Posts Tagged ‘Suspension of Disbelief’


One trick for starting a short story is the trick of front-loading, so that the overarching fantastic element, source of melodrama, or underlying theme or emotion, is presented to the reader immediately or shortly after the story commences. This technique is often useful because within the first few lines or paragraphs of your story, the author still has the readers’ complete trust. The reader has not had a chance for doubt to creep in and impinge upon their suspension of disbelief. In short:  At this point, they’re still open to buying what you’re selling.

Now before we go any further I should probably point out that this is just one technique which can be used effectively when commencing a short story. It is not the be-all-end-all of how to start a story. There is no single one right way. To quote Nick Mamatas once more from his fantastic collection of essays, Starve Better:

Write what you want, when you want, and how you want to write it. If you keep finding yourself staring up at the lights while the ref counts to three, try another strategy. There are plenty to choose from … whatever gets the story published and enjoyed is what works.

Getting back to the idea of front-loading: Using the term “curse” as a byword for melodrama in plot, Ansen Dibell says in her book :Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”

I’ll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.” (Simon: Emphasis mine)

Ansen then goes on to list a number of ways to do this, and gives examples of:  the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis awaking and realising he is an insect, the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope being laser fire between spaceships, and the vampire talking into the tape recorder at the start interview with a vampire.  (Note:  Ansen’s book is a great book, buy this book.)

Kristi DeMeester, author of Split Tongues, whose short fiction you can find at places like Black Static Magazine, Shimmer zine, and Shock Totem Magazine, says:

“That great short story idea you had? Put it up front. Make it your lead. If your story is about a woman birthing plastic dolls who is then deemed the new Madonna/Mother Mary, start there with the shiny, plastic birth.”

And what a start to a story that would be! In fact, I want to read that story. (Kristi, fill your boots!)

Joe Hill, author of novels such as The Fireman, Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and fantastic short story collections such as 20th Century Ghosts, says on his blog Joe Hill’s Thrills:

“Readers are inclined to just go with you at the very beginning of a story, which is why it’s the best place to drop a whopper on them. I began my short story “Pop Art” like this:

My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.

The reader’s response? Oh, okay, Joey! Inflatable friend. Got it.

Also: think about if you saw a U.F.O. or a ghost. If you were telling a friend about it, you’d probably drop that shit on them right away: Dude, I was driving back from work last night and I saw a fuckin’ U.F.O. And it landed! And a ghost got out of it!!

You wouldn’t tell him about the business account you lost during the day, the conversation you had with your Mom that made you angry, and the nap you took under your desk. You wouldn’t even *think* of telling him about that stuff, not at first. YOU SAW A U.F.O., DUDE. Start with that part. Don’t be afraid to be amazing right from the beginning.”

Often this kind of declaration of intent that a writer makes, is actually a method of introducing that The Event as well (Refer to Part 1 of this series for more on that)

The following except is from the beginning of Angela Slatter’s British Fantasy Award winning story, The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter and I think it makes a fantastic case study of several cool techniques, including front-loading:

The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.

The dead man’s daughter opens the door.

She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.

“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.

In this scene, Angela does a number of cool things:

  1. The arrival at the house of the dead man is The Event. The house, more specifically who lives there and the business the protagonist Hepsibah has there, is central to the entire story. So her rocking up on site really is the beginning of the story here.
  2. By describing the door and the knocker she impresses upon the reader the importance of what is behind the door and instils a sense of trepidation. What horrors lurk behind this portal?? Perhaps also mixed with wonder or intrigue, as the description of the plush garden and reading nooks, and the general affluence of the house is raises questions. Who lives here??
  3. Then the dead man’s daughter opens the door, leaving us thinking “Who died? And what importance does their death (and perhaps death generally!) have to this story?” Additionally, the contrast of the pale, peachy, lickable maiden who answers the door versus the suspenseful description of the door from the preceding paragraph and the horrors it implied,  is masterful.
  4. And finally, and most crucially as far as this post goes, she front-loads that fantastic—she reveals Hepsibah’s dead ghostly father is beside her berating and beating her “as much as he did in life”.

Within 4 short paragraphs, I’m anticipatory; I’m intrigued and tantalised; I’m not even blinking my eye when she’s telling me there is horrid ghostly fathers that follow around their children cursing them. Hell, I’m buying what Angela is selling, folks!

Alternatively, rather than front-loading the element of the fantastic, an author can front-load the theme of a story or the underlying emotion of a piece for incredible effect.

I’ll use the opening paragraphs (which includes one of the very best opening lines I’ve ever read) from Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door:

You think you know about pain?

Talk to my second wife. She does. Or thinks she does.

She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting—her own cat and a neighbor’s—and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you can still see today, scared her so badly she fell back against her mother’s turn-of-the-century Hoosier, breaking her best ceramic pie plate and scraping sick inches of skin off her ribs while the cat made its way back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-six stiches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted for days.

My second wife says that’s pain.

She doesn’t know shit, that woman.

Yes, that poignant question is the opening line of a novel rather than a short story, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Straight away we know what this tale is about. We have some idea of what the subject matter is, the primary theme the novel is going to explore. When you read that opening line you immediately  question yourself, you question that knowledge you think you have about pain.  I know about pain, asshole. I think. Don’t I??

When you read the following description of the lady who got mauled be the cats, and the narrator’s assertion “My second wife says that’s pain.”, you know know this novel is going to be a treatise on or an exploration of pain. And, indeed, that’s what it is (along with an extreme social commentary on rape culture, mob mentality and many other things).

Important notes/sub-essay in the margin:

When I’m talking about front-loading, I mean front-loading the element of the fantastic or melodramatic; front-loading the theme, front-loading the central emotion of your piece etc. What I’m NOT talking about is front-loading exposition (scene, descriptions of the fucking weather or descriptions of characters) or back story.

When you start up front with backstory, you’re missing the Inciting Incident Describing back story, Donald Maass, literary agent and owner of the Maass literary agency, says in his book The Fire In Fiction:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.

I’m telling you now folks, this is as true of the first scene of a short story as it is of a novel.

Here I’ll turn to Thomas B. Sawyer, head writer of the classic TV show Murder, She Wrote and author of Fiction writing Demystified:

Don’t front-load your exposition.

Sure, you’ve fully imagined your characters, given them complexity and dimension. You’ve created concise and solid biographies for them. You know a lot about them (though you’ll learn more as your story progresses), and you’re anxious to use it, to tell your readers about it.

Resist, with all of your strength, the temptation to squeeze all that great stuff into the first scene, into those first moments that this or that character is onstage.

Why? Because, as far as the Theory of Locomotion is concerned, exposition is dead writing. It’s not moving things forward at all. Rather, if we do what was suggested in Part 1 of this series and start with or near The Event, and then frontload our story with something appropriate, the start of your story can be a powerful and adroit delivery. On time and on point, so to speak.

Having said that you can still have a slow burn story—one that starts slow and builds up. It doesn’t have to begin with vampire fangs, ghosts, or the apocalypse. There is no requirement set in stone that one must, or necessarily should, front-load the fantastic/theme/etc. There are different horses for different courses, and there are no rules. At the end of the day, what works is what works, what gives the best effect, and what results in a fiction sale is what was appropriate.

For example, one might start near the Event, yet not really front-load anything.

In my own “Little Spark of Madness” (forthcoming 2016, Morbid Metamorphosis, Lycan Valley Press) , we can see that I open it like this:

“She wore a fluffy, pink dressing gown and a vacant stare. The lady stood outside the large red brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac, set well away from the other houses; a building cast under a shadow, as though a cloud had parked itself directly above.”

In this instance, The Event is the character Brodie is meeting the other main character, Sally,  in the story for the first time. It’s equivalent of the “Stranger comes to town” archetypal beginning. In this story, and particularly in this beginning, there are no UFOs, no ghosts or full moons, no overt element of the fantastic. There are no laser beams. What relationship or effect this lady is going to have on the protagonist is not immediately apparent. And that’s OK. What I hope the reader might be thinking at this point is:  “Who is the woman? Why is she staring vacantly? Is she sick/sad/etc?”. Perhaps they might too consider the contrast between the pink and fluffy dressing gown and the lady’s catatonic appearance.

Nick Mamatas says the following in Starve better, and I think he makes a good point here:

“Start with a hook” is bad advice, ultimately, because of the word ‘hook’. A hook is an important part of a story to be sure, and could do anywhere. It is the motor of the story—it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change the character undergoes, the language or clever structure of a piece…whatever makes a story worth reading is its hook. A hook may go in the beginning, but it need not. Beginnings are for something else. The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that they are in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.

Starting with a “strong hook”, front-loading the fantastic, grabbing the reader by the balls, laser beams—is just ONE way to start a story. It is ONE technique.

Try it. Experiment with it. See when and how it works for your fiction.


4. Locomotion


Whether it’s a breakneck thrilling train ride or a slow scenic tour through countryside, opening our eyes to expansive vistas of beauty or whathaveyou, a story—like a train—needs a locomotive. Y’know, that big carriage at the front of the train whose engine propells the rest of the train forward along the tracks.

