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How to Write a Novel: Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Don't worry if you haven’t heard of this phrase, but more or less, this is the thing every writer on the planet is worried about, well… every novelist anyway. What does this mean? Well, this is when the reader, knowing that an element in the writing is fantastical or can’t happen in real life, suspends their disbelief or saying something like, “that can’t happen in real life!” for the sake of the story. Most of the responsibility for this falls on the writer. So how do writers do this?

Well, characterization and the capturing of emotions can help, and believability of a character goes a long way. But while I always say that a writer can write whatever they want, a writer, even a fantasy writer, has limits.

When I say we writers can write whatever we want, I mean we can set whatever boundaries we want to set to write in. Writers aren’t restricted by the rules of society, meaning if we want someone to get away with murder, we can set that up. If we want someone to do something where the possibilities are slim to none, we can do that, but within the boundaries we set for the story.

Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. In Harry Potter, with the boundaries J.K. Rowling set for herself we all knew there was no way in hell Harry would beat Voldemort in a fight. I know he was a powerful wizard for his age and had done impossible things, but the odds that he could win a duel against a guy who was studying magic at least fifty years before Harry ever got to Hogwarts is slim to none. If J.K. Rowling had let that happen, she would have been breaking the rules she had quite clearly established.

Thankfully, J.K. Rowling knows how to set up a story for all her bad romance (no writer is perfect) and so she was able to spin a believable tale and essentially, Harry won by a stroke of luck and pure genius on Rowling’s part.  Hate that it happened that way all you want, but she stuck to her own rules, and it was a believable way for Harry to defeat Voldemort because Harry is just not all powerful.

So that’s what I mean when I say we can write whatever we want. I mean that writers can set their own boundaries, but once you establish them and the reader knows the established boundaries, a writer can’t break them. That’s what fanfiction is for. Let the readers do that if they want to.

But this responsibility is not solely on the writer. The reader has to be willing to suspend their disbelief and say, “This is just a story. I know these things cannot happen, but I have to assume that these things could happen if they were possible.” Many people have the ability to do this, but some people just don’t. My mother is a prime example. There’s only so far she’ll go when suspending her disbelief so she was a little dismayed when she found out I was writing fantasy. I’m the type of person that says as long as you abide by your own rules, you can do whatever you want which is the reason I have such a problem with Stephanie Meyer. She breaks her own rules in Twilight which removes the believability factor for me. The plots of the last two books read like bad fanfiction to me which goes back to the thing about the writer setting boundaries and sticking to them in combination with the character development.

So a lot of factors play in the ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ but the most particular thing is staying within the limits of the boundaries the writer sets for themselves.

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