Suspending Disbelief – 3 Tips To Keep Your Reader Hooked

Suspending Disbelief – 3 Tips To Keep Your Reader Hooked


In this post, we write about how readers need to buy into your story by suspending disbelief and we give you three tips to keep your reader hooked.

I have been reviewing books for about a year and a half now, and it has been interesting to see what I like and don’t like in a book. A big deal-breaker for me is when a book requires too much suspension of disbelief.

What’s that?

Suspension of disbelief can be defined as ‘the semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story.’ Instead of the disbelief you would normally experience when faced with something that isn’t real, you choose to suspend that disbelief.

When an author stretches our willingness to do this to the extent that we feel betrayed, we give in to disbelief. At this point, I feel like throwing the book across the room.

Walking a tightrope

In our Writers Write course, we encourage writers to create characters that are larger than life. Their lives have to be more vivid than readers’ lives, or they won’t capture readers’ interest. Even when characters are intentionally dull and boring, they must be extraordinary in how dull and boring they are.

In doing this, the writer walks a tightrope. Characters need to be larger than life, but not be someone or do something that would make the reader say, ‘That’s so unrealistic. I’m outta here.’

How do you, as writer, keep that balance? 

3 Tips To Keep Your Reader Hooked

3 Tips To Keep Your Reader Hooked

There are three simple tools you can use to keep readers willing to go along with your story.

1.  Use simple language.

Every time your reader has to exit the story world you’ve created because of an unrecognisable word, you put strain on the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. It’s jarring, much like popping your car into third gear on the highway. It doesn’t mean you can’t create beautiful sentences. Just don’t be so taken with your own vocabulary that you make it difficult for the reader to experience the world you’ve created.

2.  Maintain internal consistency.

Confession time. My husband and I are total Trekkies. In fact, we love all things sci-fi. Occasionally, he laments the fact that a sci-fi movie wasn’t plausible. Of course, I find the irony delightful, because nothing calls for the suspension of disbelief like an alien with three heads. Yet, we happily do it.

The reason? It doesn’t matter how weird a story is, it remains believable as long as it is internally consistent. The moment you lose internal consistency, you lose the reader. Think of continuity errors in a film that sabotage its credibility. Never let ‘em see the zip in the back of the alien costume, folks.

[Read: 101 Sci-Fi Tropes For Writers]

3.  Create flawed characters.

Some genres are more lenient when it comes to having a ‘superhero’ character. This kind of character can intercept and decipher encrypted messages, single-handedly track down the evil leader of a crime syndicate, kill all 48 of his bodyguards while only sustaining flesh wounds, defuse a nuclear bomb in 30 seconds, and save the world by killing said leader.

Readers tend to be okay with this … to a point. If he also does his taxes on time, donates to charity, is a brilliant kisser, and can roast a leg of lamb, you’ll lose them.

Create plausible characters whose traits and reactions line up with each other. Let your character smoke, despite the fact that his mother died of lung cancer. Let him forget to feed the cat. Give him scars that don’t look cool.

3 Tips To Keep Your Reader Hooked

Here’s to keeping it as real as one can in fiction. Happy writing!

TOP TIP: If you want to learn how to write a book, sign up for our online course or join our course in Johannesburg.

 by Donna Radley

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    A good post, Donna.

    Part of walking the tightrope for an author is knowing who their target audience is and what it’s willing to believe.

    Science fiction readers are much more willing to believe totally bizarre things because that’s what’s expected.

    Readers of sweet romances have an entirely different frame of reference in deciding what is and is not believable. They also have different guidelines on how much they’re willing to suspend belief.

    No two genres are the same in this regard.

    Nor are any two readers the same.

    So the best advice for the writer is to know first who their target audience is and, second, what they are willing to believe when it comes to creating story world.

    Then, let the tightrope walking begin!

  2. Kirsten Blacketer

    Loved the points you made. All true. I’ve noticed as I mature as an reader that ability for me to be sucked into a story and keep me there has become more of a challenge. As a writer, I find this challenge even more difficult. I just try to remember to write what I would want to read, what I would find engaging and entertaining.

    As for the last point, create flawed characters. It made me giggle. This is exactly how I viewed Captain America over the course of his Marvel films thus far. Too perfect, to the point where he’s boring and almost unrealistic. What I’ve recently realized about his character though is that we never truly get in his head to see what lies beneath the perfect soldier/gentleman facade. I think a heavy dose of deep POV would do Cap wonders.

    We like flawed characters because we can relate to them, empathize with them. And as a romance author, I know chicks dig men with scars. Badges of honor to show they’re flawed and yet still have the ability to adapt and grow.

    Thanks for the awesome article.

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