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Convincing Readers Your Fiction is Real

November 23, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 21, 2012

Inciting the willing suspension of disbelief in readers has long been considered necessary for good fiction.

But what does it mean? The words sound like a negative paired with a positive to produce a . . . What? A muddle?

It shouldn’t be a muddle. The simple explanation is that fiction writers (for page, stage, and screen) should create enough of a reality in their works that readers can pretend that what they’re reading or watching is, or could be, true. Readers know what’s happening on the page isn’t really happening. Moviegoers know that the White House isn’t exploding  while they’re watching. That is, they don’t really believe it to be happening at the moment. But they’re willing to put aside their disbelief for the time it takes to read the novel or watch the movie. They’re willing to pretend that the fiction is true.

Though in practice in drama for hundreds of years, it was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote the words we put into practice today.

“… It was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Coleridge is saying there should be some truth in imagined places, people, and events, enough that the reader can enjoy the story without being reminded that such things could never exist.

Suspension of disbelief becomes the contract between reader and writer. The writer creates a world where anything can happen—as long as what happens is consistent with the rules of that world—and the reader agrees to believe—for the moment—that such events and characters can exist in such a world.

For the writer, part of his job is already done. The reader picks up a book primed to believe the unbelievable. A reader knows a piece of fiction is fiction. He wants to be entertained by what-ifs and imagine-thats. The writer’s sole task, then, is to keep up his end of the contract, to keep the reader immersed in the reality of unreality. To do nothing to slap the reader into an awareness that what he’s reading is indeed impossible, improbable, and not worth imagining. 

Writers do not want their readers to be jarred from the imaginary world, to toss a book against a wall because the writer violated the rules of that world.

So what can the writer do to keep his audience willing to believe the fiction?

Maintain a consistent world. Rules can’t change from one scene to the next. If four-year-old boys can fly in chapter two, they can fly in chapter five— barring something else in the fiction being responsible or the change. 

Create characters who believe in the improbabilities of their world, not suspecting their world is not the real one.

Display wholehearted belief in his own fiction. He must boldly accept what he’s established as the truth of his fantasy world and keep far from hesitation in how he presents that world.

Refuse to let personal bias—cultural, religious, political, or social—influence characters, scenes, and/or action to such a degree that the author’s voice becomes an intruder in the story.

Maintain point of view so that characters see only what the POV allows and respond to only what they know, not what the writer knows. 

The writer is responsible for creating the imaginary world and peopling it with characters who are at home there. He maintains the fiction from page one through the final word, with no anomalies to stop the reader’s race—or leisurely stroll—through that world.

The writer uses words and phrasing and timing appropriate for that world and those characters.

He creates elements that fit, with no rough edges to snag the unwary reader, with no oddities poking out to trip the reader, to knock him from the imaginary and back to the real.

The writer owes his readers a complete story, an imaginary story so full in its complexities and so undivided in its intent that the events and people are, for two hours, real. The emotions experienced by the characters ensnare the reader. Their tragedies move him. Their foibles make him laugh. 

This is the writer’s contract with his readers. To create and sustain, for his shadows of imagination, the suspension of disbelief in those readers.

It can be done.

Why not do it for your own imaginary worlds?



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