Yesterday I read an interesting post called Fiction: How far are you willing to suspend disbelief? on The Rambling Jour.
While I was composing my comment, a thought occurred to me that struck me initially as somewhat absurd, however, the more I reflect upon it, the more sense it makes.
Writing fiction is like BDSM.
Weird, huh? But, please, indulge me for a moment.
When we write fiction, we are engaging in a relationship with our audience that is based on lying to them. We tell our readers things that aren’t true, and they agree to pretend to believe them, for pleasure. That’s a Power Exchange relationship.
Once I started thinking of it in those terms, I realized that willing suspension of disbelief isn’t something that an author should take for granted–it is a negotiated and consensual exchange between the author and the reader.
There is no “of course” in consensual power exchange. What I mean by that is that the relationship begins with a baseline of equality, and any deviation from that baseline must be negotiated. If you and I agree to let me put you over my knee and spank you, for example, that doesn’t mean that I get to tickle you, too. It doesn’t matter that I might think that tickling is “milder” than spanking, the point is that spanking was negotiated, tickling was not.
The example that was given in the post that sparked this line of thought was the series The Walking Dead. Heather Hambel Curley mentioned that her husband objected to a scene in a recent episode that involved firearms, and wondered why he was able to accept zombies, but not inaccuracies in the portrayal of firearms.
It’s simple. Zombies were negotiated. Magic guns were not.
There is no “of course” in suspension of disbelief, either. If I write a book about alien intelligences infiltrating Earth and taking over human bodies, and you agree to accept that, it doesn’t mean that I can automatically assume that you will also accept my characters managing to cram 30 million dollars in cash into a single briefcase. (Something that I recently researched. Cash takes up a lot more room than I imagined.)
So how do we, as authors, negotiate with our readers? We can’t just sit down with our readers in a coffee shop with a checklist. Instead we have to weave our negotiation process into the text, which is a subtle process. I can’t tell you how to do it, but I have some thoughts on the process.
Start Slow: In SM101 Jay Wiseman writes that the goal of a first scene is to leave both parties thinking about the next time. Don’t pull out all the big guns right away. In The Walking Dead, the first episode is quite slow. We are introduced to the concept of the world being overrun with reanimated corpses, we see a lot of the devastation, but the first ones we see are a small child and a woman with no legs. The producers give us plenty of time to get used to the idea in theory before hitting us with the swarm.
One Thing At A Time: The series Supernatural introduces a huge range of creatures–ghosts, demons, angels, leviathans, and more walk-on nastiness than I can count. However, if you watch the series from the beginning you’ll see each type of creature gets introduced in its own episode, generally as the only monster in that episode. It’s only once we have had a chance to process the capabilities and vulnerabilities of a particular monster that it is used in combinations with the monsters that we already know.
Never Negotiate During A Scene: I am using “scene” in the BDSM sense, not in the literary sense. What I mean is that an action sequence is not the place to introduce new fabulous elements. It is astonishing how many times this rule is violated. The climactic battle is being waged, the heroes are on the ropes and then, just when things look hopeless, the Mystic Thingamabob can suddenly shoot fireballs, which it could never do before. That’s not a twist, it’s a cheat. It’s the surest way to get me to safeword and put down the book or walk out of the movie. Don’t ask your readers to agree to new terms when their adrenaline is high, it’s unfair and leaves them feeling used.
Question Your Own Preconceptions: This goes back to there being no “of course”. It is easy, when writing in a particular genre, to begin with a “genre baseline”. I personally believe that it’s a mistake. In Science Fiction, for example, it is common for authors to posit the existence of faster than light travel. However, just because it’s a standard trope doesn’t mean that you can just assume it and move on. The Guild Highliners in Frank Herbert’s Dune operate by very different rules than the collapsar jumps in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Don’t assume that when you write “warp drive” that your readers will be imagining the same sort of warp drive that you are imagining. Take time time to spell it out. Is this reinventing the wheel? Maybe a little, but it’s a lot easier to clarify things in the beginning than try to correct your readers misconceptions later on.
Everything That Is Not Include Is Excluded: For example, the “magic guns” of The Walking Dead. Anything that deviates from objective reality requires an explanation. This means that even those of us who work with the fantastic have to do research. As a locksmith, I frequently run into stories that ignore physics as it pertains to locks. Don’t assume that your readers won’t know how something works in the real world, because some of us might. Yes, we can twist and mold reality to our will in our stories, but we have to start with knowing what we are changing and be willing to provide our readers with a rationale. Unless you have a working knowledge of how a bank vault is constructed, don’t try to sell me on the idea that someone could be locked inside it and not be able to escape. I’m going to be wondering what happened to the emergency release inside the vault, and you’d best have an answer for me.
All of this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. It doesn’t have to involve pages of exposition, however, there are techniques for giving the reader the necessary information without data dumps–that’s part of the craft of writing. The important principle, to my way of thinking, is to remember that suspension of disbelief isn’t something that the reader just hands over unconditionally, it’s something that you work to build with the reader, part of a relationship based on mutual respect and (it is to be hoped) mutual enjoyment.