In last month’s music video, I mentioned that suspense rests on the suspension of disbelief. If readers feel your story is contrived, they aren’t going to care how it turns out. In the comments, someone asked how you suspend disbelief when you’re writing about something inherently implausible like, say, vampires taking over a small New England town.
Of course, if you’re writing light comedy or satire, then it’s a lot easier to get readers to suspend disbelief. But most suspense novels depend on readers feeling the reality of whatever horrors you’re inflicting on your characters. So do most thrillers. And you often need readers to suspend disbelief about improbable events in police procedurals, or science fiction, or even cozy mysteries that have to explain why a retired governess turns out to be a stellar detective.
Stephen King is a master of making the outrageous and macabre seem real. One of his techniques is to frame his central implausibility – that small town in Maine being taken over by vampires — in a completely ordinary setting. By introducing readers to the thoroughly normal world of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, with the Excellent Café, the old guys hanging outside of Milt Crossen’s agriculture store, and Dud Rogers running the town dump, King anchors his readers firmly in the mundane reality of small-town New England.
Note, by the way, that King doesn’t give into the temptation to turn the town into an idyllic place. The newlywed McDougles in their trailer are dealing rather badly with each other and their toddler – there is hitting involved. And Dud Rogers down at the dump amuses himself by shooting rats. But by not going for the sharp contrast between the good town and the evil that invades it, King makes both the town and the evil feel more real.
He doesn’t let go of that ordinariness even as Dud Rogers starts stalking the dump’s patrons, the McDougles (including the toddler) take to hiding in the crawlspace below the trailer to avoid the sun, and the old guys outside the ag store simply disappear. Even while more and more of the town’s residents are being caught, drained of their blood, and turned into servants of the evil one, people are still eating reheated hamburgers from the McDonald’s in the next town over and getting home-canned corn from the metal shelves in the basement. And the Excellent Café is the last town business to close its doors. [Read more…]