Suspending disbelief through shock (writerly stuff)

Q Geekery, Writing 4 Comments



Today a co-worker mentioned suspension of disbelief to me (thanks Katie), and it got me thinking about how the approach to the concept has changed. Establishing suspension of disbelief in genres that are inherently easy to disbelieve has really evolved in the last decade or two. Tolkien eased us into the world of Middle Earth by giving us a detailed, documentary-like description of Hobbits. It was presented almost like a scholarly essay, and served to gently nudge people into accepting the fact that Hobbits are real creatures from a believable place called Middle Earth.

Before I continue, I’ll explain a little bit about what suspension of disbelief is (or, at least how I perceive it). Basically, when writing fiction of any kind, you need to be sure you don’t put something in your story that is so far out there that it’s impossible to believe. If you do, it removes the reader from your story, and that’s bad. If they don’t believe what’s going on, you’re pretty much sunk. Establishing suspension of disbelief (which I’ll call SoD from now on) used to be and careful process back in Tolkien’s day (most of the time), but new approaches have been gaining traction in fairly recent history to the point where they’re now commonplace.

Allow me to elaborate through example . . .

J.R.R. Tolkien designed Hobbits as the perfect engine for introducing us to an epic fantasy world. When we start off, Bilbo seems a lot like a regular guy living in a medieval-ish setting. Because Hobbits don’t go out of town much, and spend most of their time eating and drinking (something most of us can identify with), you’re not thrown head-first into a world where magic rings control the destiny of mankind. Instead you get some context first.

Hobbits are naive about the world of Middle Earth, just like you, so as Bilbo gets eased into events that shape and reflect that world, so do you. It’s quite brilliant, and it helps maintain suspension of disbelief because you discover things right alongside Bilbo, whom you already know thanks to the rather elaborate introduction. Here, read the first chapter to refresh your memory:

John Scalzi is a modern sci-fi writer—one of my favorites, in fact. He also serves as a perfect example of this new “shock” method of SoD that I mentioned in the title of this post. The first line in Old Man’s War is, “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Here’s a sample (you should really check it out, it’s a great book):

My immediate reaction when I read those first three sentences went something like this:

I’m with you, Jackie

75 seems a little old to join the army, right? The story keeps right on going without like it’s is no big deal that this elderly dude is joining the army because John Perry (the main character) knows that’s how the world is. Since we’re getting the story through his eyes, it wouldn’t make sense to pretend that this is some new and crazy thing. We, as readers, are left to accept retirees joining the army because it seems so natural to John.

Hell, in Android’s Dream (my favorite Scalzi novel) we’re thrown into a diplomatic meeting between an Earth delegation and an alien race. It’s even more off-the-wall then Old Man’s War. To give you an idea, the first line is, “Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.” No, that’s not metaphor or symbolism; it’s quite literal.

The whole first chapter is just about as subtle as a smack in the face. That’s not an insult to the writing. Scalzi did it on purpose, and he pulls it off. Here, check it out:

What Scalzi has done in both of these books is sort of the opposite of what Tolkien did in The Hobbit. Instead of easing you into his worlds, Scalzi is throwing you in right off the bat. He doesn’t give you time to wonder, “would it really happen like that?” There’s no chance to stop and really contemplate the world—no, you just have to accept that you’re in it.

You know what? This whole shock SoD thing works pretty well. It’s like a man coming up to you on the street and telling you all about the interesting things in the building behind him with absolute certainty and conviction. Because this random stranger seems so earnest, and seems to speak from a place of absolute authority, you believe him. The uniform he’s wearing doesn’t hurt either. You think that he must work in that building, so you take him at his word.

By throwing readers in head-first, authors are doing the same thing. It has the distinct advantage of getting you into the story immediately. The Tolkien method requires a lot of set up and world-building before you can get to the meat of the story. Sure, Tolkien was a master, and he does hint at the story while introducing his world, but it’s still much slower than Scalzi’s approach.

Movies throw belief at you with visuals. Hard to do in a book.

There absolutely is room for the more Tolkienesque approach in today’s day and age, where we carefully lay the ground rules for our world, then dig into the story, but I find the new-found variety in establishing SoD refreshing. As audiences and authors change, we get to see a wider range of techniques to keep people reading, and I’m all for that.

I still love The Hobbit, and I’m not saying it’s a bad approach. What I am saying is that I find the psychology behind both of these approaches to establishing SoD fascinating. What, in our brains, allows for both methods? Is one more effective than the other? Does one work better for fantasy than for sci-fi? Why?

There are a lot of questions, that’s for sure. As a writer, I’ll keep both methods in my arsenal because stories are like people: they’re complicated beasts. No single approach will fit every story (or person).

What do you think? How do your favorite authors do it? Tell me in the comments!

Comments 4

    1. Post

      Thanks, Darren! You’re absolutely right; I’m simply using sci-fi and fantasy because they make especially salient examples. I think it’d be interesting to do a study of when these two approaches work best, and with whom. I find the shift to more in-your-face world-building to be fascinating in all forms of storytelling.

      My current theory is that it has a lot to do with our shortening attention spans. People are slowly turning into goldfish.

  1. Your reflections on the different ways in which SoD can be established are interesting, but I disagree that the difference is in era. The “shock technique,” as you put it, has been around since the Gothic genre got moving in the 18th century. In what we would now call the fantasy and supernatural genres, it was more common to establish some level of normality before delving into the weird (your “Tolkienesque” approach), but there has long been fiction that dropped you headlong into the uncanny (take any of Dickens’ supernatural stories, for example).

    I’d be intrigued to see this contrast of techniques approached from the perspective of which you and my fellow readers feel is more effective to obtain SoD. Personally, I find both techniques effective, it all depends on the type of fiction the writer is crafting, but I’d be interested in exploring the question. Maybe that could be the topic for my next blog, and we could get a discussion going that way. 😉

    1. Post

      literaryhobbit, excellent observations! I guess what I was more getting at is that it’s become more the norm in recent years. You’re absolutely right that the “shock” technique has been around for quite some time, but I guess I would argue that it was much less common than it is today.

      That being said, I agree with you that both techniques can absolutely be effective. I’m just wondering if there’s a higher success rate (given the lack of societal attention span now-a-days) with the shock technique, which would explain the higher rate of use in recently published works.

      That’s something to research, and I thank you for the idea!

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