Posts Tagged suspension of disbelief
I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.
She’s not wrong.
‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’
We’ll return to that in a bit.
The writer’s deception
Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.
Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.
1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession
A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.
2 Vocabulary is culture and time
Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.
Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.
Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.
This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)
3 Vocabulary is individual character
Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).
Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.
Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)
Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?
1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.
2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.
3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.
As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.
My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.
And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.
‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.
Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?
Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.
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What your readers will never notice… a small point about reader belief and story logic (with a little help from Terrance Dicks, Rod Hull and Nina Conti)
In our house, we have a catchphrase: ‘Nobody will notice, Jon.’
We adopted it from Terrance Dicks, script editor of our favourite era of Doctor Who. He said it while discussing a cheeky plot bamboozle in The Sea Devils, for which I have great affection (excepting the cheeky plot bamboozle). During filming, it seems that Jon Pertwee (Who Himself) had concerns and Dicks reports the following conversation:
Pertwee: ‘But Terrance, how could the Master hypnotise the nurse, switch outfits with him and tie him up… all in 30 seconds?’
Dicks (valiant in the face of a scorching deadline): ‘Don’t worry, Jon. Nobody will notice.’
We did notice, and Pertwee noticed, and probably all of Whovania noticed. It’s now a house phrase, chez Morris.
What the reader will never notice
There are some things readers will never notice. Suppose your character has to take a train to Birmingham. Do you have to explain the minutiae? Do you have to prepare a description of slogging to the station with a wheelie bag that keeps capsizing, watching the fields pass with the roar and rat-tat of the wheels, find words to describe that precise train smell? Certainly you do if that scene contains anything that’s important. But if it doesn’t, the reader will never notice they weren’t on the train with the character. Just write ‘she took the train to Birmingham’.
But they will notice this
But here’s a thing they will notice. If you sneak a plot impossibility past them, or a character inconsistency… You might manage to conceal it at the time, especially if you distract the audience, perhaps with humour, or you cover it in the general mayhem of a fast-paced finale. They might not see it immediately (or they might). But at some point they’ll think…. ‘hang on… that just doesn’t make sense.’
Emu and Monk
Storytelling requires us to suspend disbelief. We will do it readily and eagerly, if all is aligned. We’ll even believe something as obviously artificial as Rod Hull and his puppet Emu – we may not like it, but we are in no doubt that Rod is truly worried about what Emu might do, even though it’s obvious that Emu is a giant glove on Rod’s arm. That’s the spell of characterisation.
Continuing with ventriloquism (don’t try saying that fast), Nina Conti readily breaks the fourth wall. Her dummies tell us she has her hand up their bottom, they grumble about the voices she gives them. It glories in artifice, but something makes us believe in it as a singular mad world of its own. Though it’s daft and not-real, it has a kind of logic. Consistency.
That logic – and consistency – is important. Every story has logic: it’s one of the agreements made with the audience.
Logic and consistency – of fact and emotion – make the reader comfortable to commit to our creation, to put their minds in our hands. The reader knows it’s all made up, every character, every word of dialogue, every action taken, every mark on the page. We have to teach them our story’s logic and then play fair by it. We can make them believe anything if we set it up (see my post about plot holes and endings).
If we break the agreement, for instance like the madly impossible Sea Devils reveal, I’m afraid they will notice, very much. Jon was right, Terrance. But bless you anyway. This was the first book I ever bought with my pocket money. It’s still on my shelves.
Stop sign pic by Alexander Kovalyov on Pexels
There’s loads more about plot and logic in my plot book!
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