Tell the reader your story isn’t real – and make them commit to it even more

Dare to push the reader away – and they’ll come back even more keen



We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.

But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.

I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).

Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.

The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.

Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.

It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.

There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’

Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.

We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.

In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.

The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.

Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.

If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.

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  1. #1 by Dave Morris on July 26, 2010 - 3:11 pm

    I’m also reminded of the UK illusionist Derren Brown, who often takes time to explain to his TV audience, “Of course this is all a trick. It isn’t real. I’m not really about to shoot myself in the head,” etc etc. And despite all those assurances his TV magic shows are absolutely, nail-bitingly terrifying, and most people I know say, “Oh, Derren Brown pretends he doesn’t have real Jedi mind-control powers, but it’s obvious that he does.” His storytelling is utterly assured, and he certainly uses the trick you’re talking about of forcing the audience to acknowledge the artificiality of the fiction in order to get them to sit forward and make a deliberate leap of faith.

    • #2 by rozmorris on July 26, 2010 - 9:16 pm

      Dave – of course! I hadn’t thought about Derren Brown using this trick but of course he does.

  2. #3 by Jemi Fraser on July 26, 2010 - 4:23 pm

    As a reader or a viewer, I don’t mind taking that leap of faith at all – but within the fantasy world, it better make sense 🙂

    • #4 by rozmorris on July 26, 2010 - 9:17 pm

      Jemi – hence my caveat: it has to be done well. I’m still trying to work out what the rules are, and I’d like to see examples where it’s not done well.

  3. #5 by Verdonk on July 26, 2010 - 5:17 pm

    Brecht’s use of distancing (“alienation”) was intended to turn drama into a political experience. Rather than getting seduced into believing the story, his intention was that the audience should watch it critically. So he would have titles over the stage, characters talking to the audience about the plot, and so on. Load of cobblers. If he wanted to see an audience watching drama in that way, he should’ve listened in to people talking over an episode of Coronation Street: “Didn’t she marry that footballer?” “She’s put on weight.” “He wasn’t in the last episode because of that drugs thing.” Is that political enough for ya, Bertolt?

    • #6 by rozmorris on July 26, 2010 - 9:19 pm

      Verdonk – I’m with you totally. I like to be immersed in a story. I don’t have any time for the kind of up-your-own-fundament literature that’s about maintaining a lofty superiority to what’s going on. I want to be INVOLVED and I don’t see there’s anything inferior about that.

  4. #7 by Susana Mai on July 26, 2010 - 5:48 pm

    Good examples. And as long as I dont feel as if the writer is pulling one over me, I don’t mind.

    • #8 by rozmorris on July 26, 2010 - 9:20 pm

      Susana – it has to be prepared well. Does anyone have any examples of where it fails (other than Verdonk with Mr Brecht there)?

  5. #9 by gwenhwyfaer on July 26, 2010 - 7:28 pm

    I read another article today – one that couldn’t be more far removed from the subject of this one, about the failure of economic orthodoxy to either predict or respond sensibly to the recent crash – but one subject that it raised is that of cognitive dissonance, the tendency of true believers to find their beliefs even more fervently reinforced after they’re confronted with evidence of those beliefs’ falsehood. This technique seems to directly tap into that impulse for creative purposes… and of course, the beauty of a novel is that we know it’s not real anyway – and maybe this sheds light on the true believers’ fervour too?

    • #10 by rozmorris on July 26, 2010 - 9:23 pm

      Gwen, that is such an interesting parallel and you’re dead right. Art imitating life!

  6. #11 by Dougy on July 26, 2010 - 7:53 pm

    Great post, Roz. Another way your “challenge of faith” technique can be used is to make the reader overtly side with a character. Say you’ve got a Cinderella type being pushed around by her ugly stepsisters. Then later in the story she gets the upper hand. She can be all boo-hoo, I mustn’t treat you the way you treated me, then I’d be as bad as you, all that worthy stuff. But that won’t get us to the narrative Rubicon, will it? That’s just an insecure writer’s cop-out. Instead, say Cinders takes the opportunity to really punish them – maybe deriving more satisfaction in the process than we’d really expected or are comfortable with. Not only is that very human, it makes us decide now: in our hearts, are we going to condone Cinders getting medieval on those old girls’ asses, or are we going to distance ourself from her? Of course we choose the former (she’s the only protagonist we have) and in doing so that bonds us to her. It’s actually the way a bully binds their little coterie of hangers-on with acts of complicity – not saying the MC has to be a bully, but it’s the same psychological trick. Works even better if your MC is the narrator, because then you really have nowhere to go but to side with them. We may not like seeing Pip treat Joe Gargery with mockery and condescension, but after that scene there’s no doubt. We’re in on Pip’s guilt and we are now invested personally in his need for ultimate redemption. That scene btw is why Dickens’ original ending was better imo – but that’s another question!

    • #12 by rozmorris on July 26, 2010 - 9:25 pm

      Dougy, I’m liking your Cinderella. And I hadn’t thought of this theory being applied to characters – making us decide to like them even though they do some bad things. Delicious food for thought. Thank you.

  7. #13 by Jane Kennedy Sutton on July 27, 2010 - 12:08 am

    What a good point. I’ve read many novels that turned me off because I couldn’t buy into there ‘this-could-really-happen’ scene. Yet other books that are totally implausible are written so well, that I nod my head and feel that I can see the scene unfolding.

  8. #14 by rozmorris on July 27, 2010 - 8:30 am

    Jane, that’s a funny thing, isn’t it? it’s those invisibly magic techniques that I’m endlessly chasing.

  9. #15 by Jonathan Moore on July 27, 2010 - 12:28 pm

    Hi Roz.

