Levitation- or the fine art of suspending disbelief

Kellar_levitation_posterWe’ve all seen the act. The magician waves his wand over the prone body of his lovely assistant and suddenly she rises, suspended in mid-air. He sweeps a hoop across her. “See? No wires!”

And we believe. The woman is floating. The magician is MAGIC.

Rationally we know this cannot be true. There’s no such thing as magic. Women don’t float. But still…

That’s the power of fiction. The power to suspend disbelief.

Last week I was discussing story with a group of writers. The problem with mysteries written for teens, one writer lamented, is NO ONE would ever believe an ordinary teen would solve one mystery—much less a series. Teen readers are “too smart for that.”

Really? REALLY?

After this conversation I became a little obsessed. How does a writer suspend disbelief?  How can words on a page convince a reader that a random sixteen year old is the next Sherlock HolmesThe first thing that occurred to me as I was trying to unravel this problem is the similarity between my work now- writing believable fiction- and my work before I became a writer- presenting a credible defense in a trial. I know what you’re thinking. Lawyers are liars and this proves it. No, that’s not my point. My point is lawyers use a number of techniques to present their client’s side of the story and make a jury believe it. Techniques I think we can use as fiction writers.

Next coincidence stepped in. (Or maybe it was no coincidence. Who knows how serendipity really works?) I’ve been reading a fantastic craft book Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction.

This is a craft book for craft book haters (and lovers, too.) A book that takes real world writing problems, faces them head on, and solves them. It talks about creating micro-tension on every page and world building. Best of all, at least for our purposes, Chapter Six is “Making The Impossible Real”. Maass explains, point by point, how to make that magician’s assistant float.

Maass says “Essentially, you must pulverize every particle of reader resistance. Every single rational objection must be obliterated, one at a time.”

Fine. How? Let’s take it one step at a time.

Tip one is something you’ve heard before… but it makes even more sense than ever in this context. Make the reader care about your protagonist and his struggle. If your reader is rooting for your hero to succeed they won’t get hung up on the fact that there really aren’t vampires in our world… or that sixteen year olds aren’t the world’s greatest sleuths.

How do you make the reader care? Build a foundation. Take the time at the beginning of the novel to create identification with the character. Start with situations that are utterly believable and sympathetic… and move on from there.

J. K. Rowling understood this when she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series. Rationally, we all know there is no such thing as witches or Hogwarts, or Voldemort. Humans don’t turn into cats. Owls don’t deliver the mail.

But some children are treated unfairly, especially unwelcome stepchildren. Some adults are boorish louts. We all know this is true. Rowling opens the novel with these entirely believable elements, in the Dursley’s house, as Harry wakes up in his cupboard under the stairs, ready to celebrate dull Dudley’s birthday. Something’s afoot, that’s for sure. Why else would a cat be watching the house? But we don’t know Harry’s magic- The Boy Who Lived. Harry doesn’t have any clue of it himself. Rowling builds up, from believable to unbelievable, and because we believe in and care about a boy with mean stepparents and a scar on his forehead our readerly skepticism is pulverized. The pre-Hogwarts scenes aren’t mere authorial throat clearing. These scenes set the stage for the “incredible” events to come. By the time Hagrid shows up we want to believe there is a whole magical world running parallel to the Muggle universe. We’re caught up in the dream (to use John Gardner-speak) and we don’t care whether it can happen in the ordinary world or not.

So are we done as writers? Make the reader like the guy and that’s it? Nope.

Once you’ve created a sympathetic protagonist with realistic problems (notice I didn’t say likable. A reader may or may not “like” this guy. That’s all up to you as the writer) now it’s time to introduce the stuff that isn’t possible. Now the real writing trouble begins.

In Marcelo In The Real World, Francisco X. Stork does a masterful job of making Marcelo, a teen with an Aspergers-like condition into a sleuth and social crusader. Marcelo is literal minded and follows the rules- always. He sees most things at face value and looks no deeper. But when he notices troubling inconsistencies in one of the legal files at his father’s law firm he investigates. Marcelo can barely figure out which bus to take but he tracks down evidence and proves … well I’ll save his startling discovery for you to find when you read this book. My point is in the “real” real world it’s highly unlikely a boy with Aspergers would uncover a plot to harm thousands of people and bring a corporation and its lawyers to justice. Stork knew that so he gave Marcelo, his mom, and his dad the same doubts as the reader about Marcelo’s abilities. Marcelo himself doesn’t know if he can pull this off. He doesn’t know if it’s right to do something that will help others but could harm his father. That makes it believable when Marcelo struggles then accomplishes his goals. The doubt also creates tension on every page. If Marcelo was a hot shot investigator, a young Woodward or Bernstein, we might not doubt his abilities but we also wouldn’t worry about him right up to the end.

Incredible situations pop up all the time in fantasy, even off beat fantasy. But when that fantasy happens in what seems to be our world an author must vault over big believablility hurdles. One of the best?

Thirsty by M. T. Anderson. Ordinary middle class Chris is turning into a vampire. Not just that. He’s being visited by the man with one piece hair- Satan or God or someone otherworldly. Soon Chris is wallowing in blood and gore. How did Anderson make the reader “swallow it”? By addressing the unbelievable stuff head on. In this book it’s a two step process. First Anderson tells us 1. There are bad vampires in this town and then 2. Weird changes are happening to Chris’ mind and body. These things are stated with authority. Anderson shoves both facts in the reader’s face. Believe this or put the book down. These are your only choices.

Anderson is a master of the opening paragraph (okay he’s a master of most everything writerly, but this especially.) Here’s how Thirsty starts-

“In the Spring, there are vampires in the wind. People see them scuffling along by the side of country roads. At night, they move through the empty forests. They do not wear black, of course, but things they have taken off bodies or bought on sale. The news says that they are mostly in the western part of the state, where it is lonely and rural. My father claims we have them this year because it was a mild winter, but he may be thinking of tent caterpillars.”

If you read this book from the first sentence you know you must accept that there are vampires. If you can’t do that this isn’t the book for you.

Anderson spends the first chapter making us care about Chris so we’re ready to worry and believe when he notices changes coming on.  “For a few months now, I have been feeling hungrier and hungrier. Food does not seem to fill me up… That night, after the lynching, after I am recognized by one of the damned, the hunger is very bad. I lie with my head on the pillow. Everyone else is asleep.”

Now do we want to believe Chris is changing into one of the damned? Even though we know in our rational minds that vampires don’t romp through Western Mass and small towns don’t hold public lynchings? You bet we do.

Have you written something unbelievable? Come on, admit it. Everybody has. What was it? How did you suspend disbelief?