Being a Better Writer: Realism, Storytelling, and Suspension of Disbelief

Welcome back writers! It’s another Monday, and that means it’s time for another Being a Better Writer post! There’s not much news to discuss, or really any since everything immediately relevant was discussed in last Thursday’s post about what occurred last year and what’s coming down the pipeline right now, so rather than spend any text on that, today we’ll just dive right in! With a brief aside to say that if you are curious about what’s happened and what’s on the way, check out that post.

Anyway, today’s topic is, fittingly enough for the new year, a Reader Request! The last one on Topic List #21. Which I will add is getting a bit empty these days. We’ll be looking at #22 soon enough!

But anyway, today’s topic was requested with what I see as darn good reason, because it’s actually part of an almost endless debate that circles online communities and critics alike. In fact, it’s such a common debate that to start us off today, I’m actually going to request that you read this Schlock Mercenary strip, which will open in a new tab. Don’t worry, it’s digestible without context.

Once you’ve done that, don’t get sucked into the archive (at least, not right now), but come back, hit the jump, and let’s talk about it.


So, I chose that particular strip particularly because it perfectly illustrates one of the largest issues with today’s issue—which if you need a quick refresher is the balance between realism, storytelling, and suspension of disbelief. But the biggest problem by far is audience, and knowing how to write to it. Or even what it is.

See, a lot of young or inexperienced writers will labor forward under an idea that there is a story that if written just right will appeal to everyone. That they just need things to be just so, and everyone, regardless of preference, will enjoy it.

This is false. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s straight-up impossible. No story appeals to everyone. Trying to write a story that appeals to every single person that reads is about as realistic an endeavor as finding the “planet of hats” trope that Sci-Fi loves so much.

The truth is, people like different things. Some people want to read about romance, others about gruesome horror. And while that’s genre, and some of you might question how that applies here, the thing is that just as some people prefer romance over horror, others will prefer something be supremely realistic over something that is not.

So automatically, when it comes time to consider how much realism we want in our storytelling, and how much we wish the audience to suspend their disbelief … there’s really no right answer outside of “What audience do you want?”

I know. This feels like a cop-out answer, but it’s true! There are readers out that that would not question in the slightest a protagonist who drives a Kia outrunning an antagonist in a Lambo. Or, even if they did realize that such is completely ludicrous, would just shrug and say “It’s all for fun, so who cares?”

But the inverse is also true. There are readers that for whom even a suggestion that a Kia is going to outrun a Lambo means the book is being put down permanently. They know that’s not true, and they don’t trust the rest of the story to build a narrative where it makes sense. Or their suspension of disbelief triggers immediately, and they no longer believe anything.

So what does this mean? Is there no right or wrong when it comes to realism and storytelling? Well … no, that’s not it. What it means is that there’s … Well, let me borrow another phrase from the creator of that Schlock Mercenary strip above: Suspenders of Disbelief.

See, Howard used to write movie reviews, and one of the phrases he preferred was “suspenders of disbelief.” Which worked on multiple levels, but the gist of it was that rather than a line, his ability to believe or disbelieve was flexible and prone to stretching. In other words, a story could get away with a little bit of “stretch” in his suspenders of disbelief as long as he was enjoying it or having a good time. But if things went too far, those suspenders would “snap” and throw him out of things.

I think is a really good way to illustrate it. Most people won’t immediately put a book down if it says something they find just slightly off. They’ll usually either trust the author, chalk it up as “Well, that’s a common misconception,” or even just say “That’s a minor error and I’m enjoying everything else” (even if it isn’t actually an error). They’ll continue onward. However, if the story keeps stretching their suspenders with consistent effort, eventually they’ll break.

Okay, what are we getting at here? Because I’m not saying “do whatever you want to do.” Nor am I saying “there is no standard here, go nuts.” Because there is a standard. The issue isn’t that one doesn’t exist, but that hundreds do, and your challenge as an author is finding the one that exists for your audience. Or rather, as many audiences as you can get.

So yes, there is something to aim for. However, its a range rather than a specific point, there’s lots of overlap, and you can choose where you want to place your story in that “zone.” Someone, for example, may not be used to books where a lot of clues are given and the audience is expected to piece things together with the characters, but can still enjoy the ride even if they miss that.

Know your audience. Or rather, know what audience you wish to woo for your story, and where their suspenders will be compared to everything else.

Don’t know what audience you want to go for? Well, a good rule of thumb is to write something you would be happy reading and go from there. Odds are that if you like it, there’s bound to be at least a few other people that will like it as well.


Okay, with all that said, I do realize that there are some of you who hoped for a more concrete answer. Something that one could sink their mental teeth into outside of “figure out who to write for.”

Thankfully, now we reach part two of today’s discussion. Even with everything said about audience and what you want to aim for, there’s still some good, solid, general advice for those of you who would rather keep the suspenders of disbelief unstretched. You ready for this? It goes right back to a line said by Nick from that comic strip I linked above.

“They can’t make up rules about custom pistols because I already know those rules.”

