Sunday, April 13, 2008

Suspension of Disbelief, or Keeping the Magic Alive

After recently finishing “Heart Shaped Box” by Joe Hill, (Very, very good read. Some language people might find offensive, but he is definitely his father’s son. In fact I liked the ending much better than most of Stephen King’s novels.), I started his “20th Century Ghosts” last week.

So far I am really enjoying this book of short stories. However the third story in the book, “Pop Art,” was especially remarkable. It begins with this sentence. “When I was twelve years old, my best friend was inflatable.” Now before you start getting any funny ideas, let me clarify. This is a story about two twelve year-old boys, one of whom is inflatable. Not a doll mind you. But an inflatable boy.

The narrator says this about his friend. “The condition Art suffered from is one these genetic things that plays hopscotch with the generations, like Tay-Sachs (Art told me once that he had a grand-uncle, also inflatable, who flopped one day into a pile of leaves and burst on the tine of a buried rake).”

Now imagine for a minute that you just came up with the idea for this story. Your friend asks, “What’s the story about?” You answer with a straight face, “A twelve year old kid with an inflatable friend.” Your friend says something like, “That’s the lamest idea I ever heard.”

The idea is completely crazy. I mean how could the reader possibly be expected to believe in an inflatable kid? But the thing of it is, you do. I did. When the inflatable boy is nearly popped, the reader is actively concerned for his well being. The author has you worrying about a kid with a blow-up valve on his shoulder.


Primarily it’s about something called suspension of disbelief. In simpler terms it means that the reader wants to believe your story. Interestingly enough Stephen King himself, compares it to a magician and an audience. When people go to a magic show, they are trying to figure out the tricks. They don’t want to believe the performer up on the stage is actually doing magic. They don’t want to be tricked.

With a book however, it’s exactly the opposite. The reader wants to believe in magic. That’s one of the main reasons they’ve opened the book in the first place. They want to believe in spells, and wizards, and ghosts, and inflatable boys. They are giving the author the benefit of the doubt and it’s up to the author not to let them down.

How does an author maintain that belief the reader has given him or her? First off by being consistent. In the case of Pop Art, Hill shows us that the boy can’t talk because he has no mouth. He has to write on a tablet hung around his neck. (With crayons of course. No sharp pencils.) He shows the boy being batted up into the air by some bullies with a Wiffle bat. He even has a little story to explain why Art wasn’t circumcised. (Art is a Jewish inflatable boy.) It’s a great story. You completely believe in Art. You like him. You worry for him.

The next thing is that you have to create rules and stick to those rules. Art can’t run fast because he basically has no muscles. But he can jump quite high, quite quickly. He is prone to the same problems any inflatable would be prone to. He has to be regularly inflated. He must avoid sharp objects. He is easily knocked around. By sticking to the rules, Hill keeps us believing.

These same rules apply to fantasy. Magic is one of the toughest things to deal with in a fantasy novel. The biggest problem is how magic works. What limits are placed on it.

As an author you have to decide the “rules” of magic. Is there a limit to it? Must it recharge? Who can use it and where does it come from? Even if you don’t call the magic magic, you still must have rules. JK Rowling gets around quite a bit of this by limiting how magic can be used in front of muggles. She also has the kids learn a little more as they go.

Of course there are always going to be loopholes. Why, for instance, are the Weasleys so poor if they can transmute one thing to another? If you can change a mouse to a cup, why not change an orange to a diamond? But early on Rowling showed us Gringotts Vault. By showing us that even magic folk protected their money, we accept that for some reason there is still a currency. Maybe magic coins can’t be conjured? It doesn’t really matter as long as we are consistent.

Another thing an author must do if he is going to maintain disbelief is prepare the reader for things to come. By showing us early how good Harry Potter is on a broom right from the start, it is okay later to have him use that talent in Quidditch, the Tri-Wizard tournament, etc. In fact we even add to the belief when we learn that genetics are in play as Harry’s father was a great Seeker. It would have completely pulled us out of the story if Harry hadn’t discovered he was good on a broom until he needed it to get out of a scrape.

Another thing that is key, is characterization. Recently I was talking to a friend about a book she wasn’t too impressed with. “Even in the middle of the battle,” she said, “I didn’t care what happened.” That’s because the character hadn’t become real to her. Every major character, good or bad, must have believable motives. They must have side stories. I would not have cared near as much about what happened to Art if I hadn’t come to really like him as a person. In the moments when we share his hopes and dreams, we forget he is inflatable.

