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Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. You can comment here or there.

We’ve all seen the act. The magician waves his wand over the prone body of his lovely assistant and suddenly she rises, suspended in mid-air. He sweeps a hoop across her. “See? No wires!”

And we believe. The woman is floating. The magician is MAGIC.

Rationally we know this cannot be true. There’s no such thing as magic. Women don’t float. But still…

That’s the power of fiction. The power to suspend disbelief.

Last week I was discussing story with a group of writers. The problem with mysteries written for teens, one writer lamented, is NO ONE would ever believe an ordinary teen would solve one mystery—much less a series. Teen readers are “too smart for that.”

Really? REALLY?

In the days after this conversation I became a little obsessed. How does a writer suspend disbelief?  How can words on a page convince a reader that a random sixteen year old is the next Sherlock Holmes?

This week in the Tollbooth I’ll be examining the fine art of levitation- suspending a reader’s belief and making the impossible plausible.

The first thing that occurred to me as I was trying to unravel this problem is the similarity between my work now- writing believable fiction- and my work before I became a writer- presenting a credible defense in a trial. I know what you’re thinking. Lawyers are liars and this proves it. No, that’s not my point. My point is lawyers use a number of techniques to present their client’s side of the story and make a jury believe it. Techniques I think we can use as fiction writers.

Next coincidence stepped in. (Or maybe it was no coincidence. Who knows how serendipity really works?) I’ve been reading a fantastic craft book Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction.

This is a craft book for craft book haters (and lovers, too.) A book that takes real world writing problems, faces them head on, and solves them. It talks about creating micro-tension on every page and world building. Best of all, at least for our purposes, Chapter Six is “Making The Impossible Real”. Maass explains, point by point, how to make that magician’s assistant float.

Maass says “Essentially, you must pulverize every particle of reader resistance. Every single rational objection must be obliterated, one at a time.”

Fine. How? Let’s take it one step at a time.

Tip one is something you’ve heard before… but it makes even more sense than ever in this context. Make the reader care about your protagonist and his struggle. If your reader is rooting for your hero to succeed they won’t get hung up on the fact that there really aren’t vampires in our world… or that sixteen year olds aren’t the world’s greatest sleuths.

How do you make the reader care? Build a foundation. Take the time at the beginning of the novel to create identification with the character. Start with situations that are utterly believable and sympathetic… and move on from there.

J. K. Rowling understood this when she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series. Rationally, we all know there is no such thing as witches or Hogwarts, or Voldemort. Humans don’t turn into cats. Owls don’t deliver the mail.

But some children are treated unfairly, especially unwelcome stepchildren. Some adults are boorish louts. We all know this is true. Rowling opens the novel with these entirely believable elements, in the Dursley’s house, as Harry wakes up in his cupboard under the stairs, ready to celebrate dull Dudley’s birthday. Something’s afoot, that’s for sure. Why else would a cat be watching the house? But we don’t know Harry’s magic- The Boy Who Lived. Harry doesn’t have any clue of it himself. Rowling builds up, from believable to unbelievable, and because we believe in and care about a boy with mean stepparents and a scar on his forehead our readerly skepticism is pulverized. The pre-Hogwarts scenes aren’t mere authorial throat clearing. These scenes set the stage for the “incredible” events to come. By the time Hagrid shows up we want to believe there is a whole magical world running parallel to the Muggle universe. We’re caught up in the dream (to use John Gardner-speak) and we don’t care whether it can happen in the ordinary world or not.

So are we done as writers? Make the reader like the guy and that’s it? Nope.

Once you’ve created a sympathetic protagonist with realistic problems (notice I didn’t say likable. A reader may or may not “like” this guy. That’s all up to you as the writer) now it’s time to introduce the stuff that isn’t possible. Now the real writing trouble begins.

And for tips on how to handle that you’ll have to meet me here on Wednesday.

In the meantime what are your favorite “unbelievable” stories? Are they fantasies? Mysteries? Adventures? When did you first read that favorite and did your age make a difference in your willingness to believe?

~ tami lewis brown

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Sep. 14th, 2010 11:04 am (UTC)
Ah magic!
Great advice, Tami! As I forge through my pages endeavoring to create a sympathetic protagonist and an engaging plot, may I remember your words and Maass's lessons. And may a bit of magic enter the scenes to come. Can't wait to see what you offer us today. You've chosen a topic near and dear to what I'm working on. How's that for magic!
throughthebooth
Sep. 14th, 2010 11:35 am (UTC)
Re: Ah magic!
Great! I'm glad it's helping you. It's helped me and changed my outlook a bit, that's for sure.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )