If you’ve taken English classes or studied media at all, you’re probably familiar with suspension of disbelief. It’s the psychological mechanism through which we immerse ourselves in an imaginary world and allow ourselves to care about what happens in it. It’s our ability to temporarily ignore the normal rules of our everyday lives and slip into a different reality. If you’ve ever felt the world fall away when you’ve looked long at a painting in a gallery, sat still and just listened to a piece of music, or fell into a trance while watching a movie, you’ve suspended your disbelief. Without it, all of the art that humanity creates wouldn’t matter and nobody would bother making it.
Fiction relies on suspension of disbelief too. So how do writers persuade readers to use this mechanism? Write the most attention-grabbing opener possible. Right? That helps, sure, and I’ve discussed a few different methods you could try.
But suspension of disbelief isn’t a switch that turns on and off. It needs to be fostered and maintained throughout the piece. Unlike visual art and perhaps the shortest of poems, no audience can comprehend (at least on a basic level) the whole of our work within a few seconds. Just like musicians and filmmakers, fiction writers need to gain the audience’s attention and keep it for a length of time – the run time of a song or movie, or however long it takes for the reader to finish a story.
You’ve probably heard of TV shows jumping the shark. It’s an episode or scene where something so extreme, ridiculous, and/or lore-breaking occurs that the audience can’t accept it as real. After that, their sense of disbelief kicks back in, they see the artificiality of what’s unfolding before them, and they stop caring about it. When you stop seeing the people on screen as their characters and only see them as actors playing roles, the show has jumped the shark for you.
How does good fiction keep a reader reading? To avoid jumping the shark, there should be internal consistency, but that by itself isn’t enough. Good writers keep their readers by making the story inescapable and hard to put down. In short, stories need impeccable flow.
I’ve touched on internal consistency at least once before in an older post, though it might be time for me to expand on that. Flow is definitely something I’ll be talking more about this year. Unfortunately, this is all the time I can spare to blog about these things at the moment. February has been a month.
For now, what do you know about suspending disbelief? Do you remember any especially good stories that kept you invested from start to finish? What about memorable jump the shark moments? I look forward to reading your answers down in the comments.