This. This right here. That’s the essence of whether or not your story is going to stretch the suspenders of disbelief for an audience member. Are you making rules about something? Do they already know those rules? And are they right?

See, the comic strip works because Nick, in-universe, has a point, but at the same time the “average” imaginary audience in that universe isn’t going to know that fitting both palm-lock and the gold and silver handgrips on the protagonist’s pistol is going to be prohibitively expensive. As Kathryn counters, however, there are ways it could have worked … the story just didn’t bother to address them.

What I’m getting at is that if you’re going to be writing about a topic, you should research that topic. Yes, we’re back at this old saw, but it’s a truism. Always do the research.

Now, this doesn’t mean your story has to be 100% accurate to the research you find. For example again, as Kathryn noted, there were ways the story she and Nick watched could have explained the protagonist’s custom weaponry. The trope name for the most common form of “fix” for this is a “handwave,” which comes from an often literal act of waving a hand that goes along with it. “Oh, why does that work now? Because we figured out this!” and the story rolls right back along.

Additionally, doing the research doesn’t mean that your story can’t go past that research in some manner, or render it irrelevant. Again, as Kathryn points out in that strip, the story can make up rules about ghosts. If your Sci-Fi story has FTL, then you can make the rules that govern FTL whatever you want. You’ve established the rules of the setting. If those rules happen to supersede modern research, but you make that abundantly clear—or even dive into what our modern researchers missed that your story’s future scientists figured out—then you’ve basically said ‘Yes, I know this is the rule for us, but this is the rule for them.’ And if your reader cannot handle that, then they’re not the audience for the book.

Now you might be thinking that there’s a lot of room for flexibility with these concepts, and you’re right. What we’ve discussed here is certainly more guidelines than anything resembling a hard rule. Outside of at least doing the research.

It also means that again, you’ll never make everyone happy. There are going to be people who even if you did the research, disagree with your establishing different rules for your setting. There will be people who read the wrong research, or fail to realize that more than one version of something can exist (like military structure, for example), or even people who insert their own headcanon into your story in replacement of the story’s canon, and then get upset when it breaks the story (I’ve actually seen people do this, even when it directly contradicted the story itself).

You can’t make everyone happy. I stress that again. As noted above, finding your audience is key to understanding what rules you want to keep and what you want to break, as well as how. No matter what, there are going to be people that think your explanation didn’t go far enough and who thought it was far too much.

But even with that acknowledgement, knowing about a topic so that you know how, where, and when you can get away with breaking the rules? That’s key to keeping the suspenders unstretched or stretched just the right amount for your audience.


Now, one last caveat before we close, one that gets its own section: Just because you know all the rules does not mean you need to explain them to the audience.

I’ve seen this before, and I’m sure more than a few of you could find examples as well: A story that goes into absurd levels of detail or info-dump when explaining how something is breaking the rules. One example I’ve seen is an author going into absurd detail about a specific gun before then going into a lot of detail about how the gun the protagonist uses is different.

This isn’t wrong. I want to make that clear. Some folks love this kind of breakdown. But it’s not a requirement. One could just as easily summarize it with a sentence like “The standard TRE-60 quad-bike had 900 torque horsepower, but she’d modified hers to have 1,200 at the cost of some battery life.” and call it good.

Again, there’s not as much a right and wrong here as there is an expectation of the audience. Once you figure out your audience, then you’ll have a better idea of how much detail they expect in explaining differences and breaks from “the rules.”


With that, I think we’re done today. I know, there are likely a few of you that are disappointed that this wasn’t more cut and dry … but the truth is that there’s a lot of variance out there. Some people have suspenders that stretch more than others, while some don’t have them at all.

However, in closing, I will add one more bit of advice to the earlier mantra of always do the research, and that is to be consistent within each story or book your write. You can write stories to different audiences, with different suspenders. But keep each story internally consistent with its own established expectations for realism and suspension of disbelief.

And look, this is something that you’ll deal with in every story you write. Like many things with writing, it’s not cut and dry. There’s no “congrats, you’re done, never think about it again.”

But find your audience, and you’ll certainly find it a lot easier.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Realism, Storytelling, and Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Hey, gun people can be the hardest to convince to suspend belief. That’s even harder when your suppressed 9mm makes little ‘pst’ noises instead of polite ‘bang’ sounds, 40 holes appear in a wall when somebody with a 20 round magazine unloads on the hero (Dude, you didn’t even have to duck behind that flimsy table. He would have missed way high anyway), Airwolf unloads its gross weight in ammunition in a twenty-second burst, that police officer has a 60-shooter instead of a 6-shot revolver, and James Bond uses a Walter PPK (.32 cal in a 3-in barrel) to shoot down a helicopter. Oh, and when a F-22 closes to within arm-swiping range of a Kaiju. Very few movies keep close to the real world because the real world just isn’t as dramatic as movies.

    Like

    • Yeah, gun people are the hardest to please, followed by horse people.

      This automatically makes westerns or any other story with guns and horseback cavalry the most research intensive and difficult.

      Like

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