The great thing about being a fantasy author is that I know my readers are looking for cool things. They want a world that surprises and mystifies them. They want fanciful creatures and exciting adventures. The downside is that fantasy readers, ironically enough, are the toughest to sneak anything by on. If I explain why some things change when they go from one world to another—or if I even have the characters make an educated guess but leave open that more information may be forthcoming—readers will accept it. But if I just randomly have some things change and others not, they will eat me alive.

So what keeps you believing, and what pulls you out of the story?


Bellezza said...

What a fascinating post, especially for me who doesn't naturally reach for fantasy as her favorite genre. I've had trouble with suspension of disbelief before, particularly with John Irving novels. (C'mon, you expect me to believe this girl falls in love with a bear? Hotel New Hampshire.) However, the older I get, the more bizarre things I actually see happening in our real world. Often, in such an instance, I shake my head and say to myself, "This is like a John Irving novel." But, it's real life. So, I guess anything's possible; as you say, we'll go along with the story if the author has set it up with a good foundation and we want to belief in the first place.

Bellezza said...

Uh, I meant "believe" in the last sentence. Typeing too fast, here, without my contacts.

Anonymous said...

You summed things up pretty well about how to suspend disbelief. One of the biggest things that throw me off is when the rules, whether of the magic system or of the real world, are broken. For example, in Eldest by Christopher Paolini, I found it really hard to believe that a village of untrained people would successfully defeat a bunch of soldiers when the villagers say "don't kill any of the soldiers!" It just didn't make sense. It made me want to throw the book across the room.

If the rules are going to be broken, I want the author to acknowledge that he did it deliberately, or I will think that he is stupid. This acknowledgement can come either by setting a foundation as you mentioned, or just by the characters saying that they didn't expect that to happen. They don't even have to make an educated guess as to why. That reaction tells me that the author broke the rules deliberately instead of ignorantly. Hence, the explanation should come out by the end, and I am satisfied to wait.

Brian said...

When I'm reading a good book, the only thing that will tear me out of it is a whack on the head. When reading a book, one thing that will tear me from it, that isn't a whack on the head, is a gap. When not enough happens in a period of time. I actually kind of like finding something changed randomly. It makes me feel like I observed something fairly well. In the Warriors books, I found that in one book, a character's eyes were one color, and in another book, they were a different color. I kind of like that.

Stephanie said...

A great post!! And it's excellent timing since I just started 20th Century Ghosts this morning!! When I started reading Pop Art, I was a little confused. Strange way to begin a story....but it worked!!!

You just have to keep an open mind when reading. I think things that aren't always what they seem!

trish said...

I think this is an excellent question. I haven't read too much's something that I've become interested in recently and will read more after the wedding. :-)

This is where you will see a difference in good authors and great authors. With good authors, at some point I get jarred out of my 'suspension of disbelief' by something that just doesn't seem plausible, despite the fact that I want to believe it. A great author always keeps you hovering in that 'suspension of disbelief' where everything really does seem possible by the rules that they've set up. Ultimately, this transcends into all genres, because if something doesn't seem possible, it will mar our opinion of the book.

For example, in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, as much as I wanted the ending to be different, had it ended differently, I would have been disappointed because the story had been set up in such a way that a different ending was 'impossible'.

As I'm typing this, I'm thinking that perhaps this is where you see the difference between authors who write a story and authors who tell a story. JK Rowling said (if I remember correctly) that she cried when Dumbledore died. She knew it was going to happen, but she was helpless to change it because that's the way the story was playing out. She's telling a story that in essence has already played out; the characters have a life of their own and she is merely relaying it. Authors who write a story tweak things to their needs, oftentimes ending up with something that makes the reader say, Huh? How is that possible?

Maybe I should have just left it at, Good question, Scott! :-)

Park Avenue Princess said...


You know that I LOVED Heart-Shaped Box, and I loved 20th Century Ghosts as well. I'm having trouble finding Pop Art. Last time I tried, which was at least a few months ago, I couldn't seem to find it. Can you help me?


Oh and I'm definitely on my way over to Mr. Bean's to find out why he hasn't posted about the tour! lol