How Disbelief Creates Belief
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 to disbelief.
It's ironic, but to engage your readers' belief you need to create appropriate disbelief by the characters in the story.
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 story.
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 protagonist.
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 believe in.
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 characters’ disbelief.
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 www.PlotToPunctuation.com.