Use an editing pass to produce a map of your reader’s suspension of disbelief in your story. Once you’ve created a universe in which your reader is immersed, you can focus on polishing your manuscript for publication.
You want readers to immerse themselves in your story. This means they will be living inside the book because they want to be there — for all the great reasons you have given them. This means they will read to the end and hopefully pass it on to others as a great read.
The key to immersion is suspension of disbelief, a term coined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817. Coleridge hoped readers would feel a willingness to submit to the emotions of his words while reading his poems, and he writes: “With this view, I wrote the ‘Ancient Mariner’…”
Suspension of disbelief really means you want readers to give themselves over to what you have written. You want them to trust you as an author and know you won’t let them down by leaving them hanging or otherwise misguiding, confusing, or frustrating them with your writing.
In a nutshell, it comes down to whether readers believe what you’ve written. Does your story resonate or does it sound inauthentic? Do the words carry the images, emotions, and actions you want, or are they awkward, unwieldy, and empty?
Suspension of disbelief just means forgetting the words are there and going with the story. It means you cry at the plight of a fictional character. You get scared of made-up monsters. You fill your heart with love for a fictional lead in a romance. You root for a non-existent underdog.
You know when you suspend disbelief upon starting a book. You also know when you pop back out of it because something just doesn’t sit right in a story. The moment you think, “this book is too long” or “Jules would never say that!” you are back in the real world.
It often takes a while at the beginning of a book for readers to suspend disbelief. If they don’t fall in quickly enough, they will put down the book. How many books have you abandoned because you “just couldn’t get into it?”
So, one quality of a great read is you suspend disbelief very early on — within the first few paragraphs or pages — and enjoy it until the last page. You likely still linger in that suspended state for a while after the book is done.
A lot is going on under the hood to trigger suspension of disbelief. The myriad factors can’t easily be dissected. In many ways, this is the magic of writing. It’s near impossible to dictate how to achieve this grand goal.
It involves a reader’s willingness to detach — to some degree — from reality and allow the limbic system to experience deep emotion. Thus, the more evocative the text, the more likely readers are to submit to it. It’s easier to do and they have more to gain.
Suspension of disbelief requires enough detail for readers to know where to place their attention, to be curious about what comes next, and to be comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty. Well-engineered uncertainty is the lifeblood of great stories. Who is the killer? How will this couple get together by the end of the book? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Is he a loyal spy or a double agent? Is she telling the truth? Does he really love her? Is this a trap? How will the superhero escape that disaster? What will happen next?
A great way to halt suspension of disbelief is to jam the reader’s mind with unintentional uncertainty. In a draft, these moments will stand out like a sore thumb and raise a bunch of noisy questions. Often, issues unresolved in the beginning of the book will start to amplify, the uncertainties compound. If readers fail to grasp the motivations and core facts about characters or events because they are incompletely imagined or described, how can they enjoy ongoing events?
Testing for suspension of disbelief is the primary reason you need external readers. You can’t really test this for yourself. Until you ask for a judgment from external readers, you can’t measure your level of success for sure.
Mapping suspension of disbelief
So, how would this work?
It could be done with comments in a Word document, asking your beta reader to mark where he’s suspended his disbelief, and if it stops, detail where and why. If the draft is very mature and well-conceived, this will be a very simple mark-up. If the draft needs work and the reader dips in and out, it becomes a set of annotations. These annotations provide a map for the author to navigate through strong and weak sections, compare them, and fix as required in a quest to have a reader permanently suspend his or her disbelief.
“Yes, the scene passes!”
“No, it doesn’t quite – and here’s why.”
If there are small slips, they will likely be easy to fix. If a reader never suspends disbelief, there are far more serious problems. Getting there in the first place is a key goal of the beginning of any book.
The more insights a reader can give the better. If a scene flies by beautifully in an absorbing manner, a reader might be able to say why. Comments might be something like, “I loved the action, I was on the edge of my seat, I couldn’t wait to see what happened, the dialogue was so real.” If a scene doesn’t pass, ideally a reader can offer equally valuable insights. Comments might be things like, “I got confused, this seems to contradict a previous scene, I don’t believe this character would do this, it’s inconsistent.”
This editing process produces a map of your reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief in your story. Do you have a lot of work ahead or are you near the finish line? Once you have created a universe in which your reader can suspend disbelief from front to back, you can focus on heightening and polishing your manuscript for publication.
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