Suspending disbelief

divergentHave you ever put down a book because you thought the story-world was just too implausible? I suspect not many. But I am sure there are books you may have put down because you thought they were just plain boring. No one likes mundane and boring. Readers want excitement.

Good writers like Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins are adept at taking their readers to imaginary worlds where for a time the reader is prepared to suspend their disbelief about the story-world to follow the main character’s story.

Of course, a lot depends on genre. Readers of Fantasy are more likely to accept the implausible: worlds of magic, dragons and mythical characters. But they are not the only ones to suspend disbelief. Science Fiction readers often accept future worlds with faster-than-light travel, aliens and time travel, even though some of the science underlying these stories may seem improbable. And Horror readers accept worlds of vampires, were wolves, and zombies.

But even putting aside the genres of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, to some extent all fiction writers tease the reader into suspending disbelief about some aspects of the story. Even Thrillers and Romance novells may be based around an improbable premise or serendipity. It’s a matter of degree.

So why are readers so easily seduced to suspend their understanding of reality? Curiousity plays a part. But it’s also because the reader wants to escape from their mundane ordinary world to the experience the thrills and emotions of the main character’s story. The more extreme the story-world, the more extreme the stakes at risk, the greater is the emotional intensity.

Have you ever shed a tear or felt a dry throat during a movie or book? It’s normal. Our emotional response to a movie or book doesn’t distinguish between reality and fiction. The emotional response is the same. And good writers can induce this.

So how do writers create these worlds and how do they get us as readers to believe in them? I think the answer to this question isn’t in the way these worlds are described; although building a consistent world is an important feature. It is in the way the characters in the story are developed. They must remain real human beings with strong desires and needs, even if the characters themselves are not necessarily human. They may be vampires, elves or robots, but they must have some strong human traits.

Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The world Roth creates is unbelievably strange world where society is split into factions that determine their roles in society. It seems a very impausible world. Yet the main character, Tris, is a strong and a very likeable character that the reader can identify with and root for. The world of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games is also weird and impausible, with young children sent to their deaths at a games for sport to satisfy the corrupt Capital. But the character of Katniss Everdeen is strong and caring. Perhaps the contrast between the main characters and extreme setting is one of the key attributes of this type of dystopian fiction.

One writer once said all stories are about life and death; not necessarily physical death, it can be about psychological, or emotional death. But stories that are not about something important to the main character’s well-being of those he/she cares for are destined to failure. I’m sure that’s right. No one wants boring.

Learning to write from the best writers

I love to read science fiction. When I’m not writing myself I can usually be found reading — a sci-fi novel, or if not sci-fi, a book about the craft of writing. Recently, I realised I needed to take a break from writing my new novel. I had reached a point where I needed to think more deeply about where the plot line was taking me. I find when I reach such a point, focusing on something else is a good way to distract the conscious mind and let the subconscious mind work on the problem. Reading a novel is a great distraction. So I picked up some novels to read. The first was Veronica Roth’s Divergent which was devoured in two days. The second was Hugh Howey’s Wool.

As a writer, I find it difficult to completely relax and enjoy a novel without also examining the author’s style and approach. There is a lot to learn by observing an other author’s word craft — how they build empathy for their characters, build tension and conflict, and how they unfold the storyline. Both Veronica Roth and Hugh Howey are new, and by all accounts, successful writers. Reading their novels was an opportunity to learn from the best.

Divergent is YA Sci-Fi novel with a strong female lead character. It is written in the first person point of view (POV) and using the current tense, as so many successful YA novelists have done before (for example, Stephanie Meyer’s The Host or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games). Using first person POV makes for an intense emotional experience as the story is told through the eyes (and thoughts) of the heroine. But writing in the first person POV, without excessive repetition of “I” and sticking to the current tense, is not an easy style to master. Roth, however, makes it look remarkably easy and natural. Writing in the first person POV is not a style that particularly suits me. I like complex plot lines and multiple POVs, and first person POV does’t allow you to see into the mind of any other character other than the lead character.

Hugh Howey’s Wool is written in third person POV  (‘he/she’) and in the past tense: a more natural style for me. It also uses multiple changes of POV — we learn the story through the viewpoint of different characters in different chapters. This is sometimes called limited third person POV as the POV is limited to one character per scene. Although writing in limited third person POV can be less intimate than writing in the first person, when it is managed correctly it can be just as intimate as writing in the first person. And Howey achieves this in masterly fashion .

When I’m reading, one of things I dislike is laborious detailed descriptions that don’t add to the story. In Dicken’s day this was the norm. Nowadays excessive use of detailed descriptions can detract from a story line and slow the action down. So when I’m reading, I tend to skip over these as I suspect most do. One of the features of Howey’s style that I particularly like is the way he combines his description of events with character revelation. For example, when describing the unusual dystopian environment of the silo as the characters descend the staircase, Howey not only describes the details of this strange environment, but also how the characters react emotionally to it. It stirs their memories and feelings and gives us an insight into their character. I think all good writers have this instinct. Description should not stand alone separate from the story but be an integral part of it.

Choice of person, point of view and tense are decisions that any writer must make before putting pen to paper (or hitting the keyboard). It affects the whole way a story is written and is not easily revised after you start writing. How a writer deals with action, dialogue and description is scene specific. We can identify which scenes create emotion between the reader and the characters in a novel, but it is perhaps more difficult to understand how the author achieves this. But it is important to remember that this is part of the word craft of an experienced writer and the result of endless editing, revision and honing. So, if you’re a newbie writer, observe and learn from the best. But don’t get disheartened or over awed by them. One day that writer may be you.