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does a writer do when a novel contains an element that
requires a serious suspension of disbelief? How exactly
does the writer incorporate that element so that the
reader buys into the premise?
The element itself goes a long way toward helping the
writer decide the best means for incorporating it.
All storytelling, in some way or another, requires a
suspension of disbelief. Writers must convince the reader
that the characters are real people, that the events the
writer says are happening are events that could happen,
that the place where this story occurs is a real place,
and these events and these characters are apt to happen
and to be in this place.
How do we do that for a novel without an atypical or
In a word, details. We convince readers characters are
real by giving them attributes typical of many people:
Appearances, attitudes, emotions, motivations, and goals;
universal emotions (ones we can all understand) and
unique traits that single them out as individuals. Three-dimensions:
physical, emotional, and
spiritual. Then readers have things in common with
characters, which means they can relate to them. These
common bonds, related through details, assists in making
We convince readers that events are real by using
details, testing them for plausibility and testing the
events to assure the reader that they are a natural
outgrowth of the preceding novel events as those events
relate to these specific characters.
An extreme example: A writer wouldn't write a horrendous
snow storm in
Florida. In Maine, this would be plausible, possible, and
apt to occur.
It'd be a freak of nature to occur in Floridaunless
the writer prepared a
foundation that made it possible.
We convince readers story settings are real by anchoring
our settings, giving
details common to similar places. Small towns, cities,
suburbs all have
rhythms, definite ways of life, and the writer taps into
them, which gives
the illusion that his/her setting is real because it
mirrors similar known
Example: Ice cream socials are still popular in small
towns and rural
communities, like Calallen, Texas. But I haven't seen or
heard of one
occurring in New Orleans for many, many years. Now that
doesn't mean you
can't use an ice cream social in New Orleans, only that
if you do, and you
want the reader to believe it, you'd better have the
characters set up one
for a specific reason that is essential to the plot.
Some writers use indirect methods for gaining the
suspension of disbelief, and others hit the reader with
the unusual element straight out.
The indirect method is to slowly build a case for the
suspension, and to pile on proof (details) that the
unusual element is fact. Often, this is done through the
observations and testimonies of secondary characters.
It's widely accepted as fact that a reader believes what
one character says to another far more readily than the
reader believes what an author says to them.
The direct method is one where the writer states a bald
fact, and the reader
either jumps on board and believes, or s/he doesn't.
An example: Direct Method.
Blessing or curse, she could hold back time. Not forever,
but for moments.
Amanda discovered she had the gift at age three. A candle
on her birthday cake had tipped over and threatened to
burn her favorite cousin, Carly. Amanda had thought time
into stopping, moved Carly's hand, and then watched the
candle fall into the frosting.
No one had said anything, or even noticed. So, Amanda had
supposed, holding back time wasn't anything unusual and
everyone could do it.
It wasn't until much, much later that she discovered they
couldn't. She still remembered the nauseating shock of
discovering that, the confusion and then fear. Cold, icy
fear. Her grandmother Slade had been different and Amanda
had no desire to be different, too. People are mean to
you when youre different.
But that nightthe night she made her shocking,
sickening discovery that she was exactly like Grandmother
SladeBilly Manson had drowned and Amanda became
known as the freak of Carlson County. At fifteen, she had
learned the gift that had helped her save Carly from a
bad scar would now be the curse that killed herand
there was nothing Amanda could do to stop it.
Okay, thats admittedly rough writing on the example
front, but its off the top of my head yet I think
it covers the point. The writer doesn't tell you how, or
why, or do much explaining reallythough she might
or might not later on in the book. She just dumps the way
things are out there and you, the reader, can accept
or reject them.
Now, one thing I want you to notice. Holding back time is
the curse/ blessing. Isn't it something we have all
wished we could do at some time or another? And it can be
used for good or bad, which allows for conflict and
Note that she's had this gift since she was a little girl.
If she'd developed it later in life, then there probably
would need to be an explanation of the inciting incident
to encourage the reader to suspend disbelief. Note that
there are those who consider a freak because she has this
gift. (Perceptions that tug at the emotions are powerful
proofs of reality.) Lastly, notice the birthday cake and
how she used the gift.
Birthday cakes are relatively universal, and protecting
another from harm is completely universal. We can relate
and identify, and these oh-so-normal events do help us to
suspend disbelief because they mix the known and normal
with the unknown, diluting the abnormality in them.
An Example: Indirect Method.
"You did swear to tell the truth, Mrs. St. Germain.
Do you really expect this court to believe that this
woman, the defendant Amanda Slade, can hold back time?"
"Believe what you will, Mr. Crass." Millie St.
Germain narrowed her gaze on the stuffy prosecutor.
"I saw what I saw and I know what I know. That man--"
she pointed to a man sitting behind the defendant
"--ought to be dead and he ain't. The bus was
barreling down on him, and she--" Millie pointed to
Amanda "--dipped down her chin and stared at it, and
that bus froze right where it was. Then that Ms. Slade
hurried on over and moved the man back onto the curb,
where he'd be safe. Then the bus moved again, it's horn
still blowing and its brakes still squealing and spitting
smoke up the street." Millie lifted her chin high
enough to park a teacup on it. "I ain't saying what
the lady did or didn't do. I'm just saying what was."
"And why do you suppose you weren't frozen, too?"
"I couldn't say. Maybe the good Lord knew there'd be
a fool like you questioning a miracle and He sent me to
keep you from making an idiot of yourself." She
sniffed and looked down her nose at him. "Course, I
doubt that's all together the truth of it, since you're
here being foolish anyhow. Regardless, I ain't of a mind
to question what God does or don't do. He gave Ms. Slade
the power to stop time and save that man's life. That's
the way of it, and if you object, I reckon you ought to
take it up with God and not me, since He's in charge of
handing out special gifts and I ain't."
Again, rough writing but I think you get the point.
Millie acts as a commentator, a relater who has seen this
unusual gift in action and shares her perception of it
and of the characters. It's a gift and she doesn't second
So through her and her reaction--since we like her and we
don't like the pushy, snooty prosecutor and since Millie
considers the gifted Amanda a lady--we readers are more
apt to ally ourselves with her and her perceptions than
with the prosecutor.
We suspend disbelief because Millie saw and believes and
is a blunt and forthright person. See how her emotions,
spirituality (frank, forthright) all play into this? We
are more willing to believe because she believes.
Note in this method that the writer doesn't tell us, the
readers, anything direct. S/he relates what s/he wants us
to know through the characters interactions with each
other. Both methods are effective and either is
acceptable. As with almost anything else in writing, some
stories are better served by one or the other.
This is where you let loose your creativity and try both
to see which works hardest for your story. Remember, it
isn't only suspending disbelief that you must do here.
You must maintain that suspension of disbelief through
the course of the novel. To do it effectively you simply
must convince the reader that the element is real. And to
convince the reader the element is real, you simply
incorporate proofin the form of details.
© Copyright Vicki Hinze 2003. All Rights
Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who
routinely shares her expertise at national writers'
conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her
latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL,
from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook
covers everything you need to know about the craft of
writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to
getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is
available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com
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