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I disbelieve your lack of disbelief!

Last night I was looking over an old report I’d written for a client. The manuscript in question had several issues that needed to be fixed, but the one that really jumped out at me was about disbelief: the reader’s disbelief, and the hero’s lack of it.

The book was a science-fiction epic. In the early chapters, the hero has a “matrix moment” wherein he learns that basically everything he thought about his world wasn’t true. The writer did this in a dialogue-heavy exposition scene where the character’s wise mentor explains what’s really going on, complete with alien monsters, spaceships, the whole bit.

The scene failed utterly to capture my interest. The conversation went something like this:

Hero: “Mentor! What’s going on here?”

Mentor: Blah blah infodump, aliens, spaceships, blah blah, danger, danger, conspiracy plot.

Hero: “Oh, ok.”

Not only did the scene fail to capture my interest, the scene completely destroyed the book. Why? Because the hero just went right along with it. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t suspect that his mentor had gone utterly mad. In fact, he didn’t express the slightest bit of skepticism at all, not even a “come on, you’re joking, right?” Nothing.

In failing to make use of stage 1 of the five stages of emotional response , the writer failed to make the scene real for the protagonist. The guy didn’t respond like a real human being would have. And in failing to make the scene emotionally real for the hero, the writer failed to make it intellectually real for me.

In other words, the writer made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Game over.

Disbelief, denial, skepticism—these are all facets of the same incredibly important emotional response, that sensation of discomfort we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences that clash with what we believe to be true. The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we have inside.

This is as basic as breathing, and it happens in the blink of an eye.

When you confront a character with something that clashes with what they believe, you have to show some expression of disbelief. The greater the clash, the stronger the disbelief response should be. What is critical to realize is that in these moments, the character is a proxy for the reader. The reader knows how he or she would feel in that situation. The reader’s mind immediately fills with potential counter-arguments against the new information.

In that moment, the reader is waiting for the hero to express similar feelings and explore similar objections. That is, they’re waiting for the writer to prove to them that this unbelievable new information is really true, by overcoming the hero’s natural disbelief. Suspension of disbelief comes from first showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.

Obviously that won’t happen if you skip the character’s disbelief. What will happen instead are three really bad things:

It reflects badly on your characters. In the above example, it made the hero look like a moron. It made him look like the most gullible simpleton, the most clueless rube to ever survive the birthing process. I had to wonder how this guy manages to get himself dressed in the morning, or avoids poking himself in the eye when he eats with a fork.

It reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch with how human beings work that you have no business trying to portray humans on the page. You lose every shred of faith the reader might have had in your ability to tell a story with people in it. That being the case, consider switching to stories about robots and other characters who won’t be expected to act like humans. Give lemmings a try. I hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one hell of a lemming protagonist.

You lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation of your hero, and having destroyed the reader’s faith in you, what’s left? Nothing at all. There’s nothing left that can drag the reader through another couple of hundred pages of utterly unbelievable fiction. At that point, I would gladly trade your book for a free one-dollar lottery ticket. Even at 147-million-to-one odds, I’d have more faith in that lottery ticket to deliver me something good than your book.

Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation. You need their suspension of disbelief, which you only get by overcoming your characters’ disbelief.

January 29, 2010 22:49 UTC

Tags: character, emotions, disbelief, denial, skepticism, emotionally credible, suspension of disbelief

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