Thursday, October 1, 2009

Teen Inklings: Vol. 3: SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

A time will come when you’ll be forced to suspend your readers’ disbelief—regardless of your genre. But before I explain that statement, let me define what Suspension of Disbelief is after being boiled down: Creation of Belief.

Let’s imagine a boy sitting down to read The Wizard of Oz. He opens the book and reads for awhile about a girl named Dorothy living a rather bleak life in a remote part of Kansas. All pretty normal stuff, right? So far, the little boy hasn’t been faced with anything to make him think that peculiar or impossible things are about to happen… Then a tornado sucks Dorothy into a magical land filled with Munchkins where she crushes an evil witch under a house. What? That could never happen on earth. Here is where the little boy has to suspend his disbelief and just follow the story along. As writers, it’s our job to make that process easy.

Earlier I said that regardless of your genre, you’re going to be faced with this problem. I stand by that. Whether you’re writing about a fantasy world or the real world, you’ve got to keep things believable enough so that your readers won’t roll their eyes. Even if your book is about a futuristic tribe of cannibalistic Vampires living in the far off realm of A’po’stro’phe’, you’ve got to keep things real. No, I haven’t gone crazy. If perchance you are writing dialogue for your Vampire hero and he says something like “Good gravy, I’m hungry. Too bad there isn’t a McDonald’s around here… Guess I’ll just eat my hand.” I would laugh. And not because of that last sentence. How could the land of A’po’stro’phe have a McDonald’s? Will McDonald’s even be around in the future? Why does he say Good Gravy when that term is so outdated? Are there Leave it to Beaver marathons on Vampire TV? Do they even have TV? And so on and so forth. Those are all questions you’d have to sort out and do a good deal of explaining of in your first chapters. This is why you need to be extra careful with your facts. A misplaced word can sever the rope suspending your readers’ disbelief and bring real life crashing down on your book. Research is a key component in Suspension of Disbelief.

If you are writing a modern day story and you say that the White House is in Kentucky, readers are going to know better. Or if you are writing a medieval novel and your gallant knight wields a ten foot stainless steel sword, you’re not going to get away with it. Stainless steel wasn’t patented until the early 1900’s, and some of your readers are going to know that. Does this mean you can’t twist fact? Not at all. But do it realistically.

One way to do this is to spend time researching, or, if you write speculative fiction (like most teen writers), by being thorough when you create your world. You can do this. I have faith in you. I know of some sci-fi writers who drew out extraterrestrial charts for every planet they created, down to interplanetary movements in the galaxies between their characters’ worlds. The hard thing is doing all that work and not putting it in your book. And you’ll be tempted to do that. Don’t; it’ll bog down your writing and put people to sleep. If you know how things work, and you believe that those things could happen, chances are, your reader is going to as well. So take your time creating a world you don’t have any trouble believing in.

Now I’m going to give you a sample that does an extremely poor job of suspending my disbelief, and then I’m gong to show you why. Sound good? I hope that after reading this you’ll realize just how careful you need to be as a writer. Ready? Here goes.

[The setting is a medieval fiefdom in the fantasy world, Elowell. Our main character is Lydia, a young kitchen girl.]

Lydia tightened her silk apron and turned back to the tower of unwashed dishes protruding from the nearby sink. Plates, forks, knives, cups, all piled one on top of the other as if fighting for her attention. There’d be no way she could set the table in the adjacent dining hall and finish the dishes in time for supper. She needed help.
Hurrying to the back wall, Lydia yelled out the window leading to the Stables. “Brogan!” she yelled, and presently a boys head appeared out of the nearest stall. “I need your help!”
“No prob,” Brogan said, clapping his dusty hands together. “I’m finished here anyway.” He disappeared from sight.
Lydia bustled back to the sink and stared at the dirty saucers before her, as if her mere stare could make them vanish. She waited for what seemed like hours for Brogan to arrive, and was slightly surprised when he finally did.
“What took you so long?” Lydia asked, her voice spiking.
“Ah, nothin’,” Brogan said, grinning. “I had to give Lord Rupert a boost so he could replace a light bulb in the entrance hall.”
Guilt replaced Lydia’s anger like a rug being pulled out from under her. Brogan had only taken so long because he’d had to help someone along the way. “Er, sorry. I didn’t mean to be so angry.”
“Whateva.” Brogan turned to stare at the Mahogany cupboards lining the wall. “Whatchoo need help with?”
“Setting the table,” Lydia said, pointing at the cupboard directly in front of Brogan’s boyish face. “The china’s in there.”
“No prob.”

