibility elements to sell the idea even more. Motivations often should be brought out of the subtext at least once in the story.
- If it’s a problem of premise, that means readers actively don’t think they can be sold—and that’s a much harder problem to overcome. We might even wonder if we want to win back those readers.
The premise issue gets especially sticky for some authors when writing marginalized characters. They’ve heard from readers—or in some cases, even agents and editors—who don’t believe the character’s situation because of their personal beliefs about what a black, gay, autistic, etc. experience would be like.
The dismay a marginalized author might feel when their voice—their experience—is disbelieved is hard to imagine. In cases like that, an author might question whether it’s worth it to fight against reader-disbelief. But of course, if they don’t, a reader’s preconceived ideas will never be challenged for the next story either.
Case Study, Part 2:
Stone-Cold Heart & the CST Program
In the case of my story, I didn’t have an “own voices” experience to fall back on, but I had dozens upon dozens of research sources backing up my premise that, yes, women did serve alongside the U.S. Army special operation forces as I’d described.
How could I make that premise plausible to readers though? Especially while still trying to avoid info dumps or being too “on the nose”?
In the end, I decided to “hang a lantern/lampshade” on the premise—acknowledging its unbelievability but asking readers to accept it—in several different ways.
In the story:
- My heroine shares the U.S. Army’s reasoning for establishing the CST program with the hero (it was the only way for U.S. forces to interact with fifty percent of the residents, learning what they knew and keeping civilians away from the fighting). That way, readers could see the logic behind the premise.
- She also describes the selection and training process, giving readers a sense that CST members were qualified for such a job and adding more logic to overcome preconceived ideas.
- She then complains how her PTSD was ignored upon her return, as most in the military didn’t know of her program’s existence, so they didn’t believe she could have experienced the trauma she claimed. This point gives voice to the common preconceived ideas and then dismisses them as false—a standard persuasive essay technique. *smile*
As I mentioned above, we can’t always address every preconceived idea within our story, so I also included some information outside the story:
- I included an Author’s Note at the back, acknowledging how her experiences might be hard to believe and then sharing the facts.
- I also mention the upcoming Author’s Note at the bottom of my Dedication page before the story, giving readers a heads-up that there’s more to the CST program than they might assume.
- In the Author’s Note, I invite readers to visit my Stone-Cold Heart webpage, where I’ve shared several links and videos of research sources, essentially telling readers that they don’t have to take my word for it. *grin*
Are some readers going to skip over the Author’s Note and still choose to disbelieve those details? Probably.
But those who don’t want to have their ideas challenged aren’t likely to be a good match for our story anyway. My point with all of those attempts above was to reach those who didn’t know (a common situation for my story’s element) but were willing to learn.
Perhaps that’s the silver lining of this problem of disbelief. If we can help enlighten our readers while they enjoy our story, they might find it more meaningful and support our work even stronger than before. *smile*
Have you read stories where you didn’t believe in some elements? Was it a selling problem or a premise problem? Have you run into this issue in your writing? How did you address the situation? Do you have other thoughts about how we can help readers believe?