Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Writing Believably About the Unbelievable

I was recently watching an episode of Fringe with my daughter, and she scoffed at a particular sci-fi premise. She is a big Harry Potter fan, so I countered, “And Harry Potter is believable?” To which she responded, “Dad, that’s different?” Apparently, believing in sorcerers, centaurs, and flying broomsticks is easier than believing in soldiers from a parallel world.


All fiction is make-believe. Whether you’re reading a legal thriller or supernatural romance, suspending disbelief is a requirement. Often, the only real difference between fiction readers is how much disbelief they will suspend. And the only real difference between genres is how much suspension of disbelief is required.

As such, one of the challenges of writing speculative fiction is the actual speculation. Whether it’s ghosts, mutants, or magic formulas, at some point you require a concession from your readers. Fans of the speculative approach the genre with a unique tolerance for the unbelievable. But even they have their limits.

So how do you write about the unbelievable, believably? Here’s five ways you can help your readers suspend their disbelief:

  • Invest in the believable. Readers are more likely to believe that your protagonist’s garden gnome can come to life if your protag, rather than his garden gnome, is believable. Our readers identify first with what they know to be factually and emotionally true. Therefore, investing in the “known” is the first step in building a bridge to the “unknown.”
  • Address the “unbelievable” as logically as possible. In Dean Koontz’s interview at Novel Rocket, the prolific novelist was asked how he pulled off his typically wild premises. He said, “If you give yourself entirely to intuition but then bring hard intellectual analysis to what the intuition produces, you’ll be okay. Take the far-out element and consider it in the same spirit that St. Thomas Aquinas used clear cold reason to prove the existence of God.” Subjecting the “far-out” elements of your story to “clear cold reason” helps our readers suspend potential disbelief. If you want me to believe that your hero can tame dragons, logic is the last thing you can afford to sacrifice.
  • Show appropriate incredulity in your characters. I once attended a workshop by Jeff Gerke on writing speculative fiction and he noted that one of the ways we create a believable story world is by showing our characters astonishment when appropriate. In other words, if a contemporary woman stumbles into the 16th century, she should not “get over it” any time soon. A character who is not utterly floored by a dimensional portal in her office cubical, will likely NOT be followed by readers through it.
  • Obey the law of your land. Even quidditch has rules, gravity being one of them. Whether it’s Oz, Atlantis, or Middle Earth, each story world contains its own set of laws. The writer is free to create a world where anything can happen, as long as what happens is consistent with the laws of that world. We help our readers suspend disbelief, not just by creating a set of consistent laws, but by not breaking them.
  • Damn the torpedoes. However far-out the elements of your story are, the worst thing you could do is second-guess them or treat them with kid gloves. If your story involves goblins, superheroes, or talking teapots, then follow it through. Where would Frodo be if Tolkien was reluctant about magic? Rather, the epic works because, in it, trees CAN talk and rings CAN make one invisible. If your story world involves magic (or romance, teleportation, and anti-gravity boots), then full steam ahead.

Readers come to fiction for different reasons. But most come with a willingness to believe the unbelievable. Whether it’s a nuclear holocaust or a lost Eden, we can help our readers suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy those non-existent worlds.


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Mike Duran is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Mike! I fall into the camp of readers that are more likely to be believe in a science fiction premise, rather than a fantasy premise. To me, science fiction "could" happen. Fantasy is just a good story. For instance, I'm never going to believe in vampires, werewolves or zombies, but if a creature came from Mars—well, that one just might be real! LOL.