Lesson Two: Suspension of DisbeliefA Lesson by The Perfectionist
Operating within the bounds of your reality
We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special emergency lesson on what exactly fiction means and the concept of suspension of disbelief.
While most of my lessons will be on things related to pure technicals (spelling/grammar/etc), that does not mean that those things are all I care about when I read a story. In fact, once I get past those, one of my biggest things to look for is whether I can buy into the story at all; whether it seems real or not.
This brings me to point number one:
1. A story does not have to be about normal people to be real
Real does not mean that you could walk down the street and see something that takes place in your book. Real simply means that the characters feel like actual beings (be they humans or not) and the plot unfolds according to the logic of the universe you are working in. This also ties nicely to my next, and main, point:
2. I'll believe the impossible, but not the improbable
When you write a story, you define a universe (sometimes multiverse) that the story takes place in. In this world, you are God. You define the rules, you decide the physics, you set the logic. Everything behaves according to your will.
As much as that might seem empowering, it's actually really restrictive. This is the concept of the suspension of disbelief. As a reader, I am willing to let you break the laws of physics, but the story IMMEDIATELY becomes unrealistic if you break your own laws without providing some reason for this.
For example, if you tell me that in your world, all criminals have their hair permanently dyed green to distinguish them from society, I'll accept that. If, subsequently, you have a criminal who does NOT have his hair dyed green (and isn't bald, obviously), AND everyone acts like this is totally okay, I won't accept that. You told me the rule and then you broke it. Even as an author, you don't get to do that.
There are exceptions to this, but they are VERY specific ones. I've used this particular example before, but it bears repeating because it's the singular best way I've ever seen this executed.
I'm going to assume everyone knows who Harry Potter is and the general idea of the story whether or not you've read the actual books. One of the things that Rowling drops as hints throughout the series is that wizards can't fly unaided by some type of device. This is one of the rules of her universe. Yet, at the end of the series, we see big bad Voldemort doing exactly that; flying on nothing but his own power.
At first it seems like Rowling is doing exactly what I just said she can't do. But when you think about it, she isn't. Rowling very effectively fulfills both criteria for breaking this rule. They are thus:
1. There must be a very good reason for it to happen (i.e. not just because I said so)
- Voldemort is perhaps the most powerful wizard in the world and he's known for experimenting with the darkest of magics, granting him ridiculous powers at great personal cost. This seems like something only he'd found a way to do
2. The setting must accept this as an anomaly
- People who see Voldemort flying comment on it. Rowling draws attention to it with her narration. It's very clear that this ability is f*****g WEIRD and unnatural in her world. He should not be able to do that, and the characters in her book know it.
If you pass both of those, you're allowed to break your rules. In general, though, unless you're trying to make a point, don't do it.
Finally, there is a third point to make, related to this one
3. If operating within the bounds of reality, OPERATE IN THE BOUNDS OF REALITY
This is the case of the biggest offender. When people make up their own rules for supernatural stories, they are mostly pretty good about sticking to their rules or providing excuses when they don't. The reason I'm writing this lesson is that people seem to think that if they don't create their own world, they can do whatever they want.
No, you can't.
If you write a story about ordinary humans on Earth, they had better f*****g act like normal humans on Earth. Hell, if you write a supernatural story, but it still contains ordinary humans on Earth, they had still better act like people (This is one of the largest and most valid complaints leveled at the Twilight series).
People are fascinating creatures. They lie, they cheat, they steal, they hide their emotions, they pretend they don't have emotions, they engage in stupid acts of sacrifice out of love. Humans do a million things that you can exploit in your story. It should not be that hard to make sure you stick to those things. Here is a brief list of things that people do NOT do:
1. People are not infallible.
- You can make a character that is perceived as perfect by other characters, but you can never make one that actually is. Nobody is perfect.
2. Love doesn't work like you want it to
- People don't fall in love at first sight, love isn't an easy road to travel, and it comes with a lot of bitter aftermath. It's messy and complicated, and if you make it anything else, you can't be expected to be taken seriously. (there's a reason they make romantic comedies in movies; it's laughable to think that things work out that well)
3. People are not robots
- Characters need to think and feel. They need emotions and reactions to the world around them. No one walks through the fire without feeling the heat.
I will sum up this lesson very simply. Fiction does not allow you free rein. The excuse that "It's a story, I'm making it up" doesn't hold water. If you want your readers to buy into the story, to care about the characters and the plot, you need to co-operate with their suspension of disbelief. Don't break your own rules.
HOMEWORK: NEVER EVER EVER do this. I will find you and I will hurt you.
Added on January 29, 2011
Last Updated on February 3, 2011
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