Locomotive: [Latin locō, from a place, ablative of locus, place + Medieval Latin mōtīvus, causing motion; see motive.]

Spell Syllables
Synonyms Examples Word Origin
something that causes a person to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.; incentive.
the goal or object of a person’s actions:
Her motive was revenge.
(in art, literature, and music) a motif.
causing, or tending to cause, motion.
pertaining to motion.
prompting to action.
constituting a motive or motives.
verb (used with object), motived, motiving.
to motivate.

The real locomotive of a story is the characters. It is the characters tha truly make the story move forward via their response to events. It’s the characters who move (motivus!) the story forward from one event or one place (locus!) to another. An event (such as the inciting incident) may occur, but if the characters passively accept it and sit there with their thumbs in their asses, you don’t actually have a story. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. There was no locomotion.

I have to care about your characters. Very early on you need to make me care about your characters or I’m not going to want to bother reading further. They have to be someone. They need hopes and fears. They need to act in accordance with their hopes and fears, specifically in how they deal with the Inciting Incident and events through the story. They need genuine motive.

Character + Events / Motive = Locomotion (aka a story that is going places!)

5. The Feels – Emotions and Themes


Let’s start with what a good story must not be. A good story isn’t boring. At the end of the day we read for pleasure, enjoyment and entertainment. No one likes a snoozefest, so don’t give them one. A boring story is a waste of the reader’s time. If it’s not the kind of story that really lights your fire, why would you expect anyone else to like it? So at a minumum a story must never be boring. Author Jack Ketchum was once famously advised to “Write lively”, but I’ve heard it expressed by others more commonly as “Don’t be boring.” Just. Don’t. Do it. Getting a second opinion on this, it’s important! Get someone else to read it and see if it rustles their jimmies. If a story is boring, I’m going to reject it.

Hurt Me. Scream at the sky. Break my heart. But don’t waste my time. – Jack Ketchum

So you’re bound and determined to not write a boring story. You’ve slapped your characters with an event and they’re off responding according to their realistic and fully fleshed out personas and dispositions. Is that enough? Is it enough to just let the story play out or is there any need to try and impart something deeper? A theme or a message? is it necessary to attempt to evoke a particular emotion in your reader?

The theme in a story is its underlying message, or ‘big idea.’ In other words, what critical belief about life is the author trying to convey in the writing of a novel, play, short story or poem? This belief, or idea, transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal in nature. When a theme is universal, it touches on the human experience, regardless of race or language. It is what the story means. Often, a piece of writing will have more than one theme.

Does a story need a theme to be successful or enjoyable? There are plenty of stories, in both fiction and film, without prominent themes that are great fun and thoroughly enjoyable; however, in the end, I think almost every story has some sort of theme going on. Whether it is just one of the importance of friendship or comradeship that is a subtle undertone of your military scifi blast ’em up, or the inescapably prominent themes of cosmic horror and human insignificance that pervade the works of HP Lovecraft, almost every story has some kind of theme going on. A really good story has a theme that illicts emotions. This is this two punch combination that will floor the editor and make them buy your work. Genre or medium aside, this is the hallmark of great art.

no feels.jpg

In my opinion, the very best art evokes emotion. At a basic level, beyond making any kind of statement or addressing any kind of theme, this is probably the primary purpose of art. The best fiction is evocative fiction.

Since we developed spoken language, long before writing, we were telling each other stories. It’s how we make sense of the world around us, each other and our inner selves. We’re humans, with all that entails emotionally, who enjoy hearing (or reading) about other humans with emotions. Its through the sharing of emotions and empathy that we identify and relate to one another, and to the characters in stories. When a person picks up a book, they’re effectively living or experiencing vicariously through the characters in the book. The reader wants to feel what these people are feeling: whether it is the sheer terror as the character steps into the darkened cellar or the triumph as the warrior stands above his vanquished. They want to feel the rush of emotions as the man or woman falls in love, and the crushing despair when love is lost, or it all falls apart.

The best writers make you feel by painting characters who are real people. The situations that the characters encounter don’t need to be real, but they have to have realistic motives. Like the rest of us, they must have talents and deficiencies. The must have their own hopes and fears. They should have their own idiosyncrasies and neuroses. The best writers create characters that the reader could very well see themselves being; Or characters within which they can see their own real life family, friends or acquaintances. And then? And then they fuck with those characters.

If a story has no emotion or discernible theme— i.e no real “feels” —, even if well written, I’ll most likely be overlooking it in favour of something more evocative. Something that challenges me or speaks to me on some deeper level.  Move yourself closer to the short list by writing evocative lively fiction.

