Reading fiction is a rewarding experience for many reasons—providing a means of escape, examining human nature, provoking thought, etc.—but to make it an enjoyable experience that paves the road to reward, you have to buy into its fictional premise in the first place. Several things need to exist for that to happen. The writers, for their part, must combine all the elements of writing (like characters and plot) to create a story that's coherent and interesting. The reader contributes to this activity with a willingness to listen and understand the world that the author has created. The result of this leap of faith (hopefully) is a great read. No other genre challenges a reader's imaginations more than science fiction and fantasy.
What is Suspension of Disbelief?
What is this leap of faith? All readers of fiction, whether it be mainstream fiction or genre fiction, go into a story knowing it's not actually true. They are willing to believe a story's premise and setting at the outset, before reading the first word. But the initial open-mindedness of a premise is different than the continued belief in that premise. Suspension of disbelief is the act of postponing one's judgment on the believability of a fictional story. This is important in all fiction, of course, but is even more important in science fiction and fantasy, where the worlds being portrayed can be very different from our own.
Why? Suspension of disbelief is a balancing act. While the reader is deferring judgment and buying into some fantastical world, everything is peachy; they are immersed in the story and listening intently. However, when something happens to break that reality—say, for example, if a human becomes invisible without any explanation whatsoever, or a character acts contrary to his established behavior—disbelief is no longer deferred and the spinning plates come crashing down. The reader effectively throws up his hands in futility and is pulled out of the story, perhaps permanently.
Ways in Which Writers Help Readers Suspend Disbelief
Some things are beyond an author's control in regard to suspension of disbelief. Every reader brings his or her own baggage to the activity of reading. Typically, readers who are widely read, and thus have more experience with the usual fiction tropes—particularly those of science fiction and fantasy—are more likely to suspend their disbelief. It helps, too, if they have an interest in the subject matter. History buffs will likely give more leeway to an alternate history novel as they try to correlate the fictional events with real ones. Another factor outside the writer's control is the reader's open-mindedness. Science fiction often challenges readers to look at humanity from different angles, and that means considering things that don't necessarily coincide with our own beliefs.
Despite these outside factors, writers do have in their writing toolbox several techniques to help readers suspend disbelief. One is to use a skeptical point-of-view character with whom the reader can immediately relate. Such characters question their surroundings, thus learning about it in the process. Another plot device is to use a main character who, in chapter one, wakes up with no memory. In this way, the reader is eased into a futuristic setting of, say, Greg Van Eekhout's The Boy at the End of the World, Greg Bear's Hull Zero, and Saturn Returns by Sean Williams. The narrator acts as stand-in for reader, learning the world as he goes, a journey that is also undertaken by the reader.
Another technique is a basic explanation of the fictional premise before it happens; the earlier the better. In the opening pages of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, the unnamed traveler explains the concept of multiple dimensions and time travel in an easy-to-understand manner, making it logical for readers to extrapolate the premise of time travel. Thus, the reader can continue suspending his disbelief as the traveler whisks away to the year 802,701 to encounter the divergent class structure of the Eloi and Morlock society.
A third technique is for the writer to include numerous and specific details that emphasize the otherness of the world. Such details help the world seem more real, making it easier for the reader to believe it. An example: Amy Thomson's fascinating novel The Color of Distance, in which a biologist becomes stranded on an alien world, is wonderful specifically because of the realistic alien culture she portrays. The details of the alien culture and customs make it seem completely believable. They are also consistent, a requirement to keep those fictional plates spinning.
A final technique that writers can employ is to maximize the familiar and minimize the unfamiliar. This is trickier than it may sound. If you don't include enough information about your fantastical world, then a reader cannot get the rush they yearn for in sf and fantasy, or worse, they don't understand how the world works. That's a deal breaker. Including the familiar may mean using a well-known and relatable plot structure like the Hero's Journey, or it may simply mean keeping the story events and settings consistent with what's already been established.
Suspending one's disbelief sounds a lot like work. So why bother? If you believe that reading can be a rewarding experience, then postponing judgment on a made-up world is a small effort to make by comparison. Think of suspension of disbelief as the key to the treasure. It may sound like the author is asking a lot, especially in science fiction where authors oftentimes ask readers to believe worlds that vastly different than our own—but the rewards are many.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels. You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal. Or not. See what he cares.