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Writing Excuses 6.14: Suspension of Disbelief

Writing Excuses 6.14: Suspension of Disbelief


Key points: Suspension of Disbelief. Plausibility. Helping the reader pretend that it is all real. Don't be too tidy. Insert things that are just part of the world, not plot specific (beware fluff!). Don't ask readers to suspend their disbelief about too many things. Let readers know early what they need to believe. Don't break human nature. When readers believe the characters and the story, they will stick with you for fantastic things. Lay the groundwork. Don't shoot yourself in the foot with Chekov's gun. Start by making small things plausible, and build up to being strange things. When characters are surprised, it can help readers believe. Try bathos -- a dash of ridicule in the midst of intense drama and emotion.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode WorldCon Number One, Suspension of Disbelief.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Patrick Rothfuss, who has clipped...
[Pat] Here.
[Audience screams]
[Howard] In case that's not coming through the microphone, we have a live studio audience here at WorldCon 69.
[Brandon] yes, at our special studio, which is just a con room. No, we're very happy to have Pat Rothfuss. He's one of our favorite guests. We really appreciate him coming. He has clipped his microphone to his beard, if you're not aware of this. It is quite amazing. So, we're going to talk about suspension of disbelief, because we actually could not believe... Note that pun... That we had not done a suspension of disbelief podcast. So somebody define this for me. Dan! What do we mean by this?

[Dan] Suspension of disbelief is where the reader, or audience, I guess, is able to say, "Well, I know that the dragons aren't real, but I'm going to pretend like they are for the duration of this story." Or whatever your fantastical element is.
[Brandon] This is really kind of the great skill of writing fiction. As you're writing it, you need the reader to suspend their disbelief that it's not real. But then you add on top of it that all of these weird things that are happening in a fantasy story could actually be plausible. Even beyond that, that the characters are able to accomplish all these things, that the coincidences are not just coincidences, that they feel like it's really a story and that you're not just kind of making things up. So we're going to talk about doing that. I'm going to actually ask Pat. Pat, how do you get readers to suspend their disbelief? Do you have any suggestions?

[Pat] It is probably, I think, the second hardest thing a fantasy author has to deal with. I think the big thing is not writing a story... For me, my trick is that I try not to write a story that is too tidy. I read a story once where every character with a name showed up during the final epic battle against the bad guy to do their part so that they could win. The first time I read it, it was a good book. The second time I read it, I was like, "Really? The world doesn't work like that." It wrecked the whole book for me. It was too tidy to have anything resembling verisimilitude. That's what I always strive for, is the verisimilitude.
[Brandon] That's great. I mean, I've noticed this... Even something as simple as the cliche of there's a map in the front and then the people visit every point on the map. Suddenly, it's hard to believe that it's real. Mary? Suggestions?

[Mary] Well, one thing that you can do is, as Pat has mentioned, make sure that you are inserting things into the world that are just part of the world, that are not actually plot specific. Although you have to be careful that you don't just get fluffy at that point. The other thing is to be aware that you can only ask the reader to suspend their disbelief about so many things. That you have to kind of setup very early on that you're asking them to make this disbelief, that you're asking them to believe this thing. Like in Little Mermaid, I had absolutely no problems with this girl with a fishtail living in the ocean. No problems at all. Because the title of the story is The Little Mermaid. They told me right up front what I needed to suspend my disbelief about. The storm that blows up out of nowhere in the ocean, I'm like, "Really? You couldn't see that coming from the horizon? Guys?"
[Brandon] Right. It's weird how we do this, but we do. We do this.

[Pat] In my experience, the readers... Especially fantasy and sci-fi readers are much more forgiving of like the addition of magic, a strange feature. But if you ask your reader to suspend what they already know about human nature, they will not go along with you. It doesn't matter how much realness you build into your story, if you have a guy and a girl, and they're together in a relationship, and the guy cheats on her... We know kind of how that script takes place. She's not going to bring him a bunch of roses and a box of chocolates afterwards. We know that people react in certain ways to certain stimuluses, and dialogue progresses in a certain natural fashion. If you go against that grain, it goes against everything that we've learned since we learned language. You can't win that fight. Dragons are acceptable. Your girlfriend saying, "You know, I think the neighbor is cute." Or, "You know, hey, yeah, my sister is hot, why don't you go out with her, too?" That just doesn't happen.
[Mary] Well, but that can actually... Do you want to jump in?

