Posted by: Kathleen Mix | June 5, 2013

Truth or Consequences

Fiction succeeds when readers are willing to suspend their disbelief and accept the possibility that the story before them could happen as told. When details are logical and convincing on page one and every page thereafter, we feel the author can be trusted to tell the truth. Even if we’re reading about astronauts exploring a distant planet five hundred years in the future, a well-written book that conforms to the laws of physics, follows the principles of science, and reinforces what we know about human nature allows us to believe that, if we traveled to that planet, the events would be possible and the characters might act as described.
Fiction fails when authors lie, either intentionally or due to a lack of research, and lose our trust. If they tell us the moon was full on Monday night and null on Wednesday, we roll our eyes. We know the truth: fourteen days must pass before a full moon will wane completely and give way to a new moon. We recognize the author’s false facts and begin questioning the rest of his or her words.
If she tells us her protagonist is a couch potato, and then he suddenly does something we find implausible, like swimming the English Channel, we huff out our breath and mutter, “Right. And I’m Michael Phelps.”
The author has destroyed our acceptance of the story. The magic bubble that supports fiction is broken, and we’re no longer willing to suspend our disbelief.
New writers who manipulate the truth to force events in their work often suffer the consequences of reader lack of trust. Critique partners, beta readers, and editors tell them their story isn’t believable. The book or manuscript languishes and dies.
Experienced writers build their stories on a strong foundation of fact. Their hurricanes don’t strike Washington, D.C. in February. When they say the moon is full, it doesn’t set at midnight. When they show us the protagonist working off his frustrations by swimming laps in a pool on page one, we’re willing to believe he could succeed at swimming across a mile-wide river on page two hundred. We nod and think: that’s the way life is, something like that could happen.
Writers often stretch the limits of plausibility in the name of a better story. Those who are successful pull us into their fictional world by presenting a situation that is credible. They gain our trust. And when an author gains our trust, we believe scientists can grow dinosaurs from DNA, we believe secret cults exist within the Catholic Church, we believe ghosts and vampires roam among us. We’re ready, willing, and eager to suspend our disbelief.


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