6. Failure to maintain suspension of disbelief


There is an unwritten contract between any reader and an author, wherein an author gives the reader a story and the reader promises to believe it is plausible or true. We’ve all gotten part way through hearing a story, whether reading it in a book or hearing it from a friend and thought “Nup… I call bullshit. I’m out!”. This is the moment when our ability to consider the story as true or plausible is shattered. Our ability to suspend our disbelief has failed. From that moment on, it is near impossible for a writer to recapture the editor or reader’s interest in the story (particularly within the confines of a short story!).

The key to preventing this from occuring is to make the story consistent. By this i mean, the characters and world they live in have to consistently conform to the standards that the author has set, just as in the natural world we have general laws and conventions by which things abide. The story itself doesn’t need to be realistic, it can be wildly fantastical, but within that fantasy world it must be consistent. If an author breaks too many of his own laws it will come across as contrived and they’ll lose the reader.

Many stories that come through the slush pile fail to maintain my suspension of disbelief. When events occur too haphazardly; when a character randomly busts out new unknown magic powers or implausible skills; when a character acts too wildly out of character and the story travels down too unlikely a path — I’m gonna reject the story. My main logic here is that often it would take substantial re-writing and editing to correct this. For this reason, your tale will be rejected in favour of other stories that are better formed and require less work.

7. Lack of Peer Review

It’s often said that critique groups or beta readers are essential tools for writers to vet their work, help them hone their skills, help them reduce mistakes in the manuscript before they’re sent off to the editor or publisher. This is completely true.

Often there are discussions about what is a better, a critique group or beta readers. Personally I find beta readers who are conversant in your chosen genre to be the most effective as they tend to drill further down into your story, rather than the high level look that seems to be more common in critique groups. I’ve also found that many critique groups are geared towards one or another genre. It can be counter-productive to have people are not familiar with horror writing, for example, to be critiquing your horror stories. If they’re not conversant with traditions and tropes or common horror conventions, they often just “don’t get” your story. Personally I prefer to find other writers who I trust and whose fiction I admire, who write within the genre I write to beta-read my work. I find that I have better outcomes and get better advice this way. Other people have different experiences, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is great, but choose on or other (or both) of these options and use them. They WILL improve your writing generally, and they will improve specific stories that they look at.

Why do I mention this? Sure, some professional writers can churn out high quality work that would fool me or other editors into thinking it had been peer reviewed, but I think you can genuinely tell most of the fiction that comes through the slush pile that has only ever seen the author’s eyes. The techniques and issues described in Parts I and II of this series (also see my post on filtering) are not rocket science. They do take time to learn and time to become confident and consistent in implementing. It takes a long, long time to train your critical eye to be able to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the mistakes and deficiencies in your own writing. Even then, we often can’t see our own mistakes. Beta Readers (get more than one) or critique groups will likely catch some or all of the mistakes or force you to address issues which, in turn, make some of those other mistakes more visible to you. All this should be done before the story ever reaches the editor or publisher. If you’re going up against tens or hundreds of other writers of differing abilities, perhaps some of them genuine professional writers, you need your story in the best state it can be before it arrives in the editor’s inbox.

Here are some things which indicate lack of peer review:

1. Writing starts too far before the beginning of the actual story – Determining this is a tough skill to learn for new writers, increase your chances of hitting the mark via peer review.
2. Long tracts of exposition. Exposition can be nice, but it’s also dead writing that isn’t moving the plot forward.
3. A lot of passive voice/filtering. (see: )
4. Starting scenes with descriptions of the weather – we know you’re trying to set the scene but this is a weak and lazy way of starting a story/scene. Start a scene with something happening or someone doing soemthing. Weave a sense of weather/ambience/etc into the following text.
5. Logical inconsitencies in characters, plot or world building (See suspension of disbelief above)
6. Story is thinly veiled fan fiction.
7. Story infringes another’s copyright or
8. Story uses common tropes and does nothing new with them/Story is wholly derivative.

As soon as editors start discovering these things in your work, they’ll reject your story. Let these kind of prose level and structural issues get caught by your peer reviewers, don’t let them get through to the editor.


I could probably write more on this topic, but at the end of the day, the road to rejection is perilously short if you don’t know the pitfalls to look out for.  Start at the beginning, give me real characters, hit them with a event or incident, have them react. Have something you want to say and make me feel something, damn you! Write lively and never be boring. Be consistent with your characters and with your world building. Get someone to review your work.  Once you’ve tightened all the nuts and bolts, submit your work and gird your loins. Rinse and repeat. With time and effort and repetition you’ll improve and your stories will get out there.

And most of all? Enjoy.