[Dan] I was just going to say that that's an important place. We started this by talking about how suspension of disbelief has to do with dealing with the fantastical elements, but it starts at those core elements. You can completely disbelieve normal human behavior and character motivations if they're not done properly. But if they are done really well, your readers are going to be a lot more willing to accept the ridiculous stuff. If they're already sold on your characters and they love your story that you've got going, and they like all of that, they're going to stick with you even when those fantastical elements start to show up.

[Mary] The thing is that it's all about laying groundwork. Like in the example that Pat just gave us, of the, "Yeah, go on, have sex with my girlfriend." That can work... Not that I'm recommending it! But if you have laid the groundwork for a relationship where that is something that is an agreement that they have, then it can work. But it's all about laying the groundwork. If you just spring it... If you spring any element in the middle of a story, it's the deus ex machina, it's like, "Really? Really? The President just arrived to save these people, and he hasn't been anywhere ever in this story?"
[Pat] It's... There are these two different elements. Because everybody knows about Chekov's gun, where he says, "If you're going to shoot somebody later on, the gun should show up on the mantelpiece."
[Mary] It's actually the opposite of that.
[Pat] Oh, is it the other way?
[Mary] If there's a gun on the mantel, you need to shoot someone in act three.
[Pat] Is that what it says? I hate that. Because if you've read say 50 books in your life, and people always follow this rule, then you read the first 20 pages of a book and you're like, "And, I know what's going to happen." So you have to put guns on mantels screw around with your reader at some times.
[Brandon] Yeah, you've got to have four guns on the mantel and get them wondering which one is going to get fired.
[Howard] I leave guns all over the room and I promise my readers that somebody's going to get shot with a gun in the third act. But many of those guns are red herrings, and the rest of them are actually foreshadowing.
[Pat] I think it's much better to say that... If you're... in terms of giving your readers something which they can reasonably expect and swallow... You don't need to show the gun, but they do need to know that guns exist.
[Brandon] Right. It's the type of story where someone can get shot.
[Pat] Yes. Oh, that's the key.
[Mary] Well, it's also what Howard said, is that you... If it's just one gun, then you know it's going to be used. I think what Chekov was actually getting to with that is that it's... if you place a lot of emphasis on something... If you call attention to it to the reader, that that's where you run into problems.
[Brandon] This is a Western with guns... But if you didn't have a story where people weren't getting shot in that story, it feels like you're breaking a promise to the reader.
[Mary] Exactly.

[Brandon] But I feel we're getting a little off topic. Let's bring it back to suspension of disbelief. Do you try to build upon your suspension of disbelief, meaning... And this is kind of a leading question, I apologize for it. But the idea being that will what a reader accepts at the end of a story... Is there a greater level... Can you push further than you would be able to at the beginning?
[Pat] I think you can effectively do the slow sell because some things people will not buy at the beginning of the story, unless they trust you as the author... There's several different levels here. If I sit down and I read a book from Gaiman, I'm instantaneously bought in and all of my defenses are very low because I'm trusting him as an author. Because I love Neil Gaiman. But a new author, first book, I'm kind of... I'm cringing a little bit thinking, "Are you going to screw around with me? Are you going to let me down?" But then there's what exists in the book itself, and you can build up like a society and show me the small strange things and explain them, so that by the time you get to the big strange things, I'm already nodding along with you, and I'm kind of... I'm in for the ride at that point.

[Brandon] Let's break for our book of the week. We want to actually suggest that you listen to The Wise Man's Fear by... Patrick Rothfuss!
[Dan] Oh, my goodness.
[Pat] I can't believe it.
[Dan] Shocking.
[Brandon] That was just a coincidence. No. This is a fantastic book. I absolutely loved it. I wrote a big long nice review of it on my website so you can read that. But it's just... It's a delightful book. It's well worth listening to. You can download a free copy... Howard's going to tell you how.
[Howard] Visit, you can kick off a 14 day free trial membership, download Wise Man's Fear or another book of your choice for free, and...
[Brandon] If you haven't listened to the first, The Name of the Wind, you probably should pick that one instead.
[Howard] Might want to start there?
[Pat] Please.

