For those of you who wrote asking about Thriller Guy's condition after eye surgery, thanks, TG is fine and will undergo surgery on the other eye tomorrow. The following blog was typed using only two fingers and one eye. The things TG does for his loyal readers...
Mrs. Thriller Guy, (MTG) TG’s wife, often complains that TG spends too much time discussing the finer points of the writer’s life and the technical aspects of novel writing. “Too much inside baseball,” she says. Well, these are the things that TG finds interesting, so those of you who have wondered in here looking for sex tips or cat pictures you’ll have to go elsewhere. At least today. But come back later, who knows when TG will slip in a little pornography to up his stats.
TG recently reviewed a thriller, which will remain unnamed because of legal reasons, and was disappointed in both the writing and the fact that he never really engaged with the story. It might not always sound like it in this blog, but TG starts every book with the hope that it will be good or better than good. This one wasn’t. A big flaw in the novel was the conflicted villain, who ricocheted between feeling simply misunderstood and being flat out insane, but the real problem was the author’s incessant attempt to scientifically explain what was essentially an unexplainable science plot. The villain had built a machine that enabled him to not only see into the future in 24-hour increments, but at the same time the same machine could be used to cause earthquakes and tsunamis. It seems to TG that one superpower would have been hard enough to sell, but no, various characters yammered on for pages and pages about how all this was scientifically feasible (though readers with even the slightest scientific knowledge would know that it was not) until TG wanted to throw the author into his time machine where he would be sucked down into a miniature, captive black hole. This got TG thinking about the phrase, “suspension of disbelief.”
TG’s area of criticism, book-wise, is the contemporary thriller. To read these books, one must have a very high tolerance for believing the unbelievable. Heroes get shot, sometimes multiple times, and are quickly patched up and back out on the street. CSI-type lab results are available to detectives within minutes rather than days or weeks. Secret anti-terrorism units headed by the president of the US sanction killings and approve improbable missions with great regularity, ditto government agencies that have the technology to listen in on the phone calls of everyone on the planet. Oops, no need to suspend disbelief for that last one. In other words, many of the hallowed tropes of thriller fiction must automatically come under the suspension of disbelief blanket. TG accepts this as part of the reader/writer deal. So what happened in the aforementioned novel where the villain unleashed his oh-so-versatile time travel machine?
(Side Bar: TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel, writes time travel stories. Years ago his editor/writer pal Bhob gave him some excellent advice, which TG has noted on this blog before, “Never try to explain the unexplainable.” Appel has hewn to this advice through five of the Pastmaster novels. He is now writing the sixth, in which he is flying in the face of this dictum. TG is reserving judgment on whether this tactic will work until the novel is done. It may be a mistake; it may work. We’ll see.)
Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject of suspension of disbelief. In this article, they discuss the common definitions and explanations. It turns out that the phrase was coined in “1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”
As time passed, the phrase began to take a slightly different meaning, so that by the 20th century it was agreed that it was incumbent on the reader (or someone who was watching a movie or a play or video game) to be the one to suspend his or her disbelief before even starting the book; you show up ready to believe whatever the writer is dishing out. So, to ask the question again, why wasn’t TG able to swallow what this particular author was serving up with his time-travel machine? The answer was/is, because he, the author, wasn’t a good enough writer to convince, maybe enthrall is a better word, TG into believing in the fictional world he was crafting. This is a return to Coleridge’s notion that in the earlier understanding of the idea it is incumbent on the writer to make the trick work. This was expanded in an essay that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in 1939, where he was defending the writing of fairy stories. It’s a long essay and pretty dense in places, but TG found it enlightening. Here’s the crux of Tolkien’s argument, at least for our purposes:
"Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called "willing suspension of disbelief." But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator." He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying ... to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed."
So for TG, the writer whose book he was reading for review failed at creating his Secondary World. And this wasn’t just because his time machine didn’t adhere to the rules of physics, or that the rules of some of the other tropes of fiction were broken, but because the guy simply wasn’t a good enough writer to pull off the trick of writing a successful novel. His villain was inconsistent and unbelievable, some of the other main characters were, again, inconsistent, switching sides back and forth just to create a false illusion of twists and turns, his back story rambled on to little effect, many details of the story were glossed over in unbelievable ways when a little extra work could have made them palatable, his basic structure was often garbled, jumping back and forth between various characters in yet again an attempt to gin up some excitement. And yet, the book was published by a major publisher, where, presumably editors worked at editing books, editors who could have pointed out many of the mistakes the author was making, but who didn’t. Mistakes that could have been easily fixed. And why didn’t they? That’s a topic for a whole ‘nuther blog, one that TG will get to someday when he can convince an editor to come clean on why publishers seem content to publish books that are deeply flawed by mistakes that could have been fixed.
And TG hastens to add, this was not the worst book he has read in the last year. It just happened to have been the one that brought the phrase suspension of disbelief to mind. So what’s the takeaway here?
Don’t expect the reader to do the heavy lifting when it comes to buying whatever premise you’ve based your novel on. It’s the writer’s job to create a world wherein all things are logical and consistent.
It’s not enough to explain the more difficult, high concept aspects of the plot, you need to pay attention to everything else as well. Because if you do, you will have gone a great distance in getting the reader to believe what you want him to believe, what he must believe if the novel is going to be successful.
One good way to do it is to ask your beta readers to tell you if you have succeeded or failed in doing this. And then be man or woman enough to take comments that are given and work on those aspects of the work that they refer to.
Remember one of TG’s dictums: When a reader tells a writer that something strikes him as being wrong, that does not mean the reader is correct. What it does mean is that some aspect of what has been commented on needs work. It needs to be “fixed” so that it fits and works successfully within the Secondary World of the novel.
It’s not enough to have a great concept, a shiny machine, a sexy, superhuman hero and an arch villain of incomparable evilness, you need to craft an entire world where all of these aspects can thrive, and be believed. Within that Secondary World.
The secret? If you’ve created your world so it is consist and, more importantly, interesting, readers will believe anything. Yup, anything. So put your time in on every aspect of your novel. Don’t try to convince us that the machine will work, show us that the machine works.
In his essay, Tolkien gave this small example that TG thought was funny.
“I once saw a so-called “children's pantomime,” the straight story of Puss-in-Boots, with even the metamorphosis of the ogre into a mouse. Had this been mechanically successful it would either have terrified the spectators or else have been just a turn of high-class conjuring. As it was, though done with some ingenuity of lighting, disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”
TG knows exactly how Tolkien felt.
But forget the books where you have to hang, draw and quarter disbelief. TG suggests we remember the great ones, where the unbelievable is perfectly believable, where the Secondary World becomes the Primary World, at least while you’re reading them.
Or writing them.