Suspending Disbelief for Readers – Part 1

We’ve all heard about suspending belief, but where stories are concerned, what if you’ve written something that defies belief?  What if you have an outlandish plot and characters that can do amazing things or have brilliant skills (all without experience or the right training)?
The truth is, every story requires the reader to suspend their disbelief and start believing totally in the story, whether that is a thriller story, a romance, a horror or a science fiction story.  A writer somehow has to make the unbelievable believable.

But is it as easy as it sounds?

One of the most common rejections from editors and publishers is that a story isn’t credible or plausible. The plot is ‘too far-fetched’, or the characters are simply not believable. This can be hard to digest, particularly when you see so many books on the shelves with ridiculous plot lines.
It can be done, but this is all down to the ability of the writer to make the reader eventually suspend their disbelief and become involved both with the story and the characters.

So, even if you have a fairly preposterous plot, or a character with a range of skills that no ordinary Joe would possess, there are ways to manipulate the reader and convince them otherwise with the use of the following:-
·        Details – Background and correct facts
·        Believable and realistic characters
·        Believable dialogue
·        Description
·        Believable character goals
·        Immediacy
·        Eliminating uncertainty – make things plausible
·        Interesting sub plots
·        The right setting

We’ll look at these individually:

The more colour in your background, the better. Every character has a background, so the story itself must also have a background – after all, it started somehow, somewhere. That means there must have been a catalyst to start your character on his or her path. The more you can give the reader, the more likely it is they will invest in your story.
Also, having the correct facts helps.  Research thoroughly and know the subject you are writing about. The more detail you can give the reader, the easier it will be to convince them of the reality of the story. That way you have a chance of convincing the reader that the unfolding events in the story are real.

Make it plausible yet credible for the reader (even though in reality it might not be), and they will suspend their initial disbelief.
Believable and realistic characters

This is an absolute. Your characters must be fully rounded and three dimensional to the point they could be real people. That means that attitudes, emotions and motivations should build and shape your characters as they would real people. The more dimensions they have, the more believable and physically real they are in the reader’s mind.
Part of the goal for the writer is to help the reader form a bond with the characters, to make them care about them. They might even have something in common with them (betrayal, lost love, happiness etc.).  Again, get the reader on side with great characters, and they will probably overlook the slightly preposterous plot, e.g. main character saves world from a bomb by diffusing it himself, despite no training or experience…that kind of thing.

Believable dialogue
The other part of the goal for any writer is to make dialogue as realistic as possible.  Readers want to know what characters have to say, because once they form that bond with them, they have to know more about them, so tight, snappy dialogue that moves the story forward once again helps them suspend that disbelief.

Besides, characters are only as believable as the words you give them to speak.

It goes without saying that good, solid description is a must.  Whether you hate it or not, the right description is a magical ingredient for the reader to fall helplessly in love with your story. It can make a story.
Even if you have a strange plot and slightly unbelievable characters, great description can help balance those negatives. It’s there for every writer to use to their advantage, so don’t waste it.

That’s four of the main points covered. In part 2 we’ll continue our look at ways to make a reader suspend their disbelief and start believing in your story by looking at the remaining points: Believable character goals, immediacy, eliminating uncertainty, interesting sub plots and using the right setting.

Next time: Suspending Disbelief for Readers – Part 2


  1. I think there are expectations when we read literature that was written in the 18th, 19th or early 20th century that morals values and beliefs may have been different. This may apply to Sci-Fi too.

    It becomes more difficult when pushing against prevailing 'mind sets' in the current day. For example if a novel was published in the 1950's where one of the major characters was a white British Police / Military Officer and regularly tortured Mau Mau suspects and prisoners, maybe there'd have been cries that the fiction was incredible because of that. Today, we know differently. Zoom forward to Iraq, Afghanistan...

    A woman in charge of a major multinational UK or US corporate in the 1960s? Exceptional. Today?

    1. Excellent examples, Bryn. Especially the last one. Even up until recently, a woman in charge of a major organisation, and intelligent with it, would still make publishers balk!

    2. Yes. There were in the 60's exceptions - such as Hershey or Woolworth, but these were mainly dynastic. Oh the irony of publishers - one of the areas where women, in general, were prevalent in management very early.

  2. One of mine and my friends' rituals to writing is to question each others' stories until all questions have been answered and / or explained. It's almost like a game to us. If I create a character, I like my friends to pick him apart. Question me over everything about him and if I can't answer something about him or something doesn't add up, then I know that's the area I need to fix.

    1. That's a fantastic way of ensuring your characters are as real as possible, and a good way to explore character flaws and plot holes. Fab idea.

  3. I find writing believable dialogue to be incredibly difficult. I can describe a scene in detail with no issue... but every time I try to write dialogue it just seem so awkward.... When it comes to writing believable stories I will say that I prefer to write stories that are set in the future... the future hasn't happened yet... anything can happen and nothing is wrong. Stories set in the past/present have to take care to be factually accurate. I look forward to part 2... especially the part about sub plots... I love sub plots... but they are so hard to keep straight...:)


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