By Thonie Hevron
Willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.
Every fiction writer must wrestle with this at some time. The worlds we create are products of our imagination with a little fact thrown in.
The main facet of suspension of disbelief: Could this happen, really?
Something that I see in my genre (police procedural/thriller/mystery) so often is multiple officer involved shootings (OIS’s) several times a shift or day or week. Officers never seem to go on Administrative Leave ever. Administrative Leave is a temporary leave from a job or assignment, with pay and benefits intact. Officers are routinely placed on administrative leave after a shooting incident while an investigation is conducted (sometimes by an outside agency for impartiality), without implying fault on the part of the officer.
My husband, the retired firefighter, cries foul when a vehicle is involved in a crash and subsequent explosion (this doesn’t include when the plot specifies an incendiary device was aboard). What typically happens is this: cars don’t explode on impact. If they catch fire, it often due to fuel leaking to an ignition source (such as an overheated catalytic converter).
Cops and fire fighters are readers and know when something just ain’t right. But when you include a feasible ignition source in that Impala that collides with a tree—then you have the “well, it could happen” moment.
Another part of suspension of disbelief involves the premise of my first novel. By Force or Fear’s protagonist is a female detective being stalked by a cunning judge. Her superiors don’t believe her when she reports him. In this day of #MeToo, I seriously doubt any responsible administrator would discount the report. But it could happen, right? That’s suspension of disbelief.
The key to making the preposterous believable is to sow seeds of reasonability into the story (foreshadowing) ahead of time or during the event. For instance, an observer of the car crash might see the fallen tiki torch next to the tree or the officer may be the last officer (think a department-wide epidemic with no mutual aid officers available within the day—hey, it’s a stretch but it could happen, right?). Sometimes a scientific explanation after the event can work but that can be dicey. Balance this with authenticity.
The trick to all of this is to make your devices (and plot twists) believable. Do your research, online and on the ground. Talk to police officers, fire fighters, professors, whoever you need to get the scoop. After talking to these folks, you may find that the truth is less believable than fiction!
October 12th will feature D.R. Ransdell’s take on this topic. On October 19th, an interview with Rita Lakin who dishes on the hard-to-believe-it-but-they’re-true stories with her Getting Older is Murder series. Niles Reddick winds up the month on October 26th with writing about differences.
You’ll be glad you checked them all out! Don’t forget to read Hal Collier (Ramblings), Ed Meckle (The Call Box), Mikey (Roll Call) and others on Just the Facts, Ma’am to find out how much stranger truth can be than fiction!