Writing Realistic Details to Suspend Your Readers’ Disbelief

To convince your readers that the world you have crafted is real–or at least that it could be real, somewhere–you need to include realistic details.

As Rebecca McClanahan advises in her Guide to Writing More Descriptively: Word Painting, before a writer can pull the reader into the story, ‘she must first convince the reader that the events of the story could actually take place within the world of the story.’

Readers become engaged when they believe. In the world of fiction, where smart readers know they are being played, where it is no secret that the settings are figments of writers’ freaky imaginations, there is only one truly successful method to help them believe.

And that is to give them realistic details to which they can cling when unrealistic characters appear, and when improbable event happen.

When your story—no matter how fantastical it may be—is filled with real-world plants or characteristics or commonplace items, it makes the rest of your tale and the oddities therein seem plausible. In her brilliant tale Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingall’s first guides readers through a day in the life of the MC. She fleshes out her character and world with familiar elements, in such rich and vivid detail, that the reader is instantly engaged.

This is a bit of manipulation on the part of the writer. But let’s not be coy—making up stories is our bread and butter, and our readers know it.

By the time the implausible 6 foot 7 inch green monster appears on page 25 of Mrs. Caliban, the reader is prepared to accept its reality in the world of the story. Sure, the reader is shocked. But she is also willing to go along with it, because she has become engaged with the story through Ingalls’ wise application of minute, vivid, plausible real-world details.

Remember though, the details you choose to employ need to be dramatic, not static. Don’t just describe the physical attributes of a radio—use a bit of metaphor to bring it to life. ‘It was one of those old single knob stereos that looked like a gothic cathedral, and the music it produced always always came out in slightly haunting tones.’

When your setting is described imaginatively, as a vivid, active, living force in the world, readers will not become impatient for your human drama to begin. They will happily lose themselves in your imagined world, perhaps even before they get to know your characters.

So when you’re writing your setting, don’t just give a rundown of its physical nature. Bring it to life, even if it is a radio or a wooden box. In my psychological thriller, The Light of Lexi Montaigne, I go so far as to describe a scene from the perspective of a small, hand-carved wooden treasure box. This works, because it lends a surreal tone to a moving scene in a surreal book, and because the box itself is of vital import in the scheme of the narrative.

Details—vivid, life-giving, and realistic. Take your time and be imaginative. Employ metaphor, think outside—and sometimes even inside—the box. Even if your setting is on an alien world, your readers need some familiar object to which they can tether themselves.

For inspiration, check out this opening line to Janet Fitch’s White Oleander: ‘The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw.’

Notice how Fitch breathes life into simple grass through metaphor, calling them ‘whiskers of pale straw’ which conjures images in the mind. She wisely uses the verb ‘shriveling’, a powerful word that readers’ hearts latch onto and which instantly creates vivid pictures in the mind.

You have the knowledge and experience to enhance your writing. Use these tools to draw your readers in, make them suspend disbelief, and to make their minds engage with your world. So do it—and have fun doing it!

Here Mike Duran offers writers 5 ways to help their readers suspend disbelief. Check it out.