When a reader picks up a novel and begins to read, there is an unspoken agreement that occurs. The reader agrees to accept what she reads as fact. And this agreement remains in place for the duration of the dream the author has created.
The willing suspension of disbelief is a concept I learned in high school theater. It has been around forever and is a foundational fact of how we consume stories. Without this uniquely human capability, all fiction in writing, film, and on the stage would fall flat. We would interrogate everything we read and saw. We’d be constantly preoccupied – tethered to an ongoing argument about whether or not what is being presented to us is a truth or a lie. Fortunately, we don’t think in these terms…when we decide not to. In fact, we are able to tease truth out of a story and learn about ourselves and our lives from events and circumstances that are not themselves real.
While this concept seems complicated, we don’t actively suspend our disbelief. We do it without even thinking about it. This is the joy of reading.
However, as writers we must realize that the dream is fragile. The willing suspension our readers have granted us is always at risk. We must tend to it, keep it propped up. Our reader is willing, but we must support them in their effort.
When crafting the story, don’t grab the reader’s attention and wake them from their disbelief. Watch that your characters stay in character on and off stage. Be sure not to force the story. Let it wander where it will. And here is the test. If the story you are writing doesn’t cause you to slip into the dream, then it will not support your reader’s willing suspension of disbelief either.
The goal is simple. You want your readers to suspend their disbelief as often and for as long as possible.