    Mixed feelings about the new home. On one hand it doesn’t have a URL that sounds like it’s not safe for work viewing, on the other hand the colour scheme makes it more obvious that I’m not working when my manager’s behind me.

    On the subject of this post: have you seen Inception yet? I’ll say no more in case you haven’t.

    I think as long as the implausible sticks to the story’s internal logic then there’s no problem. It’s when they take liberties with their own rules that it all breaks down. Beyond that it’s all fiction anyway, however likely. In fact, a false note in someone’s emotional reaction is far more likely to draw me out of the story than 6 impossible things happening before the end of the first chapter.

    • #16 by rozmorris on July 27, 2010 - 2:32 pm

      Hey Jonathan! Not safe for work viewing – ah didn’t think of that. You could always cut and paste onto an email, then print it out so it looks like you’re reading something immensely serious.
      No, I haven’t seen Inception yet – in fact Dave and I were just discussing, not 10 minutes ago, when we were going to.

      Internal logic is important, of course – stories have to set up what can happen and what can’t. The impossible can happen if the rules you have set up allow it. But this is a different point from the post – the post is about a situation where the character is aware that what they are embroiled in may not be real (and therefore the reader is too) – and decides it’s important to them anyway (and so does the reader).

  10. #17 by Jonathan Moore on July 27, 2010 - 3:55 pm

    It is you’re right, I’d drifted off down a different corridor of thought there, that it was the fabrication of the story itself that was challenging the reader/audience rather than the fiction within the fiction.

    An example of this done badly would be Franklyn (the recent Ryan Phillipe film) sold on the visuals of the fantasy world and totally uninteresting once the real world prevails. Bridge to Teribithia – same damn trick.

    I also never liked any of the Never Ending Story type submersions into fantasy. Both Time Bandits and Labyrinth have all the characters you’ll meet as toys in the MC’s bedroom, and once you notice that, then the idea it is a fabrication prevails, and I think this kind of ruins it. I’ve always thought that needing to keep one foot in the real world was a cop out. Again, I’m going off topic….

    PS – the old site used to remember my details and this one doesn’t.

    • #18 by rozmorris on July 27, 2010 - 4:31 pm

      Hi Jonathan Sorry about the inconvenience of having to retype your details. I have sent out SOSs on Twitter and Facebook to find out if there’s anything I can do about that! Having never had to leave a comment as an outsider on either blog I was blissfully unaware of the welcome people get.

  11. #19 by Dave Morris on July 27, 2010 - 5:14 pm

    There’s that episode of Buffy where she starts getting fugues over to an alternate reality where she is in a padded cell for attacking innocent people and burning down her school. To some extent this is just the Total Recall trick replayed, though interesting that Whedon chooses to end the episode with a long pulling-out shot in the alternate, Buffy-as-psycho reality – which would normally indicate that we’re being told that’s the *real* reality.

    Obviously in novels you often (way too often) get the author stepping in to remind you it’s just a story. When Nicholas Freeling killed off his detective character Van der Valk, he inserted a chapter in the book telling us what it feels like to be writing those scenes. Should’ve been in the DVD extras, dude. I’m not sure what authors are trying to achieve when they do this, but they usually fail. A notable success is Austin Wright’s book Tony & Susan, in which we’re continually reminded that the very gripping core story is a novel that another character is reading – but it still carries its full impact.

  12. #20 by rozmorris on July 27, 2010 - 5:33 pm

    Dave – I’d forgotten that episode of Buffy, but what a great one it was. Not only does it ask an interesting question, it makes us see as an outside how extraordinary Buffy’s life is and what things she has had to do. It would be easy to become deadened to it, like if you see characters shot all the time you soon think it’s no big deal. That Buffy episode was a clever way to reground us as outsiders see her.

    Van der Valk – never read it, but I don’t think I’d like that authorly intrusion. I’d advise him to get over himself, or write a blog post. I’ve woken up with night sweats about killing a character, but I would never stop the action to tell the reader all about it.

    Tony & Susan – funny how we are so absorbed that we don’t mind being told again and again that it’s fiction. But it’s also Edward, the writer, playing with Susan.

  13. #21 by Jonathan Moore on July 28, 2010 - 10:59 am

    Dave: there’s an episode of Deep Space 9 that does the exact same thing – Sisko wakes up in a padded cell with the star trek universe scrawled all over the walls. It’s not done as well as Buffy.
    (by the way, my girlfriend believes that Derren Brown is indeed a witch and all his exposing of trickery is a double bluff).

    I couldn’t think of any novelist examples until prompted but then remembered the whole post-modern ouvre – The Comforters by Muriel Spark is a prime example (character can hear their story being typed).

    An epic failure of narrative dissonance (I’ve just put those words together, I’ve no idea if I’ve used them correctly) was the point I stopped watching 6 Feet Under – offering a selection of outcomes and then plumping for one. It worked in Waynes World, but not in this case.

  14. #22 by catwoods on July 30, 2010 - 1:08 am

    Thought-provoking post. My last NaNo project does this, but until you spelled it out for me, I didn’t see it. Now the trick will be doing it well…

    At least I’ve got some great examples to work from. Thanks!

  15. #23 by rozmorris on July 30, 2010 - 7:45 am

    Brilliant, Cat, you did it on instinct!
    BTW, your link is going back on my blogroll but I’m having to put them all in by hand so I can only spare time to do a few at a go. Unfortunately they didn’t get included with the import process. But I hope to get down to W soon! Take care and lovely to see you in my blog’s new home.

  16. #24 by Jingle on July 30, 2010 - 3:54 pm

    I thought you write a magpie,
    but your post is fun!

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