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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Suspension of Disbelief (Part 2)

Suspension of Disbelief (Part 2)

Running JaxLast week I talked about suspension of disbelief – the reader’s willingness to enjoy a fictional story as if the events are really occurring. This month I’m going to focus on speculative fiction. How do you introduce your reader to the fantastic elements in your book while making them believable and a seamless part of your story?

You’ll want to immerse your reader in your setting as soon as you can – whether it’s an alien planet, a magical kingdom, or an alternate reality where ghosts are known to be real and everyone has one in their house. But I don’t think the way to do this is by pushing readers into the deep end of the pool without any warning! A first chapter filled with author-invented words, unpronounceable names, and characters doing inexplicable things is not going to draw a reader in. It’s more likely to slam down the barrier of disbelief and cause them to close the book.

It’s better to let readers walk into the pool, experiencing a gradually increasing immersion. Therefore, no matter what kind of world your story takes place in, make sure there’s something readers can relate to in the opening chapters. Readers might say, “Well this is a strange place. But I see that the MC is nervous about an upcoming challenge … jealous of his brother … learning a new skill from her father, etc.” There needs to be something recognizable about the situation so the reader can make a connection with your protagonist and take a few steps more into your world.

Jax running TMCIf your story starts out in our world, then takes an unexpected turn into the supernatural, the best way to encourage suspension of disbelief is by showing your reader what normal means before throwing in the abnormal. MG and YA writers are often encouraged to rush right to the inciting incident, but I don’t think this means dumping Godzilla on the first page. For instance, if a boy moves into a new house and it turns out to be haunted, I don’t think the ghost should appear on the first page. (Unless, as stated above, meeting ghosts in your house IS normal in the world of your story.)

Instead of having that ghost pop up too soon, use the early pages to set the mood. Have something strange happen, use foreshadowing, and bring in the ghost when the reader has already suspended disbelief and is expecting its arrival.

Finally, make sure your characters behave/react in ways that make sense, given the situation. In The Eighth Day, when Jax first experiences the secret day of the week, he panics, thinks it’s the zombie apocalypse (based on what he’s seen on TV) and breaks into a Walmart to steal survival supplies. He doesn’t think it’s “cool” or “neat” and go off to explore until the second time it happens, when he has reason to believe everything will be back to normal the next day. Likewise, at the end of the book when the world is at stake and a real Addie TMC coverapocalypse might be happening, Jax doesn’t suddenly develop fighting skills he never had before. His actions in the climactic scene are limited to what a 13-year-old boy might be able to do and skills Jax has already demonstrated.

Suspension of disbelief in speculative fiction for kids is a lot like coaxing a toddler into a new situation: Do it gradually. Appeal to the familiar. Establish normality before introducing the startling and strange. And always keep in mind how a real kid (living vicariously through your character) would react and behave.

20 Responses to Suspension of Disbelief (Part 2)

  1. The beginning of the book does have to ground the reader in the normal. If it’s too weird, they won’t connect or identify with the characters.

  2. Tiana Smith says:

    Love this because it is soooooo true! I hate reading books with crazy names and stuff going on that I’m trying too hard to figure out. Give me something familiar with a hint of the different!

  3. I love foreshadowing in the beginning of a book. It’s fun to spot it, and then wait for it to happen. =) Great stuff here, Dianne, thanks!

  4. Julie Dao says:

    GREAT post, Dianne. Immersion is an important tip for speculative writers. We have to let the reader slowly enter the world, rather than be thrown into it and be overwhelmed. There has to be orientation at the beginning – let them get their bearings and find out what “normal” is before the “abnormal” comes in.

  5. You’re so right about how to pull your reader into your world. There’s a lot to consider, isn’t there, and you’ve pointed out some of the best ways to manage that reader seduction.

  6. J E Oneil says:

    Yes, that’s a good way to describe suspension of disbelief. The point of writing is to make the unbelievable believable, which tends to require some work to do right 🙂

  7. Joanne Fritz says:

    Making speculative fiction believable has always stymied me. Thanks so much for this and your previous post, Dianne. Great stuff here.

  8. Hilary says:

    Hi Dianne – now I’m reading (?!) I can see some of these things in the books I’ve read or discarded … we need to feel entwined in the story line … and giving us too much – is just too much: while leaving us with a quick wind-down after an excellent read is frankly frustrating …

    Good to read and you’ve obviously captured the idea – love your use of the art from your book … cheers Hilary

  9. Robin says:

    Suspension of disbelief. Great topic. Seriously, great topic.

    Whenever you’re roaming around in things that aren’t “normal,” it’s a good idea to give some sense of your MC that is normal. Now I’m wondering if I dipped my toe into the pool too early… uggghh. I hate Chapter One.

  10. Beate says:

    This is so interesting to read from a non-writer point of view 🙂 Now I’ll read my books a little bit differently, trying to pay attention as to what techniques the author might have used to draw me into the book 🙂

  11. Mina B. says:

    These are such great tips. Names are a big thing for me too. If I have a hard time pronouncing them when I read them, it’s hard for me to take them seriously.

  12. Nothing makes me put down a book faster than the opening having all these words I can’t even pronounce. It takes me out of the story before I can even settle in. Great post, Dianne.

  13. I have actually read–or started to read–book that throw everything at me in the first chapter. It is definitely overwhelming. Building is is much better.

  14. An observation I totally share. I remember there was one book I read that was beyond creative–blow your mind creative. In fact, by 1/2 way through the book my mind was blown. (A near-impossible task.) Reading it was actually stressing me out. That shocked me. Analyzing what it was took some time, but I realized that nothing became “normal” or the expected, so I guess more than just introducing aspects slowly, we have to build a foundation of normalcy for our readers that doesn’t get shaken. Too badly.

  15. ChemistKen says:

    Yep. No matter how strange your world is, always make sure to have the MC troubled by a problem that would make sense in any world. Gives the reader something to hold on to.

  16. Cynthia says:

    I agree that the reader should be able to relate to what’s going on. We might not have all attended Hogwarts, but many of us can imagine what it would be like to live away from home at a young age and encounter people who don’t treat you well.

  17. I agree with all of this. ^_^ In the book I’m working toward getting published, I introduce how magic works by having the characters use it, but in small ways that are everyday things to them. This way, the reader can see how it works in a simple communication spell, not an enormous explosion or something else spectacular.

    As proof, I’m going to submit to your First Impressions – should have done it last week when you had slots open in September, but nobody’s perfect.

  18. Super tips, Dianne, and I totally agree. A writer has to get a reader “warmed Up” to the world she’s creating. Better to seduce the reader slowly than to smack her over the head with a bunch of strange stuff at the get-go and try to drag her into your world by the hair. So to speak.

  19. Anna says:

    Not too normal though, without a hook, first great sentence or a reason to read on… Well, I’m just saying there is a fine there. 🙂

    Anna from Elements of Writing

  20. I couldn’t agree more!! I recently abandoned a book because I couldn’t get past the crazy names, fantastical creatures, and the fact that time was measured in “slivers”. Seriously, how long is a sliver?!? I got through about the first ten chapters before putting it out for my 5th grade students to try. The other day a student asked if I’ve read it and if I think she would like it. I told her the truth, but encouraged her to form her own opinions about the book. She took it home for the weekend and by Monday afternoon it was back on my shelf…