How to Edit Fiction – 6 – Disbelief Should be Suspended like Batman over Gotham, not like You over your Bathtub

Posted on August 28, 2011 by


You’ll need: your library, the all-powerful key to the ancient catacombs of wonder that is your library (viz., your library card), the internet

When I was a little girl, I did this a lot:

[Placeholder for photo of a strange man standing on the edge of a jacuzzi tub holding a beer.
We hope to return this oddity to you soon!]

Yeah, okay, without the beer. And probably not for the same reasons, whatever his reasons may be (the beer).

It was because my mother always ran my baths too hot. My attempts to please her would involve me bracing my hands and feet on the side of the bathtub, suspending myself over the water like a spider with hydrophobia, and dipping one toe of one foot in there to make sure I could safely lower myself without turning into a boiled shrimp.

When successful, this maneuver allowed me to subject my body to scalding temperatures one region at a time: first feet, then calves, then thighs and bum. The absolute worst was the skin on my tummy just under my belly button (not even what most people assume are your sensitive bits). When that was submerged, the battle was won and I could dunk my head with impunity.

But success was rarely the case. Normally, I slipped and whapped my chin on the tub so hard my teeth rocketed out of my eyeballs.

You see where I’m going with this metaphor.

When writing fiction, you should suspend your audience’s disbelief like this:

…not like me over my bathtub.



“But Alice,” you whine, “I can’t research the Vampire Ninja Police of the thyllaxium mines on the planet Fnargle (which is what my book is about)!”

My shiny bollocks you can’t. Of course you can. You can research mining procedures, police procedures, vampire folklore. You can read 1950s pulp books to get a feel for the language you should be using to write that lovely little monster. You can read about what real Japanese ninja got up to in the very short and strange period of Nipponese history they graced.

Without that kind of research, your audience will slip and whap its chin. Why? Because our suspension of disbelief is a delicate thing.

Imagine the real world, whatever that is, as your kitchen counter. Our minds when we read a book are like a cake, sitting on the counter. (Bear with me.)

What streams in to us through our senses is the first layer of cake. On top of that, your brain is filtering the raw data it receives at an unconscious level; that makes up layer two. Layers three through ??? make up the subconscious as we know it: emotional impressions, hidden beliefs, dreams, worries, desires, the ravages of mental illness (if any). Then the mysterious “???+1 layer”, a thing that we’ve tried to understand for thousands of years and aren’t ever likely to fully comprehend: consciousness. And then, on top of allllll that, the suspension of disbelief, like a wobbly pair of plastic newlyweds or a spire of candied fruit, just waiting to topple over and whap your audience on the chin. (Yay, mixed metaphors!)

It’s not even that stable, because when I delve into a book or watch a play or put on a movie, my conscious mind is tricking itself into believing things that I know aren’t true. I’m playing the delicate game of, “Given that this false thing is true, what would the world be like?” and that takes a serious amount of brainpower. I’m going full-steam, overclocking, running on all cylinders — perched on the edge of a slippery bathtub over some very hot water.

Respect your audience’s suspension of disbelief. Instead of leaving them with a wet tub, provide them with a utility belt of neat-o facts and realistic tidbits they can use to suspend their disbelief securely. The last thing you want is your readers plummeting to the cold and rainy Gotham sidewalk because you didn’t remember that ice floats in water (cough Stephen Sommers cough Rise of Cobra cough cough).

We both know you’re not likely to spend six hours in a book fort composed entirely of early 19th-century Ukranian myths about sleepwalkers (even though it sounds like fun). So how do you provide your audience with the foundation they need to lie to themselves?

I have two answers for you. Which one you choose depends entirely on your individual circumstances.


~~ Option One ~~
Do the work, you lazy &%*$.

Push through the pain and find the time somewhere. This is what you’ll have to do if you’re not savvy to the tips outlined in:


~~ Option Two ~~

There’s always a shortcut. Entire academic disciplines are built around shortcuts (I’m looking at you, Pure Maths). Here are the shortcuts I’ve found the most useful:

  • Translations are your friend (1). — A neat trick when it comes to figuring out any culture that doesn’t speak your language is to read multiple translations of the same book in that language. Translators are familiar with their source language in a way you’ll never be, and different translators have different insights. Reading multiple translations will give you a broader picture of the society and the language.
  • Translations are your friend (2). — To get a feel for the cadence of an unfamiliar language, read bad translations of works that were originally written in that language. There are two kinds of bad translations: the kind that does away with almost all of the original text, and the kind that’s almost entirely literal. You want the latter kind, where a translator hasn’t bothered to look for comparable sayings in English. Try it out! It’s interesting.
  • Get your names right at “Behind the Name”. Easy reference to all sorts of names. Not obnoxious like those baby name websites. Obviously designed and made by someone interested in linguistics.
  • If the little things are right, they’re more likely to believe the big ones. — You know that saying, “the devil is in the details”? It applies to your fiction. If you want us to believe that you’ve got immortal beings whose most important mission ever in the history of ever is to awkwardly blush in the vicinity of teenage girls from Wichita, you need to make sure that your teenage girl sounds like she’s from Wichita. You need her to have a Wichita name (not Ysmaribellina Crystylle or whatever). We need a story, however vague, about what Mr. Immortal and Perfect has been doing these umpteen bajillion years, and it needs to make sense. Don’t have your big plot points contradict themselves, for heaven’s sake — but you can fill big loopholes in a sentence or two if we’re already a captive audience. If we’re restless, well, it’s going to be a lot harder to keep us.
  • Google is a thing, you know? — If you’re going to use this great big wonderful world as a colour palette or a jumping-off point, you need to get it right. If you want us to take you seriously, don’t try to convince us that (in a totally random and made up example) humans can’t smell blood. This is just laziness. All you have to do is spend like five seconds Googling “the smell of blood”. If you get umpteen hits and a Wikipedia page, it’s safe to assume you shouldn’t use “people can’t smell blood” as a salient plot point because, uh, they can. I am at a loss to tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes at a piece of fiction because the author didn’t spend those precious seconds using the wealth of information at their fingertips.
  • Make a list of in-universe rules and stick to them. — Either Grangaas have red wings during mating season or they don’t. Make up your damn mind.
  • Get out a highlighter. — Highlight everything that could get you in trouble. The problem spots are usually:
    – weather
    – time of day
    – progression of seasons
    – clothes
    – whether someone’s eaten or slept recently
    – where everyone is situated in a room
    – where everyone is facing
    – what characters are able to see or not see/hear or not hear/smell or not smell
    Try to make these things match up. Your audience won’t notice if they do, but oh boy will they notice if they don’t.
  • Read reference material with a simple goal in mind. — Remember when you were in school or university and you had to boil down books into essays? How did you read your material? Here’s how to do it: read the material closely and mark everything that interests you. This is a way of saving the information for later, so you can read with a clear head. Next skim through the material with your stated goal in mind. Ignore distractions; you’ve marked them already and you can return to them later. Finally, combine the information you found initially with the material you found for your stated goal. This is much, much faster than rereading over and over because you’re distracted each time, and it’s more thorough than if you get off subject, skim through the rest, then put the book down without having answered your question.
  • Invest a buck in a new notebook for each topic. — You can buy lined notebooks almost anywhere, really cheaply. Make a detailed contents page. That way everything is in the same place and you don’t have to page through your three fingers thick pile of “RESEARCH FOR PHANTOM KISSED