Willing suspension of disbelief is exactly what it says on the tin. Readers want to immerse themselves in the world of your book, and so they’re willing to accept blatant impossibilities. This is what fantasy runs on.
However, there’s a limit to willing suspension of disbelief. This is why readers who have no qualms with dragons and magic will angrily put down a book and say, “I can’t believe that Alice and Lucy just kissed! They had no chemistry—this is so far-fetched!”
Things that are important for willing suspension of disbelief:
This means that everything in the world, no matter how fantastic, behaves consistently (even if it’s consistently inconsistent). Internal consistency makes it easier for readers to conceptualize the more fantastic elements of the story. Based on what they are shown, readers form ideas about how each thing works. When internal consistency fails, these expectations are thrown off in a way that leaves readers confused and disoriented, causing them to pull back from the story. On the other hand, a world where things fit together seamlessly begins to feel real. Knowing the rules that govern your world and what the exceptions are is a good place to start.
Plot twists that come out of left-field tend to strain suspension of disbelief, especially when they introduce elements that were initially outside of the story’s scope. Think aliens arriving in the last quarter of the Victorian romance novel. This is jarring–it takes everything that the reader knows about the story and invalidates it. Foreshadowing and set up are key because either
The reader begins to pick up on what’s going on and by the time that the reveal has come, they’ve already shifted their expectations to accommodate the new information.
- The reader has no clue what’s going on but once they get over their surprise, they can go back and see that the twist has actually been within the realm of possibility the entire time.
Readers come into the story with certain expectations about human (and quasi-human) behavior. No matter how strange the world of the story is, human nature is expected to remain the same. For this reason, character interactions are incredibly important to willing suspension of disbelief. Characters who are inadequately motivated, have inappropriate emotional responses, and whose relationships are guided by the Plot Gods become difficult to believe because no matter how hard the writer tries to pass them off as human, they’re somehow off. The same often goes for characters who have no flaws, have nothing but flaws, or who start off believable but are derailed (the dark, poorly executed counterpart of character development).
Things that aren’t:
If readers have suspended their disbelief, they’ve accepted that things don’t need to be factually accurate. The first implication of this is that you can stop struggling to explain fire-breathing dragons using actual biology (unless you consider this part of the fun). Real world explanations don’t make fantastic elements any more or less believable. The second implication is that, in settings that aren’t strictly historical, historical accuracy goes out the window. Lady-knights leading the vanguard? Absolutely. Riding hippogriffs? Bring it on.
When it comes to suspension of disbelief, the way that you tell the story is often more important than it’s content.Try summing up the plots of your favorite fantasy novels in a sentence or two–a lot of silly concepts make for excellent, immersive stories. Readers will not fault you for making stuff up. Making stuff up is your job.
That said, if you do include facts or attempt to pass off information as fact it should be correct. Otherwise you open up a different kind of plausibility problem.
You should have a set of rules that govern your world, but you never need to disclose what all of those rules are or why they work. The important ones will come out over the course of the story. The ones that aren’t will naturally fall by the wayside without drawing too much attention. More explanation doesn’t mean more believability—in fact, excessive explanation can get in the way of the story and can poke holes in believability if they aren’t done well.
Writing like a boss: Up the immersion factor
Address Inconsistencies In-World
Once every 5.4 articles, I say that readers take their cues from the characters. If something seemingly inconsistent happens in the story, allow the characters to react to it. If the characters treat it like a strange or extraordinary event, it becomes a plot point. If they’re curious, it becomes a driving question.
This is why people come down on certain YA and romance novels for their portrayal of unhealthy relationships. Take Twilight. The problem isn’t that Bella is in an abusive relationship. Lots of YA books deal with dating violence, stalking, and obsession. What made many readers pull back was the fact that almost no one in-universe treated it like a problem. This–not the sparkling vampires–is what struck people as unrealistic.
Pay Attention to Detail
Use of details can be used to strengthen immersion in the story, which increases the audience’s willingness to believe in what’s going on. Naming locations and characters, providing concrete details, and adding a bit of specificity to actions (instead of “Charlie tripped,” describing what he tripped on, how he fell, etc.) help ground the scene and allow readers to anchor themselves in the world.
So does consistency in details—if Jane starts the scene with a cup of coffee, she either needs to have it at the end of the scene, or get rid of it somewhere along the way. Keeping track of items is important because it cuts down on potential loose ends and it creates a sense of permanence, which makes the world of the story appear more real.