by Jason Black
There are certain elements any story needs to present in order
for readers to believe in the story, in order for them to accept
the made-up events of your novel as sufficiently real to be
worth caring about. One of the most important elements relates
It's ironic, but to engage your readers' belief you need to
create appropriate disbelief by the characters in the
A well-crafted plot is going to present its protagonist with
some surprises. Many of these will be in the form of
unfortunate turns of events. This happens in just about every
novel, because one of the key ways to build up the central
conflict in a novel is by adding complications and
obstacles—ones the protagonist will view as unfortunate—which
make the protagonist's job harder.
Some surprises may actually be challenges to the character's
beliefs about the world of the story. This is particularly
common in science fiction and fantasy, where characters
experience revelations about the truth of their world. The
scales fall from their eyes that they may clearly see their
reality for what it is. Think about Neo in the Matrix
movies, when he is confronted with the knowledge that the world
he knows is nothing more than a computer simulation.
Whether you're presenting the character with a full-blown
existential epiphany or merely a circumstantial obstacle to be
overcome, to make it real for your readers, you must first make
it unreal for the character.
Think about Neo again. How did he react when Morpheus told him
the truth and presented him with the red pill and the blue
pill? Did he say "Oh, ok," and immediately grab the red pill?
No. His immediate reaction was that Morpheus was full of it.
How could it be that his entire world was a mere digital
facsimile? That's crazy talk!
So no, of course Neo doesn't immediately take the red pill. His
immediate response is disbelief. He has to stew on it for a
while before he takes the red pill and has the full extent of
the truth revealed to him.
That's what made it real for the audience. Innately, we know
that Neo's response is a normal, believable, human one. Had he
taken Morpheus's word at face value and grabbed the pill
straight off, it wouldn't have felt natural. At best, we'd have
wondered what kind of gullible moron Neo really was.
For the audience to accept the premise, we needed to see the
protagonist experience the same emotional response as we
would if presented with that same situation.
It is as true for readers of your novels as viewers of a film.
Disbelief and skepticism are facets of the same base emotional
response. Denial. It's that sensation of discomfort
we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences
that clash with what we believe to be true.
The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we
already think we know. This is as basic as breathing, and it happens
in the blink of an eye. It doesn't matter if it's an earth-shaking
new truth, or just an event the protagonist wishes had gone the
other way. The character's response needs to be the same: denial
first, belief second.
For earth-shaking new truths, the character must wrestle with the
denial. It took a while before Neo brought himself to the point
where he was willing to take the red pill. For an ordinary piece of
bad news, the denial can be smaller. Perhaps just an act of
double-checking the situation; making sure that the bad news is in
fact true. Either way, the reader's belief comes from first
showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.
Bad things happen if you try to skip over this step.
First, it reflects badly on your characters. If Neo accepts
Morpheus's claims at face value, he just looks like a gullible
simpleton. Nobody is that credulous. Or at least, nobody who's
supposed to be the protagonist in a sci-fi action epic is that
credulous. If you skip the disbelief, you break the reader's belief
in the suitability of the character to be holding that role in the
Second, it reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the
unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch
with how human beings work that you have no business trying to
portray people on the page. You might instead give lemmings a try. I
hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write
disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one heck of a lemming
Worst, you lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation
of your protagonist, and having sabotaged the reader’s faith in you,
what’s left? Nothing at all. If you have committed those two sins,
you have made it impossible for readers to suspend their own
disbelief in your story. At that point, nothing will drag the
reader through another couple of hundred pages of fiction they can't
Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a
lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a
great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s
shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation.
You need their belief, which you only get by overcoming your
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Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort
out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular
presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a
handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about
Jason or read his blog, visit his website at