Pushing the fictional envelope typically ends when reaching the brick wall of a reader’s credulity.
Thing is, reader credulity varies.
I have a friend who refuses to watch films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings because “it’s not real.” He will, however, watch Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis defeat legions of bad guys, infiltrate top secret, high-security, technologically advanced compounds, and avert nuclear holocaust all before dinner, without so much as an eye-roll.
All fiction is make-believe. Whether you’re reading a legal thriller or supernatural romance, suspending disbelief is a requirement. Often, the only real difference between fiction readers is how much disbelief they will suspend. And the only real difference between genres is how much suspension of disbelief is required. So believing the unbelievable, deeming credible the incredible, is required for readers of both espionage and high fantasy. The question is only — How much are they willing to swallow?
Admittedly, writing about shapeshifters, ninja nagas, superheroes, or hunky werewolves requires more suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader than writing about, say, a corrupt politician. Getting one to believe that a congressman is being bribed by a lobbyist is infinitesimally easier than portraying said congressman as a charismatic parasitic changeling from Uranus seeking new haunts.
Which is why one of the challenges of writing speculative fiction is the actual speculation. Whether it’s ghosts, mutants, or magic formulas, at some point you require a concession from your readers. Fans of speculative fiction approach the genre with a unique tolerance for the unbelievable. But even they have their limits. The same reader who applauds test tube dinosaurs mocks Lizard Men. Especially if they wear trench coats, fedoras, and live in L.A.’s subterranean city.
So how do you write about the unbelievable, believably? How do you help readers suspend disbelief and buy into the Congressman from Uranus? Here’s five ways you can help your readers buy into some wacky, out-of-this-world narrative:
- Make the believable, believable. Readers are more likely to believe that your protagonist can talk to dead people if your protag, rather than his dead visitors, is believable. Our readers identify first with what they know to be factually and emotionally true. I recall listening to a podcast interview with Andy Weir, the indie author who struck it rich with his sci-fi novel The Martian. Being that Mars has not been colonized, the book is classified as “speculative.” But only just barely. Because the science is in place, The Martian occupies that strange grey area between actual fact and fiction. As Weir recounted in the podcast, this made getting the science correct all the more important for the believability of his novel. Believable science assisted in the audience’s suspension of disbelief. In this way, investing in the “known” is the first step in building a bridge to the “unknown.” Making the believable, believable is the first step to making the unbelievable, believable. Whew!
- Don’t chuck logic. Just because your characters are battling zombies does not require them to become brainless. I’m more likely to buy into your heroine’s pointy ears and green skin if she retains a real head on her shoulders. In THIS INTERVIEW, the prolific novelist Dean Koontz was asked how he pulled off his typically wild premises. He said, “If you give yourself entirely to intuition but then bring hard intellectual analysis to what the intuition produces, you’ll be okay. Take the far-out element and consider it in the same spirit that St. Thomas Aquinas used clear cold reason to prove the existence of God.” Subjecting the “far-out” elements of your story to “clear cold reason” helps our readers suspend potential disbelief. If you want me to believe that your hero can tame dragons, logic is the last thing you can afford to sacrifice. Forget that cyborgs from the future have not yet arrived. Make your character think and act like they actually have and I’ll likely follow along.
- Build credulity by showing incredulity in your characters. The worst thing your unassuming soccer mom can do upon discovering a baby Cthulhu in her vacuum bag is to put it in the hamster cage and finish her chores. At the least, she should do a tango on sofa. I once attended a workshop by Jeff Gerke on writing speculative fiction and he noted that one of the ways we create a believable story world is by showing our characters astonishment when appropriate. In other words, if a contemporary woman stumbles into the 16th century, she should not “get over it” any time soon. You don’t just “get over” seeing a demon or conjuring a fireball. A character who is not utterly floored by a dimensional portal in her office cubical, will likely NOT be followed by readers through it. The amazing thing should not be that an earthling encounters a space alien, but that they do so without wetting themselves.
- Follow the laws of your land. Even quidditch has rules, gravity being one of them. Whether it’s Oz, Atlantis, or Middle Earth, each story world contains its own set of laws. The writer is free to create a world where anything can happen, as long as what happens is consistent with the laws of that world. Employing fictional “cheats” only makes your world less believable. Even Superman loses credibility when laws of logic and physics don’t matter. We help our readers suspend disbelief, not just by creating a set of consistent laws, but by not breaking them.
- Damn the torpedoes. However far-out the elements of your story are, the worst thing you could do is second-guess them or treat them with kid gloves. If your story involves goblins, demons, or talking teapots, then follow it through. Where would Frodo be if Tolkien was reluctant about magic? Rather, the epic works because, in it, trees CAN talk and rings CAN make one invisible. If your story world involves magic (or romance, teleportation, and Jabberwockies), then full steam ahead.
Readers come to fiction for different reasons. But most come with a willingness to believe the unbelievable. Whether it’s a nuclear holocaust or a lost Eden, we can help our readers suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy those non-existent worlds. The only requirement is that before the novelist begins pushing red pills onto her readers, she swallows her own.