I have some doubts. Please answer these questions honestly:
Was your father a “bagman”, delivering cash payoffs on the teeming and corrupt waterfront of New York City in the 1940’s?
Did your mother hunt down her kidnapper, who escaped from prison, before he could find and kidnap you?
Was someone in your Shaker Heights extended family an arsonist, and everyone else harboring a dark secret?
No, I didn’t think so. Things like those don’t happen to most of us. They happen in novels*, though, and we’re glad when they do. We’re entertained. We buy into those preposterous plots. We voluntarily suspend our disbelief and happily accept the actions of a bunch of characters who haul off and do things we would never do.
But wait…I object. We have so often invoked the “willing suspension of disbelief” that we accept it as a given. Of course readers will buy into whatever is happening in your paranormal romance with its shape-shifting hero! Of course readers will believe that your desperate-to-be-a-mom heroine bought a baby in a shady adoption!
Of course! You made it up! It’s a story! Everyone knows that. It couldn’t have happened and for that reason we’re entirely willing to believe that it could. Right? Um, wait a minute. Think about that. It doesn’t make sense. That’s saying that readers buy into preposterous plots precisely because they are preposterous. That’s relying on readers to proclaim, sure, give me characters who act in ways that no rational, law-abiding, well-adjusted citizen would act. Bring it on. The less I believe in your protagonist, the more I will be eager to see what insane thing he or she will do.
That isn’t true. It can’t be. The suspension of disbelief is not willing. Readers objections must be overcome. What is preposterous must become plausible. When human beings act outside the boundaries of family, community, law and reason, there has to be a reason that we believe that they will.
Causing readers to suspend disbelief starts with introducing a story world that feels real. The key to that is details. My mother’s kitchen is one thing. To you that probably doesn’t feel real. However, you might believe it more if I describe it like this: My mother’s kitchen with its gingham curtains, praying angel salt-and-pepper shakers, misshapen paper napkin holder made by me in seventh grade shop class, and shiny aluminum bread box. That’s more likely a kitchen you can believe in. That’s because you can see it. It’s humble and recognizable. It’s the “ordinary world” from which an adventurous protagonist will depart.
The preposterous events of a story aren’t automatically embraced by readers either. They key to that is admitting to readers, yeah, actually things like this don’t happen most of the time. This time is an exception, though, and here’s why… [Read more…]