Suspending Disbelief- Face Those Fears, Dispel Your Doubts

This week in the Tollbooth I’m talking about suspending disbelief and how to manage incredible situations in your fiction.

On Monday I said considering the problem of how to make the unbelievable seem real reminded me of trying court cases. One of the first rules of trying a case is face the problems with your side of the story head on. Deal with them. Don’t expect a juror … um make that a reader won’t notice.

Some examples-

In Marcelo In The Real World, Francisco X. Stork does a masterful job of making Marcelo, a teen with an Aspergers-like condition into a sleuth and social crusader. Marcelo is literal minded and follows the rules- always. He sees most things at face value and looks no deeper. But when he notices troubling inconsistencies in one of the legal files at his father’s law firm he investigates. Marcelo can barely figure out which bus to take but he tracks down evidence and proves … well I’ll save his startling discovery for you to find when you read this book. My point is in the “real” real world it’s highly unlikely a boy with Aspergers would uncover a plot to harm thousands of people and bring a corporation and its lawyers to justice. Stork knew that so he gave Marcelo, his mom, and his dad the same doubts as the reader about Marcelo’s abilities. Marcelo himself doesn’t know if he can pull this off. He doesn’t know if it’s right to do something that will help others but could harm his father. That makes it believable when Marcelo struggles then accomplishes his goals. The doubt also creates tension on every page. If Marcelo was a hot shot investigator, a young Woodward or Bernstein, we might not doubt his abilities but we also wouldn’t worry about him right up to the end.

Incredible situations pop up all the time in fantasy, even off beat fantasy. But when that fantasy happens in what seems to be our world an author must vault over big believablility hurdles. One of the best?

Thirsty by M. T. Anderson. Ordinary middle class Chris is turning into a vampire. Not just that. He’s being visited by the man with one piece hair- Satan or God or someone otherworldly. Soon Chris is wallowing in blood and gore. How did Anderson make the reader “swallow it”? By addressing the unbelievable stuff head on. In this book it’s a two step process. First Anderson tells us 1. There are bad vampires in this town and then 2. Weird changes are happening to Chris’ mind and body. These things are stated with authority. Anderson shoves both facts in the reader’s face. Believe this or put the book down. These are your only choices.

Anderson is a master of the opening paragraph (okay he’s a master of most everything writerly, but this especially.) Here’s how Thirsty starts-

“In the Spring, there are vampires in the wind. People see them scuffling along by the side of country roads. At night, they move through the empty forests. They do not wear black, of course, but things they have taken off bodies or bought on sale. The news says that they are mostly in the western part of the state, where it is lonely and rural. My father claims we have them this year because it was a mild winter, but he may be thinking of tent caterpillars.”

If you read this book from the first sentence you know you must accept that there are vampires. If you can’t do that this isn’t the book for you.

Anderson spends the first chapter making us care about Chris so we’re ready to worry and believe when he notices changes coming on.  “For a few months now, I have been feeling hungrier and hungrier. Food does not seem to fill me up… That night, after the lynching, after I am recognized by one of the damned, the hunger is very bad. I lie with my head on the pillow. Everyone else is asleep.”

Now do we want to believe Chris is changing into one of the damned? Even though we know in our rational minds that vampires don’t romp through Western Mass and small towns don’t hold public lynchings? You bet we do.

Have you written something unbelievable? Come on, admit it. Everybody has. What was it? How did you suspend disbelief?

~tami lewis brown