Writing Excuses 6.14: Suspension of Disbelief

Patrick Rothfuss joins Brandon, Dan, Mary, and Howard at WorldCon 69, where we recorded before a live, enthusiastic audience.

The topic? Suspension of disbelief, specifically, how to get your readers to do this. Patrick leads us off with verisimilitude, and how the reader will accept the fantastic if you’re presenting the mundane in a believable way. We talk about laying groundwork, about Chekov’s gun, the promises we have to make to our readers, and the dramatic tool bathos.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss, narrated by Nick Podehl.

Writing Prompt: Make the reader believe one impossible thing. If you can’t think of something on your own, start with teleportation.

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33 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.14: Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. A good way to set up suspension of disbelief is what I call the “Transitional Scene” or the “Down the Rabbit Hole” scenario:

    To quote myself:

    “It is easy for an author to believe that his audience will accept his words at face value, especially if he writes for an audience accustomed to dragons,spaceships and vampires. But that does not mean that the readers will accept anything that is thrown at them. The key is to earn their trust by easing them into the more implausible aspects of your work.

    Therefore a transitional scene must have the following characteristics:

    The scene must be grounded in the familiar.
    It must offer a logical transition from the familiar to the absurd.
    Must show a principal character (although not the main character).
    It must occur early on, although it does not have to be the opening scene (I prefer to open with them, btw).”

  2. You guys should do a podcast on foil characters and whether you have a preference towards a particular gender when it comes to the protagonists of your stories. Also, has anyone entered a spiral of darkness where your book seems to always lean in this really depressing direction. It seems all my characters have such dark pasts that when I attempt to bring in humor, it feels unwelcome in the context of the scene.

    Any idea how I can bring a little lightness into the story?

    And is it wrong to sympathize with the antagonist as you write? I feel that my villains have very valid reasons for doing what they’ve done and I don’t want the reader to like them them more than they should. It detracts from the main characters motives.

    My post is getting a little long, but one last thing. I find that all my protagonists eventually become antiheroes. A real hero will do anything he has to do to protect what he believes in, right? So if he commits seemingly evil deeds, will that spoil the hero-experience for the readers?

    Awesome podcast this week! Thanks!

  3. Very good podcast. I agree that you can make almost anyone believe almost anything if you setup the ground work correctly. The Batman bit was a perfect example. Thanks for all the wonderful writing help. I hope I can one day write a book that you guys will enjoy as much as I enjoy your works.

  4. I’d just like to add something to what Rothfuss said about suspension of disbelief as it pertains to characters (when he spoke on ‘what they know about human nature’).

    As a writer of novels especially, one must be aware that audiences don’t want to see real people – they want to see cartoon caricatures of real people. The thing is, everyone mistakes these caricatures for the real thing. Psychological Realism rarely comes into genre literature because readers want to read about characters that conform to what they *think* they would do, not to what they would really do. Readers and writers identify with characters who conform to their own biased sense of self – which is perfectly natural and there’s nothing wrong with that. I often find it hard to be critical of this phenomenon while not coming off as rude or elitist, but I’m not trying to be either. It’s just something to be aware of when you work your craft – when people say they want real characters, they are really asking for Wish-Fulfilment Characters, characters who act the way the reader *says* they do, even when they probably don’t.

    That said, this is only really a problem in the medium of literature. When you get out of a persons head, Psychological Realism becomes easier to parse around human bias. But inside the head is an ugly place, and few genre-lit readers wants to live there.

  5. You’ve got to be careful about asking people to accept too many coincidences. In the Spider-Man movie Parker’s webslinging ability comes from the spider bite. In the comic books, Peter Parker is also a scientific genius who creates devices that shoot webs from his wrists. The movie is superior because it asks us to accept one outlandish thing: a radioactive spider bite gives a teenager super powers. The comic asks us to accept two things: the spider bite and the fact that the kid who was bitten just happens to be a scientific genius.

  6. @Snarkangel — I’m not familiar with psychological realism, but there has been a trend in fantasy towards grittier fiction. Personally, I don’t find it more realistic. I have a hard time swallowing books where everyone is soul-wrenched and wallowing in gray-to-black morality. I know many genuinely honorable, good people. I’m trying to be one. I find watching (at least some of the) characters struggle to make the moral high ground much more compelling and realistic than everyone stabbing each other in the back.

    @Shehreyar Khan — I guess doing anything for a goal could be one definition, but there are also people who are heroic because of what they won’t do, even when it hurts them. I don’t know what others would say, but I can look at a number of books on my shelf where the clash between a character’s morals and a character’s goals makes for rich conflict.

  7. @Snarkangel: can you give some examples? What traits do you feel that readers like to see in fictional characters, and why are those traits unrealistic?

    There certainly a lot of Mary Sues out there, but I would hesitiate to accuse every reader of genre fiction of choosing wish-fulfillment over realism, or having a biased self-view.

  8. Great podcast once again.

    3 things about this podcast:

    1. I wish you guys would film more of your podcast because I want to see Patrick Rothfuss’s beard mic.

    2. When I like to think about suspending disbelief in a fantastic setting, I always think back to Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira. He said(This is my best recollection), “When writing a story about a starship full of people traveling faster than light across space, the important question to answer is not, ‘How does the starship go faster than the speed of light?’ but rather, ‘How do they go to bathroom in space?’ ” What he was getting at was that the mundane parts of life make the fantastic plausible and also give a good barometer for how different a world is despite the fantastic.

    The best part is that when it is done well, a reader doesn’t even notice.

