Friday, September 25, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief: Story World Rules

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Today, we're continuing the series I started last Friday on suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is a fancy phrase for something that happens very naturally for most audiences. When we come to a story, be it on television, in a theatre, or between the covers of a book, we do so with the desire to be entertained. More often than not, we are happy to believe implausible things for the sake of hearing a really good story.

Suspension of disbelief happens on some level with most any tale, but for reader and author alike, fantasy and science fiction often require a higher level of commitment. In these genres, specifically, it's exceptionally important that the author create a world so compelling that the readers' doubts are readily set aside. 

Taken out of context, out of their story world, we have to try very hard to believe in Orcs and Goblins, in immortal Elves and towering Ents. But within the masterfully created Middle Earth, it's not difficult at all. Because Tolkien put time and effort into the creation of his world, we willingly suspend any disbelief that would dare creep up on us while we read. In this way, we become invested in the story. Invested in the fictional creatures and we freely feel their plight.

There's an argument out there that claims the reader assumes the burden of responsibility when it comes to suspending their disbelief. That when a reader comes to a story, they must choose to set aside their preconceived ideas and simply believe what is put before them.

I think there's truth to the argument, but I think in most cases this is happily done and as long as the author holds up their end of the deal, as long as the author does not screw it up, the reader will remain in a state of suspended disbelief. A little too philosophical? Maybe. 

Why don't we talk about how your story world construction fits into this discussion? 

Story worlds, specifically fantastical ones, must be built on rules. In some stories the rules play a large part in the plot. In other stories, the rules act more like boundaries, but whatever the case may be, you must be careful not to violate your own story world rules. If you do, you open the door in the reader's mind to doubt.

When I was writing Angel Eyes, I was very conscious of this truth. Believing in the supernatural--as I do--I genuinely believe that, with God, all things are possible. But I knew that if I wanted readers to suspend their disbelief, I could not have God swoop in and fix everything at the end. I needed to show that my characters were bound by the rules of the world they were living in.

So, while I believe that angels are immortal, spiritual warfare makes little sense to my human brain if angels and demons cannot be injured. To solve that story problem, I created rules. I had to decide what angelic warfare would look like, who it would affect and how exactly, and then I had to commit not to break those rules. 

When we think about all the fantastical worlds that use magic, we realize they are constructed uniquely. In some books, magic can be conjured simply by thinking or speaking, but in the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling makes it clear that wands are necessary for casting spells. This is an important piece of information and a rule she exploits to her great advantage. 

Without spoiling the books for new readers, think about how devastated we all were when So-and-so's wand broke. And what a wand it was! A very special wand, with powers So-and-so had greatly depended on. When we found out the wand couldn't be repaired, we understood the consequences were dire. And all because Rowling was faithful to the rules she built her world around.

Consider how anti-climactic that moment would have been had the author not been clear about the importance of wands. Which brings me to another point: if readers aren't clear on the rules of your story world, you risk toppling their desire to believe. 

The movie version of Maleficent is a great example because Angelina Jolie's terrifying speech at Aurora's christening laid a very important rule for us. Once Aurora was grown and pricked her finger, only true love's kiss could wake her. From the very beginning we understand this rule, we understand the stakes. And we trust the storytellers to do their job honestly. To give us a fairytale ending that is arrived at by staying within the boundaries they've set. 

I could get lost here meandering through one example after another, but I'd rather hear from you all. 

Which story worlds are easiest to believe and can you pinpoint 
some of the things the author did to make it so?


  1. There are many worlds that are easy to believe, but something that comes to mind is the Septimus Heap series. Among the many things the author did was the magic, the style of which really solidified the story. Another thing were the characters and their behaviors, nature, etc. Overall, the world-building was very convincing and in sync with the story's themes.

    1. Can you believe I haven't read the Septimus Heap books yet? My TBR list is way too long!

  2. This is a really interesting topic, Shan. I'm fascinated by The Hunger Games. If you're just explaining the book to someone, it sounds really out there and inaccessible. And yet when you're reading it, it's like, "Well, of course she needs to kill that teenage boy! Otherwise he's going to kill her!"

    1. Yeah, she's a master. It's all in her set up too. You can't not believe.

  3. This is great stuff to consider. In my storyworld, the characters' ability to teleport relies on sunlight, so obviously being attacked at night can lead to some sticky situations. Also, my MC's magic allows her to speak words into reality--but if there's a wind or fog, her words risk being blown away. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Dittemore!

  4. Great post! It's really important to put limits on powers, I believe. It creates a sense of reality in the impossible, which is necessary in storytelling.

  5. Love the post! It's important to put rules on powers, and it's an opportunity to add bad side effects. I have a character who can magically hypnotize people, but she has to kiss them to do so. This barrier prevents her from controlling every person who gets in her way and creates interesting scenes when she has to hypnotize someone.
    My favorite POV can make anything appear ... as long as the people around him believe something is going to happen, which means he has to announce everything he's about to do and hope for the best.

  6. I was recently blown away by the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's an older series, but I just read it for the first time while my dad was in the hospital. The first book is rather weak but has epic stretches and the end is awesome. The second and third books really rock and are epic in capital letters throughout. My heart really ached for one in the third book and was in awe of another's deeds. I would gladly enter that world again.

    And what do you mean that the people of Middle-earth are fictional? :)

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

    1. Ooooo! I've never heard of this one. I'll have to look it up.