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Suspending Disbelief

Part One: An Introduction.



We’ve all seen our share of horror movies, and we’re all quite familiar by now with the moments in which the characters we’re rooting for or against act in a completely unrealistic manner.  This behavior includes creeping down the creaking steps into a darkened cellar to investigate the horrible noise they’ve just heard; splitting up in the deep dark woods to widen the search for a friend who has suddenly gone missing; and (my personal favorite) moving slowly through a house in which they suspect something terrible might be crouching in the shadows, but never turning on a single light along the way.


These are all huge lapses in logic, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve rolled my eyes and spoken aloud to the TV or movie screen when these lapses occur.


But here’s the thing: those moments, as overused and familiar as they are, represent a different sort of reality.  See, there’s the reality that you and I live in, in which we work and sleep and love and eat, and there’s another one that I like to call Fictional Reality.  This is the reality in which the characters in a movie, TV show or novel exist and thrive, and in which the dramas and fears of their lives (which we are observing as viewers or readers) play out on a day to day basis.  This reality is completely controlled by the novelist or screenwriter, and although that controlling, creative mind should be taking steps to maintain a sense of believability throughout the project, there is always the need to bend logic in order to provide the moments of comfortable familiarity that provide the thrills or chills in any given genre.


While the details of those moments will—by necessity—change from genre to genre, the need to utilize them remains the same.  In a science fiction setting for example, there must always be room for the scene in which a character reacts to a circumstance that he would have never imagined possible earlier in the project.  Dr. Grant’s first look at the living, moving, actual dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is a prime example of what I’m talking about.  The character is so obviously awed by what he’s seeing that many things are achieved all at once by the inclusion of that scene.  For starters, we as viewers share his reaction in a very real way.  We’re swept up in his feeling of awe, because, well, this is our first look at the dinosaurs as well.  And if the set-up is good and the actor can sell the scene, we buy into it.  And not only do we buy into it, we’re all the more willing to accept the impossibility of what unfolds throughout the rest of film.  In a very tangible way, from a writing standpoint, that’s the most important scene in the movie.  It’s the “hurdle” scene, meaning that if you can get your viewers to jump it and come down on the other side accepting what they just saw, then you’ve managed to suspend their disbelief enough to throw the rest of the impossible plot their way.


This principle applies in lesser and greater degrees across any genre and every form of story-telling, but is especially crucial in horror fiction.  To put it bluntly, if you’re going to put together a 300 page novel in which a bile-spewing demon rises from the pits of Hades to destroy mankind, then you better have one hell of a good hurdle.  If you want your readers invested in what’s happening on page 290, then it’s going to be important to have them believing by page 20 that anything coming their way is at least possible within the confines of the story.


And that’s the key phrase right there: within the confines of the story


Going back to our sci-fi example, anyone walking into the theater to see Jurassic Park already knows what they’re in for.  They bought their tickets knowing they were going to see giant dinosaurs chasing (and probably eating) screaming human beings.  Yes, they know it’s impossible, they know it’s never going to happen in real life, but to some degree they’ve already bought into the idea of it just by forking over their cash at the ticket window. 


The good news is that this is also true for your bile-spewing demon story.  Anybody who buys the book, whether that purchase is based on the back cover description of the plot or the cool-as-hell front cover art you’ve hopefully been graced with, they’re already aware of what they’re in for.  So it’s your job, as the writer, to give them what they’ve paid for, but in a way that makes the impossible seem real.

Part Two: Creating Fictional Reality.


In Part One, I alluded to the necessity of allowing your characters to suffer certain lapses in logic in order to fuel the thrills and chills that will hopefully keep your horror project crackling along.  Today, I’d like to expand on that strategy by adding this one extra bit of advice: your characters can be dumb, but they can’t be stupid.  By that I mean that we all have our moments where we do something dumb.  We’re all human, and we all make mistakes.  Your characters should too, but never at the expense of credibility.


Let’s take the example of the person going down into the creepy, dark cellar to investigate the sound they heard in their empty house.  It may just be a simple mistake on their part to mount that sort of search, but anyone who has seen their share of horror movies is going to immediately call them stupid.  Because, let’s face it, if you’re home alone and you hear a demonic moan floating up your cellar stairs, I don’t care how brave or immortal you feel, there’s no way in hell you’re going down there to check things out.


But think about this for a moment: while having that same character who just heard the noise turn around and flee the house may lend a more tangible sense of realism to your story, what’s it going to do to the fear quotient?  Well, it won’t squash it completely; you can still turn that scene of running away into a good page or page and a half of premium fear, but that’s about it.  And sooner or later, you’re still going to have to get them back into that house to explain what the noise was all about.  In contrast, the character’s descent down the stairs and into the cellar with only the flickering light of a flashlight to guide him will be a far more effective chill-generator than a short and rather anti-climactic escape into the night.  And hell, if you play your cards right, you can drag that scene out over four or five pages.  And no reader is going to put down your book in the middle of a scene like that if you have your hooks in them.  They’re going to need to know what made the noise and what’s going to happen to your character.