    Following this advice from Otomo in college, I wrote a cyberpunk screenplay(That went over really well) that featured early on the mention of MP7 players next to a slurpee machine. When the class read that passage, they universally found it comforting that despite cyborg samurai duking it out epically, the world of the future still had MP7 players and slurpees in it.

    3. Going off what Patrick mentioned about Buffy & Angel, selling a setting is also aided by realistic reactions to the fantastic by the characters in-universe. A book will read very differently based on how the characters react.

    For example, in one of the last Harry Potter movies, Harry has a wonderful line, “After all these years I figure I should just go with it…” in response to Dumbledore asking him to trust him. That to me makes me suspend my disbelief easier even though it’s a small line in the 6th movie of 8.

    In Mistborn, I didn’t start liking or really accepting Vin as a character or the story as much beyond generic fantasy until Vin started flying through the air with the greatest of ease with the reaction to allomancy of, “AHHH!!!!! AHHH!!!! This is too cool for me to be properly scared!” if I remember correctly. But, if you were in Vin’s shoes and you found out that after a life on the street living in fear for your life and a body being violated by guys with spike in their heads that you could use coins to FLY…I think you would have the same reaction.

    In a swords & sorcery setting, I would similarly not really believe a book with a dragon that flies past some villagers making them go, “AHH!!By the gods, a dragon! Run for your lives!” unless you have that one group of kids who are not scared at all going, “Look, a Dragon!” because that’s the realistic reaction to that situation.

  9. Great podcast folks.

    The discussion of the perceived difficulty in tension when writing in the first person reminded me of Charles Stross’s _Fuller_Memorandum_. The story begins with the main character’s prologue about how the doctors say that writing this all down will help him deal with what happened, and then goes on to allude to the doom that is still coming, that his right arm still doesn’t work right, and his lover won’t talk to him the same way right now. So you know he survived, sure, but Stross just kicked it up a few notches with some nice promises to the reader that make you want to know just what the h*** happened.

  10. I went to Worldcon this year but wasn’t able to go to the WE podcast panel. I was a sad panda  I did meet Howard though (I was the schlub Thursday morning who came up with some lame excuse for not reading Shlock yet).

    I couldn’t agree more with Pat about the prequels and knowing the ending to something. It seems like one of the first complaints thrown at a lot of the movie prequels or reboots lately is that we already know the ending. While there may plenty of reasons to not like them, that always rang hollow to me. If you refused to watch/read something because you know how it ends, then you’d never watch a movie or read a book more than once, ever, which I think is exactly what Pat said. The satisfaction comes from the journey, not the destination, as they say, and I think there can be plenty of good stories to tell in a prequel setting.

    Here’s my prompt:


  11. I like the bit about how audience’s will accept small lies, but not a big lie right off the bat.
    Aristotle argued something to the effect of people will accept a something that is plausible but impossibile, but not something that is implausible but possibile. How do you think that relates to suspension of disbelief?

  12. I’ve noticed that nobody actually posts in that 17th shard forum that you all seem to be affiliated with. These threads get more replies and responses. It seems like it would make sense to just kinda link the two together somehow so that there could be more sustained discussion than these weekly threads allow for.

    Just an idea.

    Nice podcast, and stop wasting Rothfuss’s time! I’ll be 80 before his next book is finished.

  13. @Jurodivy? It seems as if that relates to the problem that just because something really happened doesn’t mean it “works” in a story. Sure, incredible coincidences sometimes happen in real life, BUT making them believable in a story is much harder. Stories have to “make sense” to the reader — reality just is the way it is, believe it or not.

  14. *Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Casino yet… stop reading* The narrative in Casino is great, and it helps to get you in touch with what the characters are saying and why they say it. My favorite part though, is Joe Pesci is talking up until one of the gangsters starts cracking him on the head with a baseball bat. This way, you think the character’s going to make it all the way through, until the rug gets pulled out and they switch perspectives. It’d be a little more difficult to pull of well in a book, but that part stuck with me.

  15. BTW, not sure how to bring attention to some linking issue, but the season 4 index http://sites.google.com/site/writingexcusesindex/writingexcuses/IndexSeasonFour.htm have broken link for episode 21. As it stands, it links to https://writingexcuses.com/2010/05/30/writing-excuses-421-writing-practical-fantasy/ instead of https://writingexcuses.com/2010/05/30/writing-excuses-4-21-writing-practical-fantasy/. Yes, I’m plowing through all of the backlog so I notices these things.

  16. … Was the speed tweaked on this podcast a bit for time? It sounds like everyone was sped up a smidge. Maybe it was just the venue or something. I have to agree with Mr. Rothfuss. I think we get too caught up in the conventions and… it’s not that Chekov’s gun isn’t a good idea, but sometimes it is important to remember that it is only a guideline. You have to be willing to mess with your readers from time to time, and I think a careful play with this convention can lead to some unexpected and rewarding results. You just have to make sure you’re being careful not to completely pull-one over on the reader. As Brandon said, the important thing is to show what the stakes are for the story, and that this is a story where bad things can happen. Definitely good advice.

  17. Great ep. Thanks for giving Patrick room to speak, he had some fantastic things to say. Awesome guest, bring him back for more.

    I love a guy who can reference Buffy and Greek tragedy in a 15 minute window :)

  18. Obviously if you have the girlfriend, upon hearing that her boyfriend has had sex with someone else, remark that the neighbor is cute and he ought to be checking the girlfriend’s sister out, what you are really doing is cuing the audience in that (a) the characters aren’t humans and (b) that sex isn’t the same in this setting as it is in ours.

    Would make a great way to establish a setting if you could make it work …

  19. For anyone who likes Easter Eggs: you can hear Brandon whisper the book of the week before it’s announced.

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