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Life lessons

on the craft 

Suspending Disbelief

In my high school theatrical productions, I learned an important term that, while not directly related to writing, translates very well to it: Willing Suspension of Disbelief. This term refers to the idea that we, the audience/readers, allow the fantastic to happen for the sake of the story. Willing Suspension of Disbelief allows for characters on stage to break into song and dance without the audience saying, “Pfff! This would never happen in real life.” It lets us believe that characters “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” still look exactly like Earthlings or that detectives solve one case per week and do it in about half an hour. Audiences happily enjoy the show, happily suspend disbelief, as long as that suspension isn't too difficult. In other words, the author has used the skill correctly. Audiences are happy to suspend belief as long as 1) we’re given only the minimum we need, and 2) it allows the story to move forward.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief is the foundation of any sci-fi, fantasy, or magic-realism story (it’s not a far cry to say that it exists in all types writing). Giving characters unique abilities or putting them in strange places makes stories original. But if you include too many details about the characters' abilities or the technology’s process, you’ll bore your reader. No reader wants to have a bland blueprint of how a spaceship came to be and the scientific explanations of its inner workings. Oppositely, if you don’t give enough detail, the reader notices holes in the story, like how did the characters travel to a new galaxy in such a short time?

Unfortunately, there’s no checklist of required ingredients, nothing guaranteed to lead your reader to willingly suspend disbelief. The balance to each story is different, and perhaps hard to find, but it’s there. All we need to know is that a radioactive spider bit Peter Parker – I don’t need a history on the spider.

So then how do you get your reader to suspend disbelief? You commit.

In my graduate seminar, we discussed Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. We specifically took into account the first line: “As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous bug.” Kafka gave the reader no explanation of how or why Gregor had been changed. Even Gregor himself did not dwell on these questions of fate. Kafka provided no explanation for anything. Rather, he dumped the reader and Gregor right into the conflict – not that Gregor was a bug, but that he was late for work.

Was this a fault of the writer, or was this missing information, in fact, a strength of the story? To answer this a colleague of mine (let’s call him Mike… because that’s his real name) said (and here I’m paraphrasing his words despite the quotation marks), “Kafka owned it. He didn’t try to explain because he actually believed it, just as Gregor did. And because Kafka owned it, so will the reader.”

Mike’s answer seemed so simple, but it was something I had never thought before. If Kafka had spent time trying to explain to his readers the bug-world that Gregor inhabited, the story would lose value. If the author began to question the world, the reader would do the same. Since Kafka couldn’t possibly imagine all the What Ifs, he just eliminated the What If possibility. He shut the door on doubt. This concept frees both writer and reader. We can then stop worrying about How and Why of the past, suspend disbelief, and enjoy the story as it moves forward.

Let’s take a look at the opposite approach: Giving too much detail. Just imagine John Travolta, bedecked in leather jacket and greaser hair, sitting on the bleachers saying, “Okay guys, now before I break into this song and dance, I want you to realize that I’m doing it to emphasize the importance of how much fun I had over the summer because I met this really great girl. Let me explain all about her so that you can join in by asking me follow up questions during my song. And remember, singing and dancing is completely normal for high school greaser thugs like us because it’s the 50s and, maybe in some existential way, we live in an alternative universe different from anyone who might be watching us right now.”

Doesn’t really work, right? Too much literal in the fantastic. But in Grease, the song just comes up naturally, all others join in seamlessly and without explanation, so the audience goes with it.

A simple Kafkaesque statement to start a story, without explanation, can work better than full-on descriptions. Example: “David woke in the middle of the night with the overwhelming desire to eat a fork. But his wife had eaten the last fork earlier in the night; her snack while they watched Jeopardy. She was always…” Now we’re off with David on his quest for a fork to eat. Who cares why or how forks are consumed? The main character has a conflict and the readers want to know how he'll solve it.

I once heard an author (I forget who, it was on one of the many podcasts I listen to) suggest that authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez didn’t really write magic-realism because, to them, it was really real. Their characters really did those things. I thought that was a little crazy at first, but I now realize what that person was saying. If we try to explain too much, if we feel the need to justify the fantastic, the reader will start to ask for justifications for things we don’t need to justify. As the writer, if we commit to the world we’ve created, if we believe that it exists and that what we want to happen can happen, the reader will come with us.

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