So, yeah, you almost have to write the scene that way.  You have to sacrifice a little bit of logic in order to provide the scares your reader put down his money to experience.  The trick is to do it with an eye towards keeping it real, within the confines of the story.  That’s right.  There are those words again: within the confines of the story.


We’ve already established the fact that no one in their right mind, in our current reality, would investigate that noise.  But within the reality that you’ve worked hard to establish and maintain in your story, there’s always room to stretch believability if it can be made to feel logical (even momentarily) to your character at the time that the event takes place.  This could take the shape of crafting a damn good reason why the character must investigate immediately, something you can achieve by giving the story a ticking clock or a deadline.  Maybe this guy has a good head on his shoulders and doesn’t even want to go into the cellar, but he just has to, or whatever vital clue or piece of information he needs will be lost if he doesn’t do it now, before back up arrives.  Hell, Indiana Jones hated snakes, but he still lowered himself into that tomb, and we all believed it completely.  I know I didn’t think he was stupid at all.


That’s not to say that a momentary lapse of reason on the part of your character can’t be a viable excuse either.  Like I said, we all make mistakes, and if your character doesn’t make one occasionally, he’s not going to feel real.  His mistake in this case could be as simple as believing the noise downstairs is due to some common thing that happens in his house all the time in certain weather.  (Of course, it’ll be your job to foreshadow that with evidence earlier in the story that will support his belief.)

Readers will not only forgive these moments if you treat them with respect, they’ll most likely retain them in their memory as the creepiest scenes in your book or screenplay, simply because they deliver the goods and up the scare quotient.  As long as you handle them realistically.


Part Three: Suspending Disbelief, Realistically.


One of the most difficult things about writing in the horror genre is making the impossible seem not only possible, but believable.  We all know there are no such things as vampires and werewolves, and while there is a surprisingly prevalent public belief in hauntings and the supernatural, there has never been any substantial evidence in support of ghosts or evil spirits to prove their existence beyond the shadow of a doubt. 


What this means is that there will be an initial hard-wired reluctance to completely buy into the reality you’re working so hard to create in your horror novel.  Don’t feel slighted by that; it’s really unavoidable.  The vast majority of readers picking up your book have been conditioned to believe, deep inside, that the things they’re about to read could never happen.  Let’s face it: you’re fighting an uphill battle, trying to convince someone that something they already know is impossible to believe that, hey, this time it is possible. 


But here’s the catch: this is where those words I’ve alluded to again and again come into play.  You don’t have to convince the reader that these impossible circumstances and events are possible in their own day to day lives; you just have to convince them, little by little, that they are possible within the confines of the story.


That’s right.  And a very effective way to do that is to let your main character become convinced.  If you’ve done your leg work to make him realistic and believable, than the chances are good that your reader has identified with him in some way and has invested himself in both caring about your character and worrying about what might happen to him.  Because of this, and because your readers are seeing the story unfold through the eyes and emotions of the main character, they will therefore share—to some degree, at least—the character’s opinions and beliefs.  And so if your character starts out not believing at all in whatever supernatural events are taking place around him, your readers will identify with that immediately.  Likewise, they will identify with the change in his beliefs when he witnesses the impossible, and then share in his admission that perhaps he was wrong about the supernatural all along.


In this way, you’ll be suspending the disbelief on the part of the reader by doing the same thing for a main character which your reader has come to identify with.  You’re letting the reality within the confines of your story create a new temporary reality for your readers.  It’s the most effective method to pull this off that I can think of, but be warned: like all things that work well, it presents the possibility of being overused.  Employing this strategy in every book and story will make it begin to feel contrived and unoriginal, so don’t be afraid to reach for another method from your writer’s toolbox now and again.


One of those other tools, which requires a bit more work up front, is to build your fiction upon a strong foundation of fact.  Laying out a few real, historical examples of a certain event right out front in your book or story can be a very successful way to lull your reader into a sense that what he’s reading is actual fact.  Everyone has heard about the Bermuda Triangle, and describing a few of the more well- known factual ship and airplane disappearances in its vicinity would be a convincing lead in to a horror project that takes place there.  The drift between the factual disappearances you start off talking about and the fictional one you piggy-back on top of them will be indistinguishable, and an unwary reader will be convinced at first that what he’s reading is still based in fact.


Not that I want to make a habit of citing the same example over and over when I pointed out the impossibility of the existence of the dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park, but the opening chapters of Michael Crichton’s source novel employ the strategy I just described to remarkable effect.  By laying out a short history of the cloning process at the beginning of the book, Crichton masterfully moves the reader to the present time and lays out the cloning of the dinosaurs in the exact same way: as fact.  And it works beautifully.


Further on down the ladder, there are other various approaches to this same issue, and some are more reliable than others.  We’ll take a look at those in my next post.


Part Four: The Impossible As Fact.


