“Suspension of Disbelief: Walking the Fine Line”
In many works of science fiction or fantasy, books or movies, the reader or viewer is often required to do what’s called “suspending disbelief.”
This means that the reader must gently suppress some of the logical response to features of the story in order to enjoy the story itself. This is not a bad thing, and it happens all the time, particularly in fantasy. That’s why it’s called fantasy. When you read Watership Down, you know quite well that rabbits aren’t intelligent, and can’t talk, but you easily overlook it to immerse yourself in the book. Talking animals in stories predates writing itself, which tells you how long people have been suspending disbelief to enjoy a good yarn, or a fable with a lesson.
It’s not all that easy, though. As a writer of fantasy or SF, you need to encourage the suspension, but not push it too far, and it’s way too easy to push it too far. The last thing you want from your reader is the response, “Oh, come on, now. I’m not buying this!” The response isn’t usually that specific in the reader’s mind, it’s more often just a nagging discomfort that the writing has some big bumps in it that are distracting from the story itself.
My own book, Roger Mantis, is a humorous take-off of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In this case, the victim of a surprise transformation into a giant insect is an 11-year old boy, Roger McGillicutty. Roger Mantis is about how Roger manages to deal with it, how his friends and family deal with it, and how Roger manages the loss of his baseball dreams and tries to find new ones.
To make the story work, it was essential that the people around Roger accept his transformation into a giant praying mantis much more easily than would probably happen in real life. Otherwise, the idea of Roger talking to friends, going to school, and trying to play baseball just wouldn’t work at all.
If I were totally realistic about the situation (other than the giant mantis itself), my book would have ended at Chapter Two with poor Roger up a tall tree with terrified townspeople waving pitchforks, shotguns, and torches down below. So, a little suspension of disbelief, please.
My first attempt at this was to directly follow the lead of The Metamorphosis, where the characters are almost weirdly blasé about Gregor becoming a huge bug. It’s more of a household inconvenience than anything else. Even Gregor seems more concerned about his work issues than his six legs.
So, I tried this with Roger Mantis. This moved the story along nicely, but … well, here’s an early draft from the start of my story, as Roger the Giant Mantis surprises his mother coming out of his bedroom:
His mother dropped the laundry basket, and clothes fell on the floor as she stared at Roger.
“Mom? Mom! It’s me! Roger!” Roger tried to hold his evil-looking claws behind his narrow back. It didn’t really work.
“Roger? Roger! What on earth have you done to yourself?” She looked at the floor. “Oh, no! My clean clothes!”
Okay, it’s funny, in a British humor kind of sense, but my editors thought it was a bit over the top as far as “acceptance” went. And if that’s what occurs to the reader first, instead of wanting to see what happens next, then you’ve gone over the suspension line. I had to agree with them, and the beginning of the book now has Roger hiding in the woods first, and his transformation is broken more slowly to his parents.
Okay, the level of acceptance is still a bit unrealistic, but hopefully not enough so that the reader gets pulled out of the book, and we can go on to the fun parts, and the real story of a boy dealing with something that can’t help but change his life drastically.
There were other issues of suspension of disbelief in Roger Mantis. The story depends on an entire town being able to mostly keep the secret of Roger’s existence. I placed the story back in the 70s to avoid the ubiquitous smartphones that make secrecy on almost anything impossible. But even so, it’s probably unlikely the existence of a giant talking insect wouldn’t leak out to a much larger extent than it did in the book. But by keeping it gentle, and having a few small leaks, I think I kept it within the suspension-of-disbelief limits.
And then of course, there’s the science. As one character in the book, Marlene, points out, a real giant insect couldn’t even stand up, and certainly couldn’t fly, but Roger does all these things easily. Weirdly, a character “hanging a lampshade” on something like this often actually helps the writer get across a disbelief hump. It kind of sends a message from the author to the reader, “Yeah, I know about this, but let’s all agree to overlook it together so we can have some fun.” Note to science fiction writers: you have a tougher row to hoe in this area than fantasy writers.
It’s not just about fantasy and science fiction, either. The suspension of disbelief problem can be an issue for any kind of story. Way too many coincidences in the plot? A first-class deus ex machina? A glaring plot hole? Even a mystery or romance book can fall afoul of these problems, and haul the reader uncomfortably out of the story.
Are there hard and fast rules to help with suspension of disbelief? Not really. The borderline between belief and disbelief depends on genre, writing style, humorous or serious, age of the target reader, and way too many other things.
So how do you deal with it? Experience helps, including a lot of reading in your chosen genre and age group, and some good beta readers. And of course, a good editor helps a lot more.
Roger Mantis: The Remarkable Transformation of Roger McGillicutty
Author: Tom Alan Borsz
Published April 2nd, 2019 by Tantrum Books
About the Book: Roger McGillicutty, 11, wakes up one Saturday morning and finds out he has unexpectedly transformed into a five-foot praying mantis.
His parents seem to be coping with it fairly well, and his dog Lou is okay with it, but how will the rest of the town of Highland Falls handle it? Roger has school on Monday, the carnival’s coming to town next week, and his Little League team is playing their biggest rival Centerville next Saturday. Being a giant bug will seriously cramp his style!
Or maybe not. Things begin to change when Roger performs a spectacular rescue of his classmates from a broken Ferris wheel.
Roger McGillicutty: a six-legged freak, or just possibly a superhero?
Roger’s story takes off from the famous beginning lines of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and then flies in an entirely different direction. Behind the adventure and the humor is a story about accepting who you are—your talents and limitations—and learning how to make the most of it.
About the Author: Tom Alan Brosz actually is a rocket scientist (sort of), having done design and engineering work in the private space industry back before the private space industry was cool. His qualifications for writing this book are that he has experience in raising children who like bugs and raising pet mantises for those children. Normal-sized mantises, of course.
Thank you so much for this guest post looking at the thought process into fantasy writing!