[GUEST POST] Ari Marmell on How to Successfully Create Suspension of Disbelief

Ari Marmell is a fantasy author whose novels include
The Goblin Corps, The Conqueror’s Shadow, The Iron Kingdoms Chronicles: In Thunder Forged, as well as the
Widdershins novels (Lost Covenant, Thief’s Covenant, and False Covenant). His latest novel, Hot Lead, Cold Iron, begins a new urban fantasy series. Follow Ari on Twitter using the best handle ever: @mouseferatu.

How to Successfully Create Suspension of Disbelief

by Ari Marmell

“Suspension of disbelief” is absolutely essential to any fantasy tale. If you can’t get the reader to accept the impossibilities of whatever magic or monsters you’re throwing at them, you’re never going to get them invested in the story. Everyone knows that.

What many people do not realize, though, is that, to suspend a reader’s disbelief, you have to start them from a shared baseline of what IS believable. A foundation of realism, some might call it–except that reality gets in the way of believability surprisingly often.

How many times have you seen a character in a book or movie konked on the head, and then the following happens? Everything goes black, they collapse, and wake up a few hours later–probably in the clutches of the villain–with a nasty headache.

In the real world, you know what happens if you get konked on the head like that? If you’re lucky, you’re only knocked out for a couple of minutes, such as the average KO in a boxing match. If you’re out longer than that? Concussion and probably permanent brain damage. It’s cumulative, too; as many times as James Bond’s been knocked out, he ought to have the cognitive abilities of a particularly suave and borderline alcoholic lichen.

Let’s try a different one. “I want my phone call.” If you’ve seen a movie more than two movies where someone’s been arrested, you’ve heard something like that. Everyone knows that, at least in the American justice system, anyone who’s been thrown in jail is entitled to one phone call.

Except they’re not. That’s a Hollywood creation; no basis in law whatsoever. They have to provide you access to an attorney, yes, but beyond that, it depends entirely on the prison. You may have unfettered access to a payphone, or may you have no phone access at all.

Here’s one I ran across while doing research on the Chicago mobs for HOT LEAD, COLD IRON. Most people who have only a passing familiarity with Capone and the gang know Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti was Capone’s right hand and, well, enforcer. It’s right there in the name. In the movie The Untouchables, he’s portrayed as a trigger-happy psychopath, all too eager to shed blood on his boss’s behalf, and quite a few other movies show him the same way.

The historical Frank Netti? He was called “the Enforcer” because he knew, and enforced, the various rules and procedures during Syndicate meetings. He was a strategist and paper-pusher, not a torpedo. He’d committed his share of violence in his youth, but by the time he was anyone, he kept his hands clean.

I could keep going, but the point is, there are a lot of things out there in genre entertainment that we accept as fact, and that are actually the farthest thing from it. And while a great many writers continue to use such details because they don’t realize they’re wrong, you’ll find that even most authors who do recognize such things continue to use them.

In part, sure, it’s the drama. It’s more dramatic to be able to knock your hero out for an hour without crippling him. It’s dramatic for swords to make that cool “Schiiing!” sound when drawn from the scabbard.

But of far more importance, it’s what the readers or viewers EXPECT. If I’m showing a police procedural, and the prisoner is refused his one phone call, the audience knows–well, “knows”–something’s wrong. They’ll expect the authorities to face consequences for this violation, or at least for it be remarked upon. Failure to do so is going to draw calls of “Mistake!” and “Bad writing!” from a lot of them.

And that’s going to take them out of the story. You’ve lost them, even if only for a minute, and as a writer, you never want that. Whereas, if you go along with the “one phone call” bit despite knowing better, you’ll satisfy that portion of the audience, and the other portion–the ones who DO know better–have still been conditioned through experience to accept the “one phone call” in a fictional scenario. You’ll lose far fewer people that way than the other.

The other option is, you take the time to explain–and that, too, is going to break the narrative and take people out of the story.

What any author, and especially a fantasy author, needs in order to create a suspension of disbelief is not a foundation of rigid accuracy but a foundation of SHARED EXPECTATION. It has to be believable; it doesn’t have to be RIGHT.

If I’m going to ask you to believe in an exiled fey noble as a hard-boiled PI, who carries a magic wand in place of a gun, then I need to provide a “real world” environment that’s absolutely as easy to swallow as possible–even if that means going along with a few popular misconceptions.

It doesn’t make for a good history textbook, no, but it makes for a far better novel.

2 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Ari Marmell on How to Successfully Create Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. Absolutely agree, Ari. It’s a major struggle with urban fantasy in particular, because we ARE starting from a shared reality of the urban environment and all those expectations that come with it. It helps and hinders really, giving us that baseline but also throwing up all these institutions and rules that we have to gradually shake apart to make room for the fantasy elements.

    For the record, your transition from Chi to Otherworld Chi was ace.

    And yeah, good ol’ Frank. I used him in my book and tried to straddle the divide between gun-toting psycho and clinical strategist. I wanted to be true to his history, but it just didn’t play in the story.

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