After watching a television series about the life of St. Teresa de Jesus, my husband and I viewed the special bonus about the making of the film, in the early 1980s. One scene showed travelers, using conveyances common to the 16th century, moving toward several parked trucks. Another scene showed vehicles parked behind a village facade. An outtake showed St. Teresa speaking, with a contemporary woman standing in the corner. Still another demonstrated how the director coached an actor on his voice inflection on one phrase several times. I thought about how everyone involved was forced to suspend personal disbelief to convey a realistic portrayal of each scene to the viewing audience.
Likewise, as readers, sometimes we must suspend our disbelief to keep engaged in a story. For instance, is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet entirely believable? And unlike Hansel and Gretel, I’ve never found a gingerbread house in a forest.
But we suspend disbelief for one or more reasons, such as:
1.) We value what the author has to say.
2.) We love the writing.
3.) The plot is compelling.
4.) We care about the characters.
However, readers are willing to suspend only a certain amount of disbelief. They might go along with one irregularity or two, but the overarching story must make sense.
And the pretext of the story must hold together. For example, what caused the apocalypse? Why did the mother abandon her children? A sensible pretext helps round out characters and induce readers’ sympathy for them, plus engages them in your story.
Also, the story’s linchpin can’t happen because of a coincidence. A minor coincidence might move the plot along early on, but with the possible exception of comedy, a coincidence that brings everything together usually won’t feel satisfying to the reader.
Even in fantasy, a created world and race of aliens must make sense. Fantasy is a playground for disbelief, but it still must be coherent.
And finally, fiction must be even more plausible than real life. In reality, you may never know why a relationship crumbled, or the real reason someone died. But readers of a novel want to know all the reasons. They want to make sense of your story, and by extension, to make sense of the world.
Have you ever given up on a book when the plot ceased to make sense?
What is the best book you’ve read that asked you to suspend disbelief to enjoy the plot?
What will make you stay with an unrealistic story?