Stop! I think we’ve got quite enough to work with here. Let’s start from the beginning and work our way to the end. I bet you’ve already caught several of the mistakes in this passage.

Lydia tightened her silk [silk was expensive in medieval times and was reserved for the upper class, not kitchen girls.] apron and turned back to the tower of unwashed dishes protruding from the nearby sink. Plates [plates weren’t used back then. Bread bowls called Trenchers were used], forks[forks weren’t used either. In a medieval banquet you’d cut and eat off of the knife], knives, cups, all piled one on top of the other as if fighting for her attention. There’d be no way she could set the table in the adjacent dining hall and finish the dishes in time for supper.[Something missing here are the cooks making the meal. A medieval kitchen wouldn’t be empty, especially before a meal] She needed help.
Hurrying to the back wall, Lydia yelled out the window leading to the Stables
.[the kitchen and stables wouldn’t have been next to each other… for obvious reasons.] “Brogan!” she yelled, and presently a boys head appeared out of the nearest stall. “I need your help!”
“No prob,” Brogan said, clapping his dusty hands together. “I’m finished here anyway.”
[As a stable boy, Brogan wouldn’t have gone to help in the kitchens. That was largely woman’s work in medieval times.] He disappeared from sight.
Lydia bustled back to the sink and stared at the dirty dishes before her, as if her mere stare could make them vanish. She waited for what seemed like hours for Brogan to arrive, and was slightly surprised when he finally did.
“What took you so long?” Lydia asked, her voice spiking.
“Ah, nothin’,” Brogan said, grinning. “I had to give Lord Rupert a boost
[a dusty handed stable boy wouldn’t be giving a Lord a boost. He probably wouldn’t have even got permission to enter the main kitchens.] so he could replace a light bulb[Thomas Edison didn’t live in medieval times] in the entrance hall.”
Guilt replaced Lydia’s anger like a rug being pulled out from under her. Brogan had only taken so long because he’d had to help someone along the way. “Er, sorry. I didn’t mean to be so angry.”
“Whateva.
[Brogan’s speech is far too modern for his era.]” Brogan turned to stare at the cupboards lining the wall. “Whatchoo need help with?”
“Setting the table,
[Again, a stable boy wouldn’t do this]” Lydia said, pointing at the cupboard directly in front of Brogan’s boyish face. “The china’s[This is a fantasy world, China exists on earth. Even if Elowell was on earth, acquiring china would’ve been quite a feat for a small fiefdom.] in there.”
“No prob.”


And I saw more problems in that passage than what I pointed out. Believe it or not, I have read books where the facts have been that bad. One medieval fantasy book I read had the protagonist musing about how he needed to go take a shower. Yikes.

Now that was quite a bit to digest for one article. If you have any questions about Suspension of Disbelief, feel free to leave them in the comments for this post, or you can e-mail me at this address: ChristianMiles@(at)live.(dot)com.

Check back soon for next month’s E-Zine

12 comments:

  1. Well written piece. Lots of good information, Christian! Great ezine :)
    I am writing a sword and sorcery piece, it is a struggle at times to keep the conversation, and clothing in the period :)

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  2. Wow, that was really interesting! You did a good job on explaining it all too... Thanks for posting it. I am rather happy that I just found your blog!

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  3. Thanks, KM. I can't wait for you to get published. Be sure to let me know when you do! Oh, and call me Chris. ;)

    Siminy, I'm glad you found my blog, too. =)

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  4. Great article, Chris. I love your style with these. Keep up the good work.

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  5. I just found your blog as well, and it's been helpful! Thanks for posting!

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  6. That was a really great article!

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  7. *starts clapping*
    Okay, on the sidebar - so weird, becAAAUUSE -
    I LOOOVE -

    Tolkien
    Donita Paul
    Wayne Batson
    Bryan Davis
    Ted Dekker
    and Gilbert Morris.
    I'm going to have to c heck out those books I haven't read!!

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  8. Hi Christian! You must be homeschooled or an incredible geinus because they just don't teach that stuff (or so I've heard) in public schools anymore (unless you have an exemplery school). I would love for you to review my book, The Victor.

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  9. Which book had a fantasy hero needing a shower?

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  10. Did they have sinks back then? By the way, I write fantasy. Nice to meet you, Chris. I am Danny in life (pen name is L.M. Winter). I plan to publish when I'm...ready.

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