If you are an aspiring author of fiction and frequent visitor to this site, then you have undoubtedly come across various terms of art in our articles—subtext, hooks, plot, point of view, tense, beats & tags, and so on. If you decide to pursue a MFA, then you’ll cover all these things in great detail. But if not, it’s still valuable to educate yourself on the meaning of industry terms of art, their conceptual basis, and why they matter. Suspension of Disbelief is an example of a term of art that gets thrown around a lot in the biz, but is rarely explained…so let’s dig in!
Suspension of Disbelief is when a reader intentionally withholds or “suspends” logic and/or judgment when reading a work of fiction purely for the sake of entertainment.
Sometimes called “willing suspension of disbelief,” the practice is a choice by the reader to resist the urge to critique the work by the norms and rules of reality.
According to Wikipedia:
“Aristotle first explored the idea of the concept in its relation to the principles of theater; the audience ignores the unreality of fiction in order to experience catharsis.”
“The poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge introduced the term suspension of disbelief in 1817 and suggested that if a writer could infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
Doesn’t This Only Apply To Certain Genres?
The short answer is NO.
“According to Coleridge, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient for any kind of storytelling.”
All fiction writers need to understand Suspension of Disbelief and be cognizant of the situations in their narrative that might cause a reader to:
- choose NOT to suspend their disbelief in the first place, or
- to stop suspending their disbelief before the end.
Why does it matter?
If you’ve got your writer hat on, this is the part of the article where you’re probably asking: “Why does it even matter if a reader suspends his or her disbelief?” The easiest way to answer that question is for you to take off your writer’s hat and put on your reader’s hat.
Imagine picking up the novel Jurassic Park and getting to the part where the characters discover there are living, breathing dinosaurs on the island. In reality, dinosaurs are extinct. Logic and common sense dictates that because there are no dinosaurs on Earth in real life, it is illogical and impossible for dinosaurs to be in a giant zoo on an island in the Pacific. If you, as the reader, refuse to suspend your disbelief about living dinosaurs, you will not be able to immerse yourself in the story and enjoy the rest of the book.
When a reader refuses to suspend disbelief, or stops suspending disbelief, they typically:
- lose interest,
- stop reading altogether, or
- continue reading but with a renewed focus on identifying and keeping track of all the ways the novel is illogical and unrealistic.
Regardless of which, the end result for you, dear author, is that you’ve lost a fan and probably wind up with a bad review in the process.
How Do You Make Readers Suspend Their Disbelief?
The simple answer is you can’t. As I said in the opening of the article, Suspension of Disbelief is a choice the reader makes. As the author, you can’t force them to suspend their disbelief, it’s to craft the type of story that makes it easy for them to suspend their disbelief. In general, most fiction readers are pre-disposed to suspending they disbelief. They want to do it, because they want to immerse themselves in the story and lose themselves in the narrative. Your job is simply not to screw it up.
Sorry, It’s Subjective…
Now I said earlier that suspension of disbelief applies to all genres, but that doesn’t mean it applies to all genres equally. Readers of science fiction and fantasy go into each novel prepared to broadly and willingly suspend their disbelief. It takes a lot to turn off a Sci-fi or fantasy buff (compared to say a domestic suspense fan) because readers of these genres are looking for adventurous escapism. They’re looking for strange environments, for speculative elements, and for characters that exist and live in a reality different from our own. That said, these genres still have ground rules that must be followed.
For example, in science fiction, narrative elements that require suspension of disbelief must be grounded in science. Returning to Jurassic Park for a moment, if Crichton had written that the dinosaurs on the island had been dropped off by aliens, fans would have revolted. As it was, Crichton consulted thought leaders in cloning and DNA sequencing at the time and developed a cloning resurrection explanation that was grounded in science and theoretically possible.
In George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, there are dragons and ice zombies, but these mythical creatures are part of the world building cannon. Humans in Westeros cannot fly on broomsticks or cast spells like Harry Potter. If Martin had written in such a character mid-series, fans who’d happily suspended their disbelief already, would have been snapped rudely out of the story.
In conclusion there are no hard and fast rules for how to properly manage suspension of disbelief, but here are three tips of the trade that have served me well:
- Establish the ground rules for the world you’re transporting your reader to in the beginning and then respect them.
- Be true to the norms of genre your novel is best classified in. Readers by genre books for a reason and you want to give them what they’re looking for.
- Know Your Topic and Be Authentic. (e.g., If you’re writing a detective novel set in space, you need to know enough about both space and detective work or you risk losing readers on both fronts.
I know it’s tricky, but now that you’re thinking about the how and why of the topic, you’re much better prepared to avoid getting tripped up and sabotaging your next novel.
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