Suspending disbelief: Is it the job of the writer or the reader?

Just how important is imagination in your writing? Poet and Philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that “if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.” So is it up to the writer to suspend disbelief for the reader through his/her storytelling, or is the onus on the reader to “buy into” the story and suspend disbelief him/herself?

I think an important thing to note here is that a semblance of truth needs to be present in our characters. I’ve written about this before in other posts: believability is key to the development of our characters. We can introduce seemingly fantastic and insurmountable conflicts into our stories and readers will suspend disbelief in the situation if the character that is facing the issue is real enough for them to believe they can face the problem. This is done all the time in fantasy and science fiction, but what about other novels? Is it important to keep to reality or can we create situations where reality is warped in a sense and the reader needs to take a leap of faith in us?

If we expect our readers to take that leap of faith, then it is our job to provide a plausible explanation for the actions of our characters and the situation they find themselves in. As writers we tend to think out of the box, but not everyone can follow that. Most readers use books as an escape from the day to day pressures in their lives and putting more pressure on them to have to accept something completely outlandish that is not based on some semblance of truth may be asking too much. Twisting that semblance of truth is where our imaginations come in; but we need to make sure that we are not twisting it so much that it becomes completely unbelievable and our readers put the book down and never pick it up again. Or worse yet, post a poor review on Amazon or on their Facebook page (shudder). So some control over our run-away imaginations is in order, unless of course we are writing fantasy or science fiction and even then there are rules that must be devised and adhered to.

Our characters tend to become very real to many of us. We know them inside and out, we hear their voices in our heads and even can come to believe that it is they who are leading the story and not us. That is the writer suspending disbelief and it is a lot of fun. I have been playing with it on my Facebook page and it can be quite amusing. Our alter-egos tend to take us over when we are writing for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our readers will follow our lead. We live with these characters day in and day out when writing our stories, our readers have a much shorter time to get to know them. So how do we get our readers to buy in to our reality? Have you heard the cliché “actions speak louder than words”? How about “show, don’t tell”? I think there is a lot of wisdom to be taken from both.

It is all well and good to tell our readers who our characters are, but it is much more powerful to let the character’s actions speak for them. We can tell the reader that someone is shallow and vain, yet vulnerable inside, but won’t it help the reader to see the actions of the character and come to that conclusion themselves? Won’t coming to the conclusion of who that character is based on their actions help the reader to suspend disbelief and come to think of the character as a real person? There, in my opinion, is the key to suspending disbelief. If we can get the reader to think of our character as a real person, with real internal motivations, then the external motivations we throw at them become more believable.

So in your opinion, is it the reader’s job to suspend disbelief or the writer’s job?






3 responses to “Suspending disbelief: Is it the job of the writer or the reader?

  1. well, personally, I believe it is the writer’s job but you’ve given me much food for thought regarding suspension of disbelief in my fiction. many thanks for a thoughtprovoking post. \i’m glad I’m following you on twitter.

    • Thank you so much. I’m glad I was able to give you something to think about in your writing. I’m very glad we are connected on Twitter as well.

  2. The fiction reader unwilling to suspend his/her disbelief doesn’t exist. The willingness to suspend one’s disbelief is the process by which one becomes a reader.

    This is because fiction by definition is a lie….the characters, the setting, the plot…all of it. The concept of one’s willingness to suspend disbelief is what allows fiction to be — no matter the genre from Fantasy to poetry. If a reader is unwilling to accept this from the getgo, there is no fiction. It doesn’t exist — it can’t — no matter how great the writer. He or she might as well give up reading altogether. After all, there’s nothing a writer –no matter how great– can do if the reader is not willing to accept this notion before he or she even picks up a book and starts reading outright lies. And it’s this first and most important step allows the writer (especially great writers) to go even further outside of the box to tell even greater lies.

    I think a clear example of this is Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

    “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”

    That’s the very first sentence of the story. There’s no great or truthful writing there. There’s no writer’s trick or skill in play…no character building. Kafka, from the very first sentence, makes a claim that there once was a man named Gregor Samsa (lie) and that, one morning, he woke up in his bed completely transformed into a dung beetle (impossible lie). He doesn’t worry about the reader, because the fiction reader unwilling to suspend his or disbelief simply doesn’t exist.

    This doesn’t mean that fiction writing shouldn’t be convincing or well-crafted. Like any lie, the more convincing and realistic, the better. After all, Kafka will use the rest of his story to convince us of his outrageous premise — even though it’s an impossible lie and we all know it. By the end, we love or hate the story.

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