Every genre, from suspense to contemporary, requires a leap of faith from readers to be effective. They know that the yellow brick road running through Oz doesn’t exist. Yet they pick up Baum’s classic and become so enthralled that they forget they’re turning pages instead of street corners. Why would they allow themselves to hallucinate for hours?
Perhaps because readers wish that scarecrows could talk and monkeys could fly—but, most of all, that friendship and courage could defeat evil. Perhaps because they stumble upon universal truths they’ve overlooked. Or perhaps because they enjoy leaving mundanity behind and crossing over into the unknown. Whatever the reason, when they accept a story’s premise as plausible, writers call their mental surrender the suspension of disbelief.
But this phenomenon is not an accident that a random combination of worldbuilding chemicals happened to spark. The blurring of the line between fiction and reality is intentional, albeit undetectable. Analyze the stories that have lulled you into a state of imaginative animation, and you’ll emerge with a three-ingredient formula you can apply to your own work-in-progress.
1. Detailed Settings
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, a dozen dwarves, and a wizard team up to reclaim a mountain of gold from a dragon. Reading that summary makes me shake my head. But the absurdity of the characters and their goals didn’t stop me and thousands of other fans from checking our toes for hair, hoping we inherited hobbit blood from a long-lost ancestor.
How did J.R.R. Tolkien manage to bamboozle intelligent, sensible adults?
He transported us to Middle-Earth, a land far too vast and textured to be only a series of markings on a flat, pencil-sketched map.
On page one, we walk through a round door painted in crisp, earthy colors and mounted with brass fixtures. It opens into a tube-shaped hall with paneled walls, lush floor coverings, and polished furniture. The tunnels lead to bedrooms, pantries stuffed with cheese and meats, closets where clothing hangs in neat rows, and windows that overlook a well-kept garden and the meadows beyond. With a few purposeful descriptions, Tolkien conveys the expert craftsmanship of the builder, the hobbits’ love of food and other fine comforts, and the peacefulness of the Shire.
Lest we slip out of that aura, he continues to feed us scenery seasoned with emotions. We dread crossing Mordor’s wastelands and climbing Mount Doom’s jagged peaks. We stare in awe at Rivendell’s waterfalls and spiraling buildings. We cringe over the giant spiders lurking in the rotting and oppressive Mirkwood. And we mourn the orc’s takeover of the Misty Mountains, the dwarves’ former home. Each environment boasts so much history and complexity that we readily embrace Tolkien’s unspoken invitation to settle in.
His secret? Before you can convince readers that your setting is more than pretty words you stacked up like a Jenga tower, you first need to convince yourself. Memorize every road, dwelling, and landform, and add enough volumes of history to fill a library shelf. Even if you don’t share any of the information with readers, your confidence in the world you’ve created will increase and equip you to give your characters’ surroundings more coherency.
2. Heart-Rending Characters
In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, a young girl swallows metal to gain special powers that enable her to battle an evil ruler and free her people from oppression. The plot itself isn’t particularly original: a compromised but determined protagonist faces the near-impossible odds of defeating a tyrant or corrupt government. You probably don’t have enough fingers on your hands to count how many novels use that trope.
The characters are the reason we fling ourselves headlong into the fray. The villains drive us into a frenzy, and the heroes and heroines arouse empathy. Vin’s struggle seems so hopeless and her efforts so noble that we want to reach in and help her out. Plus, the chemistry between her and Elend introduces a stimulating layer of tension, because the structure of her society dooms the romance to fail whereas we yearn for it to succeed.
Christ Himself understood the necessity of compelling characters. He included many in His parables. In Matthew 18:23–35, He tells of a servant who has amassed such a huge debt that he’ll need to sell his wife, his family, and all of his possessions to repay it. As the servant begs for mercy, we sense his pain and desperation. When the king extends forgiveness, we experience relief and joy—which quickly dissolves into disgust over the servant’s refusal to liberate an underling who owes him money.
You could whip up the most exciting plot ever to appear on a back-cover blurb and still not persuade readers to suspend their disbelief, because they need someone relatable to root for (or against). When they can see hints of themselves in your characters, they’ll follow your cast anywhere just to learn how they solve their problems.
3. Engaging Adventures
J.K. Rowling is a master at whisking readers out of their seats before they’re conscious of it. At the beginning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she plops us into the middle of Harry’s plight as the ward of a cruel uncle and aunt. Then she yanks us (and Harry) out of the misery, revealing a hidden wizarding world that’s connected to Harry’s past and future. He and his fellow Hogwarts students encounter several challenges as they try to figure out what’s happening at their school, including fighting a troll and a treacherous forest where they spy a mysterious creature drinking unicorn blood. When they discover that an evil wizard is seeking the Sorcerer’s Stone that Harry has in his possession, the stakes rise even higher.
As the story unfolds, we feel the same irresistible urge to explore that Harry does, and our minds travel down their own paths of speculation. We pretend every scenario is real, because if it isn’t, the magic ends, and we’re left empty.
Readers welcome exposure to new horizons and perspectives. And how can you fulfill those expectations? By wandering off on your own mini (or grand) adventures and absorbing every moment so you can later incorporate those memories into your story. When you visit a town, hike a mountain, or listen to a sermon in church, picture your characters accompanying you. How would they react to the culture and the customs? What local histories parallel events in their world? And do they wrestle with any modern-day injustices?
Make Readers Believe
As a writer, you need to immerse your mind and heart into the world you’re creating before it will rotate on its own. Once you’ve invested all of yourself, philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge sums up your next task: lace your story with “human interest and a semblance of truth.”
Weaving these elements together requires time and patience, but the payoff is massive. Look at how Harry Potter inspired a whole theme park and franchise, as well as reams of fanfiction. Or how even today people glance at their toes after reading Tolkien’s work, just in case. Ask yourself: Are you a believer? Better yet, can you make me one?
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?