Fiction writers have the most freedom to write whatever they want. After all, fiction is—by definition—not true. Thus, without the constraints of truth holding them down, fiction writers can write about things that don’t make any sense. This is how the more fantastical genres of science fiction and fantasy can get away with having aliens, dragons, and any other number of crazy things the author can think up.
While fiction doesn’t have to hold to the tenets of truth, there is one fundamental foundation needed for this—or any other—writing. That foundation is logic. Even if readers can accept a world that has faster-than-light travel or a ring that can make its wearer invisible, if there isn’t a logic supporting these claims, the reader will begin to doubt the world the writer has created. The second that doubt creeps in, disbelief isn’t far behind.
A hole in logic is a hole in the plot.
Because there’s no need to write factual things in fiction, readers of this broad genre will have varying levels of what’s called “suspension of disbelief.” We all have experience interacting with the real world. Anything counter to this triggers our mind to be skeptical of these anomalies. Fortunately, if readers know from the start that they’re interacting with fiction, they can suppress this skepticism. Suspend their disbelief if you will.
Unfortunately, you can only stretch this suspension of disbelief so far. There are a few reasons for this. First, if an author writes about something they know nothing about, but the reader is an expert in this topic, then the reader won’t believe what the author is writing when it contradicts their personal experience. Second, unless there are differences explicitly stated, most fictional realms must abide by the same physics and natural laws that govern our universe. If you break these rules without an explanation, the reader will cease to believe the reality of these fictional events.
What helps a writer keep from breaking the reader’s suspension of disbelief is an unspoken agreement between the two that, while these events might be fictional, they’re at least plausible. Logic anchors this plausibility. Most logic follows the “if this, then that” formula which we interact with every day. For instance, if I press down on the gas pedal in my car, then I expect my car to accelerate. Even if there are hundreds of steps that lie between this action and reaction, most people can recognize if the result is logical or not.
How can you, as a writer, keep from breaking your readers’ suspension of disbelief? If you need logic to ground the world you’ve created, how do you double-check this logic? There are a few ways to go about this…
- Research: Some things take a quick Google search to figure out. For instance, if your characters are driving across the country, it will take more than a day to do so. Consequently, you’ll need to write in the passage of time, including a few stops overnight to let your characters rest. Your readers won’t likely believe that these characters drove from New York to San Francisco in eight hours, at least without an explanation like a rocket-powered car and the hundreds of speeding tickets racked up along the journey.
- Interview: Even with Google and Wikipedia, some things are difficult to find on the internet. When it comes to personal experiences that you want to draw upon for your characters, try finding someone who has gone through similar situations, and interview them. This way, you aren’t making up how you think someone would act in a scenario, which might go against the logic that those who have experienced it would notice. That being said, also know that sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and some readers might not believe it even if it happened.
- Beta Readers: Often, writers are too close to their work to recognize the flaws and plot holes in their writing. If you have a good group of thorough beta readers, ask them to pick apart what you’ve written by posing the question, “Does this make sense?” Again, people have different life experiences to pull from and might find some logical fallacies along the way. For example, I beta read a story once where the main character broke their femur to the point where it stuck out of their leg. This character was up and walking again with no problem in only a few months, if not weeks. From my basic knowledge of compound fractures (which is what this was), I urged the writer to consider lessening the injury or increasing the recovery time to more than six months. As it was written, it didn’t make logical sense.
Depending on the genre, some writers can get away with a lot of hand waving to set up the logic of their world. It helps to know your audience to understand how much bending of logic they’re willing to take. You’ll always run across the extreme expert who won’t believe you, but most readers won’t fall into this category. Still, understanding what is common knowledge is key to making your fictional world as realistic as possible. Obscure facts might help round out your writing, but basing your fiction on some version of reality is truly the foundation of great stories.
When have you had your suspension of disbelief broken?
What life experience have you had that an author got wrong?
Have you ever read something that didn’t make sense?