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The following is an excerpt from Part III of the book Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. The first two parts are very much worth reading as well. The book is available in paperback.

Suspension of Disbelief

This is the leap of faith readers make when they accept the special kind of truth and validity of a fictional world.

Usually a "willing suspension of disbelief" refers to unusual or unnatural circumstances: for example, a story set in the future or in a land where animals talk French. But readers also suspend disbelief in relation to the form of the fiction. They accept that Ken Kesey's silent Indian can tell One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (complete with correct punctuation and chapter breaks), or that E. L. Doctorow can go into the minds of Emma Goldman or Harry Houdini in Ragtime.

The premises you establish in the beginning hint to the readers what to expect. If you make clear that the story is about a world ruled by the conventional laws of probability, it's difficult to get readers to suspend their disbelief in the last chapter and accept a highly improbable ending. William Dean Howells ruined several of his novels at their conclusions by contriving accidents to kill off inconvenient characters. If a narrative is set in a land of magic, writers have more latitude, but even magic has its rules. Tim O'Brian's hallucinatory intermingling of fact and fantasy in Going After Cacciato is created in the first chapter. The novel's scenes, whether in caverns under Vietnam or on the streets of Paris, are consistent with its premises.

If the work remains true to itself, readers will follow. But if you ask your readers to suspend their disbelief without regard to the premises of the story, they will stop suspending and start disbelieving.

See Beginnings, Plot, Premise.


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October 2013

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