[Brandon] Okay. I'm going to throw a question at you, Howard. With a suspension of disbelief, what is the... How often can you use a wink at the audience? Meaning, you'll notice, like if you're watching an Indiana Jones film, sometimes he will look at what he's just accomplished and just be... Just astounded. Did I just do that? It actually helps with the suspension of disbelief, I feel, if the character themselves is incredulous that this actually happened. Somehow it works. You do this a lot.
[Howard] I do this a lot, but the example I want to lean on is from Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Where Jack Sparrow... We've seen the first three movies, Jack Sparrow does these crazy, swashbuckley, adventurous swing-through-the-air things. It got kind of tiring. By the end of the third movie, you think, "How? How did..." They weren't nodding at the audience and saying, "How does he do this?" Then in Pirates 4, there is a scene in which we get to watch Jack Sparrow planning his escape. He looks at the chandelier, he looks at the napkin, he looks at the chair, he looks at the window, he looks back at the chandelier, he kicks a muffin and it sticks to the chandelier because he's trying to get a snack. And then... Then his plan starts to unfold. As I watched this, I was delighted because it was the first time in one of these movies they actually addressed that sometimes he does plan this. Now, for me... I'm not doing the swashbuckley stuff, but yeah, sometimes I'll turn to the audience and throw a footnote and it's part of the punchline. I get away with it because I'm just writing humor. I think Pirates of the Caribbean expected us to believe it because sometimes they're just doing action.

[Brandon] Now, Pat, you kind of do this a little bit. In that... What you will do, in order to help us suspend our disbelief, you will have the main character Kote, who is first-person narrative, say... He will actually try to show how realistic something... Some incredible thing he did... He will actually try and take it down a few notches for us, in order to make it more believable. Like Kvothe The Bloodless or whatever. Like, was this an intentional thing in order to help us with suspension of disbelief?
[Pat] Did it make me look clever?
[Brandon] Yes, it did.
[Pat] Then I did it on purpose.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] I'm having trouble suspending my disbelief about that.
[Pat] The... It's hard for me to think about what I do in the moment while I'm writing some of these things. The stress between the story that he's telling and the story... The true story of his life and sort of the mythic story of his life, the folklore of his life. I think the fact that he himself is saying, "No, actually, this is what you've heard, but it really wasn't that cool." It inclines the reader to believe him, because we expect people to brag about themselves. When somebody comes out and says, "Eh, you know, actually, it wasn't that cool, and I got really lucky." Why would he lie to you about that? So that, I did build in specifically.
[Brandon] Yeah. I really think that that... Forgive me, this is a writing advice podcast. It works really well. We see it in this current trend in films. Batman Begins is a great example. This is just a matter of laying the groundwork and making it look really real. This is a guy who dresses up like a bat at night and goes and punches people dressed like clowns in the face. Okay, this is ridiculous. This is actually kind of stupid. But you watch these films, and by the end of the film, you're believing all of it. It doesn't feel stupid, it feels cool. That is because point by point, they make every part of this ridiculous narrative sound plausible, and even... It's not even plausible, it's like of course that's the way it would be.
[Howard] Brandon, I think the principle there is that we're not being asked to believe the big lie front. We're being asked to swallow a bunch of very small ones. "Hey, his parents got murdered by bad guys." I can believe that. "Oh, hey, he was psychologically traumatized." I can believe that. "Hey, he fell into a well and got scared by some bats." Oh, I have heard about kids falling into wells before. So far, so good. Bit by bit, we build this incredible mythos so that yeah, by the end, he's dressing up like a bat and punching clowns in the face.

