Saturday, April 21, 2012

I Don't Believe It! (But I Want To...)



It is called suspension of disbelief. One of the most challenging balancing acts in fiction-writing is to captivate the reader's imagination and allow him or her to escape into the fantasy of your story while still believing the events could, at least in that context, occur.

Readers want to pick up a book and lose themselves in a fantasy world, a mystery, or a romance. They will believe that a farmhouse from Kansas can travel through time and space and squash a wicked witch in the land of Oz. Or that an elderly English spinster will solve the mystery and save the day, because Miss Marple always catches her man (or woman). Can a Civil War-era southern belle rebuild an entire plantation all on her own? We believe that if anyone can, Scarlett O'Hara is the girl for the job. We willing suspend our disbelief because the author makes us believe and makes us want to believe. Through the development of characters, plot, and setting we accept the story the writer delivers and find ourselves fully invested in following it through to The End.

In recent months, I've read two unrelated stories where the heroine died (or appeared to die) but was actually in a herb-induced very deep sleep. In one case the reader knew the plan ahead of time and in the other the reader learns of the plot twist as it occurs. In both cases the authors excelled in creating a believable back story, conflict, and tone as to make the scenario not only credible, but entirely thrilling.

So, I've been thinking about this whole suspension of disbelief business and I am curious about your thoughts, too. What scenarios have you read that seemed unbelievable but the author developed so well that it made perfect sense for the story? What books would you recommend with those captivating plot twists that leave you holding your breathe and racing to the last page? And what plot turns have you read that just left you feeling disappointed and shaking your head. ( Please, in this case, don't use the titles or the author's names.)

We know that many of the things in the stories we read aren't plausible, but, when the author does it right, we just can't seem to get enough.

Nikki Studebaker Barcus

9 comments:

  1. Writing so well that you suspend the reader's disbelief is a lot harder than it sounds! Especially when you're weaving several main characters together in a large plot. You have a lot of balls to juggle and sometimes what solidifies the story line of one character might weaken the storyline of another one. It's a fine balancing act.

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    1. Exactly what I was trying to say. Good analogy.

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  2. What a great post and question. I can't think of anything off the top of my head reading-wise. But a movie that does a lot of that is Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's almost cartoon-ish in the way Indiana Jones gets himself out of messes.

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    1. Thanks, Karla and yes, I was thinking movies and television too. To me, they're all story. Good choice.

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  3. Candy NeuenschwanderApril 21, 2012 at 8:50 PM

    The book Thr3e by Ted Dekker left me speachless. It's a fairly short mystery with an uncharactaristic ending. Best book I've ever read!

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    1. Yes, Candy, he does do a fabulous job of it. I don't think I've read this book, so I'll have to check it out.

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  4. Thanks for this post, Nikki. You've given me something to think about this week. I'm reading the Hunger Games right now, and the author does a great job of making the scenario realistic.

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    1. Great, Melanie! I've been mulling this over for the last few weeks, too. We hit upon it once in a fiction-writing class, but to see it used well is very inspiring and challenging.

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  5. One thing about the element of disbelief is the less you know about it, the easier it is to buy it. For example, I think Randy Singer's legal defense does a good job with suspension of disbelief. But then I read this critic who's a lawyer who has a harder time with some of the plot twists.

    Another factor is genre, to some extent. If we have fantasy, we have no problems with talking animals such as those who populate Disney movies (e.g. Bambi, Jungle Book, the Lion King). Horror is another one that fits the category. True science fiction is more realistic, but even there one can get away with things being a less realistic.

    As far as bursting the bubble, mistakes and a complete divorce from realistic. For example, I read one story where an advisory board had some U.S. Senators on it, including the Senator from the state of New England. But the one that takes the cake (and I will name this movie, because it's consistently bad) in '84's Blade Master, a sword and sorcery tale. At one point, the heroine is in a line of sacrifice victims for the snake monster. You have scenes of the first victims being horrified and screaming. The hero arrives and jumps into the pit in time to rescue the heroine, waiting for the monster to appear. A very large snake, looking like a fifty foot long, three feet thick stuffed animal snake. The audience laughed out loud at that, and at least a third walked out at that point.

    Jeff

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