The willing suspension of disbelief is something every author counts on. So here’s a quick thought experiment: How much disbelief are you willing to suspend when you’re in the audience? And what are the things that test your suspension when you’re consuming media? I’m not just talking about the things that actually take you out of a story but anything that piques your interest even if you put it aside for the sake of enjoying the story. Odds are there are more things in the typical story than you think. The mind tends to gloss over these things but they’re still there and if you want to be a good writer you need to train yourself to catch them in other people’s writing if you’re going to have a chance of catching them in your own.
Unfortunately a lot of looking for unbelievability is a matter of feel. It’s a very subjective field, which may prompt you to ask why authors bother tracking it. The simple fact is that anything that can help you figure out your audience is worthwhile. When trying to work out what’s believable and what’s not it’s a good idea to ask friends and family for help. While not the best source of feedback for your own work; when examining general culture they can be a real benefit to you so take as much advantage of them as you can.
“Try it until you get it” isn’t the most helpful advice so here are a few examples of the kinds of things to look for as you try and figure out what might stretch believability without breaking it.
The Man Without Fear. People who can’t get scared are a bit of a trope in geek circles, the most prominent examples are probably the Green Lanterns of DC Comics and the paladins Gary Gygax put into Dungeons and Dragons. Both are very simple in concept – no matter the situation they don’t get scared – but there’s not anyone like that in real life (outside of people with severe mental disorders). I’ve noticed that people who haven’t spent a great deal of time exposed to the trope tend to find it a bit of a stretch. Sure, there could be people like that but they’d kind of be freaks, right? This is a pretty good example of what to look out for.
The Omnidisciplinary Scientist. You know how smart scientists or engineers on TV seem to be able to figure out just about anything by looking at it for two or three seconds? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here. Any given discipline of science requires years of study and work just to get the basics. No one, not even Einstein, has the level of genius these characters portray. It stretches belief but it’s convenient for the story and most people will just let it go.
Chronically Clumsy. This trope shows up in a lot of low quality comedy. As the name suggests it involves someone who’s chronically clumsy constantly making a mess of things. Not only does it get old fast it starts to raise questions about the clumsy person’s friends. Like, why don’t they learn? Again, not a deal breaker on its own. But when stacked with a dozen other unbelievable things… well, it can be a deal breaker.
If you read or watch or listen to a lot of the critics out there you’ll find it’s the little things that are often the breaking point. A work can go from mediocre to bad simply because a single thing jumped out and got under their skin, somehow becoming emblematic of all the unbelievable things in your work. Sometime just cutting one of those things is enough to make the difference.
Of course there are other ways to make your audience accept things that are totally unbelievable and using the right methods might still let you get away with your original vision. Like believability itself, your mileage may vary.
The Rule of Cool. This rule basically states that an audience is more willing to forgive something that looks cools but is unbelievable. Pretty much any action movie made since the 80s is an example of this as most of the physics and fighting in those films wouldn’t work in real life and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but never seems to bother audiences. Of course not everyone likes action movies so it’s important to know your audience but this rule is still very useful.
The Rule of Funny. Even more subjective than the rule of cool, the rule of funny says that audiences will play along with your unbelievable things if they are funny. Most romantic comedies do this when they put two totally different people with different social circles and life choices in some bizzare situation that results in a relationship forming. No, it wouldn’t happen but it makes for funny situations so we forgive it.
The Fridge. Fridge tropes all revolve around the audience being too tied up in what’s going on in a story to catch on to something else the author is doing. This works really well in some situations but counting on the audience being distracted from unbelievable elements of your story is a risky move. Not only do audiences have different attention spans, if something is outright impossible it tends to show through. Don’t count on this working for anything other than minor story elements.
It’s important to keep track of what it is in your story that defies belief. Not because such elements are inherently bad, but because too many of them can lose your audience. Audiences are rare and valuable things and should not be taken lightly, so don’t burden their credulity willy nilly. Keep track of the unbelievable things in your story and make sure they’re serving the plot. Then, if necessary, employ the tricks of the trade to make your impossible things palatable.
All this requires you to have some sense of your audience going in. None of the techniques for obscuring impossibilities are a substitute for audience understanding because without it you won’t be able to get a handle on what they’ll find outrageous in the first place. So get out there and start finding out what people won’t believe.