3 Ways to Use Suspension Of Disbelief To Tell A Great Story

Posted on Jul 6, 2023

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Written by Jackie Pearce

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Suspension of disbelief is a common storytelling technique where the readers turn off their critical thinking skills so they can “buy into” a story and believe it is happening.

For example, think of the last time you read a science fiction or fantasy story. You most likely had to believe that certain things were “real” in order to buy into the story.

If you ever had the experience where you cannot believe a story, you have had your suspension of disbelief broken. If that happens, it makes it hard to get back into the story and to keep going with it.

In this article, we will be going over the basics of how suspension of disbelief works, how you can use it in your storytelling, and what you need to do in order to keep readers invested.

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What Is Suspension Of Disbelief

Suspension of disbelief is the idea that sometimes readers have to suspend their critical thinking and logic in order to enjoy a story.

For example, you might have to believe that magic is real in the universe you are reading about in order to go along with what the book is about.

While we do it often when we read or watch movies, we are not always aware of how hard it can be to make readers stay in their disbelief and how easy it can be for it to shatter.

Think of how many times you have had people say about a movie or book, “Oh, I could not buy into it, so I had to stop.” That’s what happens when readers break out of the flow, which can happen for a lot of reasons.

Poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge is credited with the first mention of this idea behind suspension of disbelief. He thought it was important to put a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into any story to keep attention and let people suspend their critical thinking.

“Persons and characters, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Why Do Authors Use Suspension Of Disbelief

When readers can suspend their critical thinking, they can enjoy a story more, especially when it comes to genres like fantasy or science fiction.

It also allows a reader to imagine the story and believe it is happening in a way, even if they do not think it could happen in the “real world”.

How else would you be able to read things like James Bond and enjoy the story if you didn’t suspend your disbelief and sit around thinking, “This isn’t possible!”

Keep in mind, not every single reader will be able to suspend their disbelief. Everyone has their own limits, preferences, and boundaries for what they can buy into and understand.

How To Achieve Suspension Of Disbelief

Now, there is some debate between whether it is fully up to the writer or the reader to create the suspension of disbelief.

There are some people who simply cannot abandon their critical thinking in order to dive into a story, there are still some things you can do as an author in order to help your readers.

Once you get readers to “buy into” your story, you need to do everything possible to simply keep them in that state and not to break them out of it.

#1 – Give them the rules of the suspension

If you are going to break suspension, you need to give them some kind of container, world, or rules to think within.

Essentially, you need to introduce the level of “suspension of disbelief” the readers should have going into your story.

Does your story include far-reaching things like aliens and dragons or is it more like real life?

You will need to spend a good amount of time explaining the world, the rules, and anything else people need to know before diving into a story.

Granted there are some general rules people can follow from certain genres that you do not always have to explain. One example could be giving dragons the ability to fly or breathe fire, since most of us have seen that in other fantasy stories.

#2 – Have characters act reasonably

If there is a creature that is coming to attack your characters, you do not want them to just be sitting there carrying on with their conversation. Of course, you would expect them to be scared and act accordingly.

Even if you have a crazy idea and story, you still need your human characters to act like humans and do things that your readers could relate to.

The only exception would be if you have a reason for them to act out of character and it plays into the plot.

However, you can break their suspension of disbelief if you have characters acting in ways they do not understand or are completely out of left field.

#3 – Keep in line with your genre

Few things will break your readers out of the story than trying to break through genre rules.

If you have a story similar to James Bond and all of a sudden in the middle of a gun fight a ghost comes out and attacks a character, without any warning that it is a scary story, that can be hard to keep your readers.

The same could be said for trying to turn a crime story into a romance book in the middle of the story without any warmup or foreshadowing.

That is not to say that genre-bending is not possible, but you at least need to build in elements of both across the book or give readers a heads up to what is coming.

What Breaks Suspension Of Disbelief

As mentioned above, having characters act in weird ways or not “normal” ways can break your readers out of the story.

One of the top ways writers can lose their readers is by not keeping things consistent. If you need your audience to go along with your story and your ideas, you at least need to keep the characters in line with their personality traits and consistent choices.

If you have a character who is the stereotypical hero who near the end of the book turns into a villian, you are going to knock your readers out of the storyline. (That is, if you did not give the readers enough of a hint that this would happen to the character.)

Examples Of Suspension Of Disbelief

Almost any book outside of non-fiction will require a slight suspension of disbelief. This is not always true, but for the most part, it is.

Think about:

  • Harry Potter
  • The Hunger Games
  • James Bond
  • Game of Thrones
  • Lord of The Rings
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Invisible Man
  • The Odyssey
  • Animal Farm

Almost all of those books require you to put away your critical thinking skills and your suspicions in order to let your mind go and fall into the story.

That is not say that you cannot analyze a text and dive into the critical thinking aspect of it, but you cannot spend your time thinking if a certain plot or thing is “possible” or else you will fall out of the story.

Need Extra Writing Support?

Looking for extra help when it comes to your fiction book?

This handbook for fiction writers is the exact guide you need to put your book together. Get your copy:

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Full 53-Page Handbook that you can use to write and map out your story!

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