Saturday, May 6, 2017


Funny about this writing thing.  Just when you think you have a grip on rules and definitions and best methods, up pops a whole group of experts, in how-to books or on the 'Net, to let you know you've understood things all wrong.

Or have you?

Take the principle called "willing suspension of disbelief."  I was taught and always believed it meant--- no, let's hold off awhile before I tell you what I thought it meant.  At any rate, my perception was different from what the pundits I'm reading lately say it is.  They say it describes the overall approach of a reader to a work of fiction.  That is, when said reader opens your book he is fully aware that the world you have created is unreal and he doesn't believe a word of it.  But he wills himself, consciously or not, to turn off his doubt and enter your story anyway.  No less a writer and teacher than Orson Scott Card says in Characters and Viewpoint:

In a representational play, the actors all act as if there were a fourth wall between them and the audience.  . . . This technique helps the audience maintain the illusion of reality (or, as it is commonly called, the willing suspension of disbelief).
. . . If you know what to look for, you'll see the actors, the director, the lighting technician, the makeup artist, the playwright, and everybody else working hard to sustain the illusion of reality.
All this is in the effort to deal with the audience's constant query: "Oh yeah?"

Card says it works essentially the same for a work of fiction.

To which I (in my temerity) say, Non credo.

I don't believe it.  What reader approaches a book that way?  When we crack the covers or open up that file, we expect to be drawn in, to be immersed; ideally, to be so engulfed in the author's world that we lose all sense of the one we're physically in.  In fact, when the writer makes a misstep that jerks us out of it, we resent it.  If "willing suspension of disbelief" meant "Author, I'm willing for you to convince me this is real," we readers would be like lawyers piling up evidence for a court case, or scientists compiling data to prove an hypothesis.  But that's not how people read.

I would argue that, once an author has hooked us, it's actually a matter of willing extension of belief.  And, that trust once given, woe betide the writer who violates it.

But if I'm saying willing suspension of disbelief is not what Card, et al., claim it to be, what is it?  What understanding of it did my teachers pour into me, and what do I maintain it is, to this day?

Willing suspension of disbelief is that courtesy the reader extends to the writer when, for reason of genre, plot, or structure, the writer has to violate the reality of the world she is writing in.  I've found this happens quite frequently in the areas of human relations, technology, and the passage of time.

For instance, rarely do people fall in love at first sight and get engaged shortly thereafter.  But the insta-forever romance is the norm in romance novels.  These novels are (usually) set in the real world and involve real human beings with real psychology.  Those who read this kind of fiction know that, with real people in the real world, meeting a guy on Sunday and being engaged to him the following Saturday has maybe a .00005% chance of happening.  But they overlook that point, they willingly suspend their disbelief, and accept that of course, in the world of romance fiction, it must happen all the time.

We see it too as we reread early science fiction.  We know good and well no one could reach outer space with the kind of technology described, let alone survive there.  But we cheerfully overlook that and let the author tell his tale.

As an avid reader of Nineteenth Century fiction, I need to do this constantly when it comes to the passage of time.  The stories are set on our earth, with the same twenty-four hours in the day, but the time expands and contracts in the most extraordinary ways.  Women write diary entries--- by hand--- that would take a day and a half to set down, yet they do it at most in a few hours  (I'm thinking especially of Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White).  Men sit down in the smoking rooms of their gentlemen's clubs at ten in the evening, share a story that would take a half hour at most, then one of them jerks himself into alertness and says, "By Jove!  It's past 3:00 AM!"

Any sensible person knows these things aren't possible.  But we readers overlook the trick, because it's been worked for the greater good of the novel.  If our diarist didn't accomplish her superhuman feats of writing, we wouldn't have our story.  If we were subjected to five hours' straight of the gentlemen's chatter, we would be bored to tears and miss the story the author wants us to remember.  Whereas if she sends them all to bed at 10:30, we wouldn't get the spine-crawling incident that befalls one of them in the hallway in the wee, sma' hours of the morning.  So we willingly suspend our disbelief and let the author get on with the tale.

I've been thinking about this lately for a couple of reasons.  One, because I'm considering reworking some old material into diary form, and I'm not sure how far to push willing suspension of disbelief in my readers when it comes to the main character having time to write the entries.  I've kept a journal off and on since high school and I know first hand that the days when interesting things happen are the days that get skipped.  If I don't believe my protag would be able to record it all, how will anyone else?

Two, because of what's happening in my new writers' group.  Perhaps I shouldn't admit anything negative about my writing in public on this blog, but some members have made it clear they aren't willing to extend me belief when it comes to some aspects of my WIP.  No, they're not saying what I've written is physically or emotionally impossible.  Rather, I've been getting comments early on to the effect of "I don't know why this chapter is in here.  Cut it out."  The material in question is there for very good reasons, at least from my point of view, and if I followed the advice I'm getting I'd no longer be writing psychological horror, but the book version of a creature feature.

But the fact they're saying this shows me I've failed to do something.  I haven't achieved their trust such that they say, "Hmmm, the MC is talking with this person at this point.  What I'm finding out must be important.  I'll read on and find out how."  That's what I would do, especially in the first part of a book.  But the same has not been done for me.  They haven't willingly extended their belief, and I'm not sure why.

Regarding minor points, I'm taking some of their suggestions.  But I'm keeping the overall structure and progression of the novel as is until it's done.  By then I'll have my own better picture of what should stay and what should go, and I can send it out to beta readers to see what they have to say.

For that, I'm willing.

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