This method of suspending disbelief seems to work better in some genres more than others, and although it’s most successful in fantasy and science fiction (and also in horror, though to a lesser degree), it seems poorly suited for crime fiction or anything else where the reality in the story must mirror our own very closely.  You would think that the more closely your chosen genre is rooted in reality, the easier it would be to suspend a reader’s disbelief, but this isn’t always necessarily true.  There have been countless books written and movies produced in which a reality that is supposed to be more or less a mirror image of our own fails miserably to convince.  For a prime example of what I’m talking about here, look no further than the movie Death Wish 3.  And don’t get me wrong, I love Charles Bronson movies, but the situations presented in this particular flick are so far-fetched and the characters so over-the-top evil that any sense of reality the story tries to establish (and therefore any bit of suspense or excitement we might feel as viewers) is thrown out the window almost immediately.


Regarding our own quest to suspend disbelief, however, let’s look at one more strategy, which I’ve always thought of as approaching the impossible as fact.


In the simplest terms, it’s merely the practice of dropping your readers into a world that already exists, and where the action is already happening, no matter how unlikely or strange it might seem on the surface.  When you think about The Lord of the Rings, you realize that Tolkien spent no time at all in its early pages trying to convince his readers of the reality that existed within his story.  He doesn’t tell you to keep an open mind, and he expends no energy at all trying to compare the novel’s inner reality to our own.  He simply jumps right in and begins telling this huge and impossible story as if it is fact, and that it is the most believable and natural thing in the world. 


The same can be said of movies like Mad Max: Fury Road.  Sure, director George Miller was able to establish its central universe in his previous movies, but in a very tangible way, Fury Road works very well as a stand-alone movie.  And viewers are dropped immediately into its internal reality with barely a few lines of background dialog.  We’re merely supposed to look around very quickly and accept: okay, yes, this is the way the world is now, and so we’re instantly involved in the story.


Both of those examples, however, are culled from the genres of fantasy and science fiction/action, and as you can imagine, such a strategy couldn’t be utilized effectively in a standard mystery or crime novel.  The realities described in those genres must by nature feel very organic and true to life, as readers and viewers are being asked to believe that these stories are taking place in the same slice of life reality that already exists around them.  The criminals and cops in these stories should be very much like the ones we see and hear about in the news just about every day.  So in cases like this, any suspension of disbelief necessary to tell the story must fall on the characters themselves.  They must be convincing, not only in persona and personality, but also in such matters as convictions and motivations.


And here’s where things can get tricky.

Part Five: Reality Through Characterization.


It’s a safe bet to say that if your characters don’t feel real to a reader, then the internal reality you’re trying to build up around them will just fall flat on its face.  If your hero is too perfect or your villain too evil, then there’s a better than average chance that they’ll feel generic and familiar to your audience.  Your hero should be flawed, with all the petty weaknesses and fears that any of us must struggle with every day, and your villain—no matter how evil his intentions—should have some bit of humanity with which a reader can identify.  Of course, both of these are noble ambitions, and it means more work for the writer in terms of creating some behind-the-scenes back story, but the payoff of breathing life into what feels like a real human being as a main character instead of a cardboard cut-out that we’ve all seen a hundred times far outweighs the extra time spent at the keyboard.


Best of all, a fleshed-out, realistic character will provide the foundation of reality that’s necessary to suspend the disbelief of your audience.  When you take a minute to think about it, the sooner your reader identifies with one of your characters, the sooner they will become involved in the story and begin to accept its inner reality.  Because when we care about someone, we become invested in their successes and failures, and fictional characters are no different.  When we’re deeply involved in a book or a movie, we react emotionally to what our favorite characters are going through.  For proof of that, think about some of your favorite books and movies.  Sure, you’ll recall certain scenes or action sequences more than others, and maybe some particular string of prose will come back to you as a favorite.  But chances are, your fondest memories of that favorite book are centered upon a memorable character that reached you in some way.


Try to imagine A Clockwork Orange without the character of Alex, or think of what a short shelf life Psycho would have had without Norman Bates.  These are not only well-drawn, flesh-and-bone characters, they have actually come to define their source material.  Over the years, readers and viewers may forget many of the plot detail of those particular classics, but they will never forget the main characters who carried the weight of those plots on their shoulders.


Taking the time to create a character who is so completely believable and relatable goes a long way towards fulfilling your goal of convincing your readers that the inner reality of your project is solid and believable.  Because, as I said, if they believe in your character, and they begin to care about him, even some of the less credible threats he faces in your story will seem real to them.  There is undoubtedly a certain percentage of viewers who tune into The Walking Dead every week simply to watch the zombie carnage and realistic gore effects, but I’d bet a substantial amount of money that the majority of the faithful audience comes back to the show again and again because of their enjoyment of, infatuation with, or just plain love for some character or another.  Witness the huge social media firestorm and outcry that follows the death of any major character and you can see that the writers of that show have done a fine job in creating characters that viewers sometimes forget aren’t real.


Casting your story with characters like this puts the readers—in a very real way—in the palm of your hand.  Once you have them there, you can manipulate their feelings and emotions as you show them the extremes of your fictional world and develop your plotlines in ways that would seem unforgivable with characters who feel artificial.


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