[Pat] I'll also throw in a great tool that doesn't get much airtime these days, like so much of the rhetoric that old dead Greeks had figured out long ago. It's a term called bathos. What it is, is it's a dramatic... It's an undercutting of an otherwise dramatic or emotionally intense scene. The master of this, like he masters so much else, is Joss Whedon of course. Where you'll see something happening... And the one I always think of, Angel and Buffy are hugging. They're having this touching emotional moment. He goes, "I remember the first time I saw you. It's like you were holding your heart. All I wanted to do was take it and shelter it and cover it with my own." They're hugging. There's this pause. She goes, "That's really sweet. Or really... Kind of icky if you think about it." Then he goes, "Yeah, I was just thinking that, too." It's perfect because that's what we're thinking as the audience, we're like, "Ick, you cover his heart with your heart? That is... That's icky." The fact that they recognize it... That means they're having a real emotional response to what's going on in there. It's also keeping this scene, which could become really smarmy and saccharine and disgusting... It pulls the rug out from under it, and then you laugh. So you get the emotion and the laughter and you keep the verisimilitude. Bathos. It's a great tool. It's very tricky to pull off, but it's really worth it if you can put it in your toolbox.

[Brandon] I have one more question before we end this podcast. We'll go just a few minutes long, because actually, a member of the audience asked this question of us, that' spawned this whole podcast. I want to actually go back to it because we haven't addressed it. What they actually asked is, how do you create tension in a first-person narrative that the character is in danger, because they're absolutely not going to die. Which for me, is the greater question of suspension of disbelief. But writing a book that's got a first-person narrative, Pat Rothfuss, how have you done that... How do you address this?
[Pat] Honestly, it never troubled me very much. Because... I mean, sure, killing somebody is terrible or somebody dying is dramatic, but there's way worse things that can happen to you than dying. That's drama. I mean, you don't need to die... Or be in threat of death to raise the stakes of your narrative. It's sort of like, you don't jump straight to killing somebody. You... There's a lot of other things you can do to ruin a person's life that don't involve taking them completely out of the picture. The other thing is... I don't know what the other thing was. I had two things, but one of them is gone.
[Dan] Well, let me comment on what you just said, very quickly. The bully character in your magical school story worked really well for me, whereas Draco Malfoy did not. Because in the Harry Potter series, it was not presented to me as a series where the bully is the big deal. In yours, it was, because we were so sold on this character and we liked him and so every time somebody did some more horrible thing to Kvothe, I... That's... Like you say, that's what got to me. It's because of the way you presented the story, and this is the style as it's coming to be, and this is the way the character is going to function.
[Pat] If you can sell a small story to people... I mean, it's one thing to have a story where... I mean, the dead are walking and there are terrible things in the night and everyone's dying, you have a plague or the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that's automatically high drama. But you don't need to blow your special-effects budget like this. You can have it says I mean, a dramatic story is like a woman in a house with a baby, and it's dark outside, and something is moving around the house. That's drama. I mean, I could throw a dragon in there, too. But I don't need the dragon. I don't need a machinegun. But that said...
[Howard] I need a machinegun.
[Dan] The woman in the house needs a machinegun.
[Pat] So that's why I never had to worry about, "Oh, no, they know that he's going to live through this." Oh, this was my second thing. It actually goes back to what the Star Wars prequels did so wrong. They had an incredible storytelling opportunity. We know where it's going to end. So the opportunity they had was to show us the path that you take to become Darth Vader. We know that it ends as a tragedy, so all that's important is the play of the thing. But the play wasn't very good, so we didn't give a damn. If all that mattered was fear of somebody dying, you would never, ever read a book twice. But we do read books twice. You don't go to Oedipus Rex and go, "Oh, I wonder if this time, he's not going to blind himself at the end?" You know it's going to end badly for him, and you watch it anyway. That's what drama is.
[Howard] Well, there's the Oedipus Rex RPG.

[Brandon] All right. We're going to take this out. Mary, you've got a writing prompt for us?
[Mary] Yes. I want you to write a story and make us believe one impossible thing. If you can't come up with it on your own, try teleportation.
[Brandon] Okay. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: bathos, build up, chekov's gun, fantastical elements, groundwork, human nature, plausibility, reality, suspension of disbelief, tidiness, winking at the audience
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