I hope you enjoyed secret #1 yesterday . . . now here is Secret #2 ~
The narrative world is also shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable.
In writing circles it’s common to speak about the suspension of disbelief, but that phrase bothers me because it seems to imply that the reader approaches the story wanting to disbelieve and that she needs to somehow set that attitude aside in order to engage with the story. But precisely the opposite is true. Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. Readers have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As writers, then, our goal isn’t to convince the reader to suspend her disbelief, but rather to give her what she wants by continually sustaining her belief in the story.
The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. We need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.
Let’s say you create a world in which gravity doesn’t exist. OK, if you bring the world to life on the page and through your characters, the reader will accept that—but now she’ll want you to be consistent. As soon as someone’s hair doesn’t float above or around her head, or someone is able to drink a cup of coffee without the liquid floating away, the consistency of that world is shattered. The reader will begin to either lose interest and eventually stop reading, or will disengage from the story and begin to look for more inconsistencies—neither of which you want her to do.
All else being equal, as soon as readers stop believing your story, they’ll stop caring about your story. And readers stop believing stories when characters act inexplicably.
When I’m shaping a story, I continually ask myself, “What would this character naturally do in this situation?”
And then I let him do it.
Because the reader, whether he’s conscious of it or not, is asking the same question: “What would this character naturally do?”
As soon as characters act in ways that aren’t believable, either in reference to their characterizations or to the story’s progression, the reader loses faith in the writer’s ability to tell that story.
In a scene in my first novel, The Pawn, my protagonist is interviewing the governor of North Carolina, and the governor is responding oddly. Now, if my hero, who’s supposed to be one of the best investigators in the world, doesn’t notice and respond to the governor’s inexplicable behavior, the reader will be thinking, What’s wrong with this Bowers guy? There’s obviously something strange going on here. Why doesn’t he notice? He’s a moron.
So, I had Bowers think, Something wasn’t clicking. Something wasn’t right.
Then the reader will agree, Ah, good! I thought so. OK, now let’s find out what’s going on here. Rather than drive the reader away from identifying with the protagonist, this was a way of drawing the reader deeper into the story.
So when something that’s unbelievable or odd happens, don’t be afraid to let your character notice and respond: “I never expected her to say that,” “What? That just doesn’t make sense,” or, “Obviously there’s more going on here than I thought when I first found the necklace.”
If a character acts in an unbelievable way, you’ll need to give the reader a reason why—and it’d better be a good one. Remember: Always give the reader what he wants, or something better. If you don’t give the reader what he wants (believability), you must satisfy him with a twist or a moment of story escalation that satisfies him more than he ever expected.