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May 16, 2017

When Readers Don’t Believe Our Writing

Monopoly money with text: When Readers Don't Believe in Our Story...

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

What do you think?

14 Comments on "When Readers Don’t Believe Our Writing"

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Sieran
Sieran
Love this post! One type of premise disbelief I sometimes have, is how can person X fall for person Y given that Y is 20 years older than X? I try to be more open-minded towards huge age differences nowadays, but I still have this bias. Authors often do a lampshade hanging on the age difference, and try to explain why X fell in love with Y anyway. Sometimes I can reluctantly see the logic of it, but sometimes I’m still unconvinced, lol. Great point how having the facts right doesn’t mean the reader will believe you… Recently I worried whether it was plausible that you could develop infatuation/ semi-crush feelings for someone after knowing them for only a bit more than one day. Yet, looking back on my own experience, I know this is possible. After just one meeting with this girl (it was just one meal and I didn’t get to talk to her much because she was primarily talking to other people we were eating with), wow, I was already super fascinated with/ obsessed with her ON THE SAME DAY I met her! On that same night, I wrote a super long email to a close friend about how fascinating this new female friend of mine is. This fascination was also an infatuation, clearly some kind of rabid interpersonal attraction, on the way to becoming a platonic crush. Plus, you know, I’m on the aromantic spectrum and I am already able to develop a strong attraction /… Read more »
Red

Wonderful post! I loved it!
I have a master’s in US Military History. My two emphases are Native American guerrilla combat and women combatants during the Seven Years’ War and the American Independence. So thank you for taking the time to research women who served. I’m saddened by the beginning of your post that people didn’t believe your story, your heroine. The CST has been in the news and the number of women injured and/or killed during combat has also made the news. And thanks to stories like yours, I hope more will learn about the brave women who have served. Thank you. I’ll have to read your book! 🙂

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Ditto US Mil Hist Masters. Please send any links to your work on Native guerrilla woman. Would love to read it!
I have no idea, Jami, if you allow people to do this. If not–oops!

Kathy Steinemann

“Readers find a story element unrealistic” even when it’s based on fact. You’re right, Jami, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

You mentioned PTSD, a modern term that didn’t come into use until 1952. Could that have been part of the problem with readers?

https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/ptsd-overview/basics/history-of-ptsd-vets.asp

As always, you’ve provided an educational post.

Kathy Steinemann

Forget what I just said. Your novel takes place in modern times. I saw “shapeshifting gargoyle” and made an incorrect assumption.

My bad.

Robin Witt
Robin Witt

Sometimes being accurate is no defense against disbelief. In the opening chapters of my work in progress, the hero/heroine travel over a high mountain pass in September, during a blizzard. Then they come down the other side and the weather is much more temperate fall weather.
On the first reading, both beta readers found the weather aspect completely unbelievable, even though one of them lives in Colorado, and knows the temperature goes down when elevation goes up.
I re-wrote earlier sections discussion a train ride through the mountains to try to establish a pattern of snow higher up, warmed lower down before the blizzard situation presents itself. And I think I was moderately successful. No one has questioned the weather as not being believable since I made those additions… but it hurt the early pacing of the story, and those specific passages were identified later as “possibly unnecessary description”. So it still needs work to find the right balance.

Maurine
Maurine

Robin, it’s a shame readers didn’t believe your weather–especially the person from Colorado. I recall when I was a girl visiting Colorado in July that my sister, brother and I wore shorts and coats and surrounded by snow on the ground. The coats because it was cold up there on the top of that mountain and shorts because once we came down from the mountain, it was hot. There’s a picture to verify this. I think people who don’t believe these things have limited experience and only believe what they have experienced themselves.

Kassandra Lamb

Fantastic post, Jami. You actually just inspired me to include a less believable element in a story I am contemplating. 🙂

Donovan Quesenberry
Donovan Quesenberry

Greetings,
Great post, Jami. Really great.
For the record, I LOVE author’s notes. I want to believe in a story, get lost, if you will, so additional information is appreciated. And I enjoy info dumps when done nicely. So additional details on the CST program would be appreciated in such a story.
I notice what you didn’t include in this post a guy’s perception vs. a ladies’ outlook? I have no idea if you are writing for women exclusively or not. If so, then who cares what men think (Pray to God we don’t make decision based on feelings, but we do, alas–). Dudes will automatically assume a CST program is politically motivated by our past administration. Adding the logic would be important for guys to continue with the story.
So with all of that said, I really like the examples used in this post from your writing. You are making excellent points here. I write a lot of historical, SiFi, Western-SiFi, and have received “don’t believe that” critiques. This post will help.
Chicks in combat and CST, huh? Hum. Do any of your lady soldiers carry a Single Action Army .45? Maybe I will ready one of your books. 🙂
Stay Well,
Donovan

Maurine
Maurine
I had the problem of readers suspending disbelief in one story I wrote that involved budget cuts, causing the secret service men in my story to be without needed equipment to weed out people toting guns. I had researched this problem (the budget cuts causing lack of needed equipment) and thought it would be a true to life part of my premise. One of the readers had a relative in the secret service and was insulted for her/him that I would have this aspect in my story. I guess she thought the secret service person should go above and beyond and pay for the needed equipment out of the service person’s pocket so they wouldn’t be seen as falling down on the job. It was an important plot point–the lack of equipment allowed a gunman to shoot the vice president–so, with me lacking any other idea as to how to carry this out, I ended up throwing the whole premise out. Later I read a thriller where a secret service man was the bad guy and helped terrorists kidnap the president. If that reader had read that book, she’d probably burst a blood vessel. Looking back on it now, I wished I had just gone on with my premise and written the book anyway. I know a little more now about helping readers suspend disbelief (and especially after reading your post here), and would incorporate some of these tips. Hmmm. I may dust that manuscript off and do something with… Read more »
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks, I think the writer just needs to make characters as real and situations as likely as possible so as to absorb and muffle the voice that says ‘that would not happen’. Provided you have genuinely done your research. And you can always make it clear that this is an anomaly, or an exception, or an aspect not shown to the public.

Tyrean A Martinson

Wow. You went to great lengths to deal with reader disbelief and I appreciate that. As the wife of someone who has been through some intense military training for EOD, I know what it’s like to get disbelief just from friends and family. They don’t seem to get that really, the EOD program was tough, and that really, my husband went through most of the training as a reservist. The reserve unit was only around a short time, but it is listed on official military sites. It’s an odd thing when people don’t want to believe how hard our military works to serve us or they don’t want to believe that a “regular” seeming person has done that work in their past.

Davonne Burns

Story: has shapeshifting soulless gargoyle
Reader: yup, totes believable
Story: has female soldier in a spec-ops positon
Reader: Nope, I’m out, can’t happen.

People have their hang-ups, and some of this ‘disbelief’ about women in military positions comes from internalized misogyny. You did everything you could to show the reality of it but some readers still won’t believe it. And as you said, they may just not be our target audience.

I personally have thoroughly enjoyed Stone Cold Heart.

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