Saturday, December 12, 2015

Let's Suspend Disbelief in Writing

Jim Rubart wrote a good piece here about how authors write. He said: "I continue to read traditionally published books where I think the novelist is wasting words and keeping the reader from going deeper into the POV of the protagonist. Here’s what I mean: I frequently see sentences such as this: 'He could hear the elephants stomp through the forest.'"

He went on to talk about writing tight, but there is another problem at work here. The old show vs tell. The above sentence is telling. So, why is telling so bad in a book? Because most of the time, it reminds the reader that, after all, this is only the product of an author's imagination, and in doing so, you've destroyed the suspension of disbelief.

A covenant to suspend disbelief

Why is suspending disbelief so important? It's a covenant between you and your reader to enter the story world. You've asked him to believe everything you've put in your book for the time it takes him to read it. She wants to experience what your characters do. She wants to be an insider—a BFF of your protagonist, privy to all his thoughts. She's entered this covenant willingly, but if you break the covenant she isn't likely to buy your next book.

So how do you avoid breaking the covenant? By learning to show the story through your POV character's eyes. That means everything. What he thinks, hears, sees, smells, touches, his emotions, and then his thoughts on those.

Take a look around you

Look around you. What do you see? What do you notice? Imagine you're sitting in Starbucks. You may be writing. A fellow gets up across the room and your eyes lift from your laptop. You've noticed him. What does he do? Is there anything noteworthy about him? A sentence, short and sweet, can make your reader feel like she's inside the character's head. The reader is experiencing what the character is.

You wouldn't say she noticed him get up. It would look something like this: Across the room, the guy whose ears made him look like a wing-nut sauntered to the coffee bar. Half a napkin stuck to the bottom of his shoe. And if he's about to become an larger part of the story, we already know something about his personality. He's oblivious.

Use those observations metaphorically to show the reader the character's mindset at that moment. What she notices will say a lot about what she's thinking and feeling. If she's experiencing guilt, then her worldview isn't rosy. She'd notice the dark parts of life. 

So, join the conversation. What are the best and the worst you've seen?