Suspension of Disbelief

I was reading a book the other day and grumbling as I read because the characters kept doing such stupid things. I don't like stupidity, and I really don't like when there's no good motivation for being stupid. I just couldn't buy into the story, and this was a big name author!

That started me analyzing what made the story and characters inaccessible to me -- what kept me from that all-important state of suspension of disbelief.

Remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge from high school English Lit class? He wrote the poem Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Of course, I learned in college English Lit that he would probably be diagnosed bipolar in today's world, not to mention that he had a lifelong opium habit. The opium probably explains some of his writing.

I'm digressing. Back to the willing suspension of disbelief, a phrase coined in 1817 by Coleridge. He thought that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a story, no matter how fanciful, that the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the story. In Coleridge's opinion, that suspension of disbelief was something created by the writer with the emotional truth he injected into the story.

Opinions Abound

Do you agree with Coleridge? Or do you agree with the popular opinion that developed in the latter part of the 20th century which shoved responsibility for achieving suspension of disbelief onto the reader, rather than the writer to create it by his skill. Did that happen because readers were more open to embracing fantastic premises?

Writer's Viewpoint

I think as writers we always look at situations from a writer's viewpoint. I don't think readers look at things the same way. For instance, if a writer is trying to create a situation in which the protagonist does something most people wouldn't do, the writer agonizes over how to make it believable to the reader. The writer jumps through all kinds of mental hoops to create a situation in which readers will suspend their disbelief and get involved in the story.

Reader's Viewpoint

Actually, I don't think most readers (who are non-writers) ever really think about that. They don't shop for books, picking up one after the other, with the thought, "No, I won't read that because it's too unbelievable." Or, "yes, I can suspend my disbelief and read this."

Otherwise, there would be no paranormal sales whatsoever or paranormal TV shows -- just look at the long list of TV shows with fantastical premises. Probably all book sales would suffer if readers were that analytical. Fewer romance, mystery, horror, everything in fact. When a reader wants a mystery, the reader probably doesn't pick up a book, read the blurb, and think: I don't believe the reason this sleuth is involved in the story.

Bottom Line

Regardless of the genre, readers follow the thought process of: "ah, this sounds intriguing." Or it doesn't sound interesting and they don't buy. Readers don't buy books based on whether the reason that the sleuth becomes involved suspends their disbelief. They buy based on the way the story or the character resonates with them.

I think this is true for every genre and may explain why writers are often shocked by huge sales on books they find, well, inferior. Those stories found an audience because some aspect resonated with readers. I think, as writers, we lose sight of the fact that storytelling ability often trumps writing skill. We get caught up in the mechanics of building a better mousetrap in hopes that the world of readers will beat a path to our door when maybe we should invest more in emotional truth -- in the human interest part of the equation.

Takeaway Truth

What do you think? What puts you in that state of being carried away by the story and its characters?


  1. I think being "carried away" is often a casualty of being a writer. Certain voices will give me that--though storylines won't, which goes right along with what you said about storytelling ability trumping writing skill. It does. Unless you're a writer.

    This is a great post, Joan.

    1. Thanks, Liz. Books from my keeper shelves still do that every time I read them. There's only 2 of those books that bring me back because of the storyline, and both are SF.

  2. Couldn't agree more with you and Liz, Joan. The Story is everything and if a writer brings me into her story, then I can sometimes give her a pass on head-hopping, too much backstory, overuse of adverbs, and all the other stuff writers get called out for. (Yeah, bad structure, sorry!) But, as a writer and an editor, the story has to be truly engaging or I'm stopped by bad skills. Like you, I agree, most readers buy books that intrigue them, that appeal to their own sense of romance or fantasy or whatever,and not by whether or not they accept the premise.

    1. Hello, Nan. Well said! The books I mentioned that draw me back again and again because of the intriguing premise aren't especially well written, but I overlook that because of the premise. Those books are Artifact by Gregory Benford (love the physics premise) and Ninja by Lustbader, the first of his Ninja books. (I lived in Japan several years and became fascinated by the culture. Ninjutsu was a hidden culture until Lustbader put a spotlight on it.

  3. "maybe we should invest more in emotional truth"

    I think that's all I have as a writer. Plots have been done. Even Shakespeare used old plots. The emotional truth is MY emotional truth as I have discovered it leading my life. Hopefully, readers can relate.

    1. Hey, Jan. Nicely put. I've written a lot about emotional truth/universal truth, and what you say is absolutely true. That underlying emotional truth is what hooks readers whether they realize it or not.

  4. I enjoy a story when it's well written and I can relate to it in some way. Maybe that's why I don't read paranormal. I don't mind 'incredible coincidence' even. Heck, last week I met on a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic through the Arctic North, neighbors who live in my building. If it was in a book, I'm sure an editor would have shouted, "stop there, too much of a coincidence."

    1. Welcome home, Mona. I guess you're home, right? Coincidence is rampant in life. We attended a party in another city and met people who knew our neighbors. Actually, that's happened twice.