I think many of us are born with an innate BS meter. You know, the thing that makes our internal radar hum when we hear something that just doesn’t sit right. It’s the same meter that can stop our reading dead in its tracks and prompt us to throw a book across the room for the very same reason.
You know the feeling. You’re sitting in a comfy sofa, maybe by a fireplace (it’s winter here, so I’m partial to that imagery), wearing your cozy jammies and eager to open that book you’ve been hankering for since, well, what seems like forever. You start with page one, you’re sucked in, so you speed your way to chapter two, and you’re still sucked in, then you get to chapter three or maybe four and things start to change. Then before you know it, you’re halfway through the book and, uh oh, something’s not sitting right.
There’s a concept known as suspension of disbelief that every writer owes their readers. It’s the ability to tell a story–even a fantastical one–in such a way that the reader believes everything that’s on the page. It doesn’t matter if a guy saves the world by uploading a virus into an alien ship (think Independence Day) or that a wizard boy destroys evil with the flick of his wand (think Harry Potter) or that dinosaurs once again roam the Earth (think Jurassic Park). What matters is that, no matter how crazy-ass the story seems, it feels real from page one all the way to The End.
I was thinking about this the other day when I was at Starbucks (am I ever NOT there?). I overheard a couple talking (okay, I was spying, but I’m a writer and that’s what I do) about a weekend party she was planning in December. And she was pumping up the guy, telling him about all the wonderful things to expect–lots of friends, great food, the best drinks–and I could see the uncertainty on his face. I mean, his BS meter was running h-a-r-d. He wasn’t into the party, because the one they had last year ended up being a disaster (I didn’t get to hear why, though; the barista called out a drink order just as he shared the juicy parts). But the thing of it is, even though he had an expectation, his girlfriend worked harder and harder to make him believe in her plans. She got more excited as she spoke, and then he got more excited, and she engaged him in fun memories from other parties, and then he laughed along with her, remembering those memories. And when all was said and done, he agreed. “Yes, we’ll have the party,” he said. “And I can’t wait.”
Huh. Whaddya know. That’s kind of like suspension of disbelief in action.
We all know what it’s like to read a book and then toss it across the room. And that’s a scary thing. See, when a writer tells a story, they make an implicit promise to entertain. Some are better at it than others, and some get better at it over time, but the point is that this is what reading is all about. Creating a world that’s just SO wonderful, or scary, or suspenseful or fill-in-the-blank that you just can’t freaking put the book down.
But–and this is a big but–it’s gotta be real.
So I wonder…what makes a story believable? Is it the characters? The plot? The sense of empathy we feel as readers when we worry for characters who have become so beloved? Or is it something a little less obvious?
Hmm. I don’t think there’s a simple answer. But there’s one thing I do know. BS meter or not, reading is a terrific thing. And with the holidays coming up, what better gift to share with those you love? But don’t take the blame if the recipient of your gift tosses that book (or Kindle) across the room. It’s their way of saying find me another one. And you should do just that.
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