How-To Evoke Willful Suspension of Disbelief in Your Stories (featuring the Dresden Files) By Victoria Leeworthy

Hey there everyone and welcome to one of my favorite topics featuring my favorite book series! I know this falls very much under the fiction genre, and that’s not typically what we talk about here, but I’m using it to illustrate a writing tool which this series uses quite well. What I’m going to do is walk through some of the major points that Jim Butcher uses in order to facilitate this willful suspension of disbelief and then show you how to use those techniques for your own work – literary or otherwise. But first, let’s start with a definition.

I’m pulling from Dictionary.com for a quick definition, which is pretty concise in its accuracy: “a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.” In simpler terms, using this technique helps the reader to forget their own sense of logic in order to enjoy the elements of fantasy in a piece of writing. This can be used as simply or as complexly as you choose.

So now that we’ve got a working definition, let’s see how Jim Butcher uses this technique, whether on purpose or by pure mistake of genius.

  1. Location

This is probably the most obvious one. The majority of the series takes place in Chicago, somewhere people in our world actually live and breathe and do normal people things. It’s a huge point of familiarity, even for readers who have never been there. Dresden – the other wizard named Harry – often makes references to buildings and locations that you can find on Google Maps because they’re real. They exist in our world, so it automatically gives readers something real to ground themselves with. On top of that, most of the rest of the locations are pulled from popular fairy tales and stories, Jim just turns them over in a new light and gives us a unique perspective.

 

  1. Characterization

The characters of any work are the blood and guts of the story. They make the plot move, they are essential. Dresden is a wizard and that’s not totally normal. So what did Jim do? He gave him girl problems. Work problems. Friend problems. Real emotional issues that we can all relate to on some level or another. Just because he’s a wizard doesn’t mean his feelings don’t get hurt, or his ego, or his sense of self-worth. He still has to work out his feelings like the rest of us because being a wizard doesn’t make him above them.

  1. Limitations

Of course all parts of a story have limitations; the characters, the plot, the setting, etc. But when you’ve got some weird something or other going on, you’ve got to be more mindful of these limitations, because they’ve got to balance out the craziness. For instance, Jim Butcher limits all magic users to only the most basic of technologies as their magical vibrations tend to short out things like chips and wires. The more moving parts it has, the more sparks will fly. This limitation does a lot to affect how these people are able to interact with the world around them, which in a lot of cases, is incredibly unfavorable and forces the use of critical thinking on the author’s part.

  1. No Turning Back

When you’ve got something fantastical going on in a story, the readers are always going to go through a period of acclamation. In short stories, it’s generally a quick Band-Aid rip and the author shoves them in as gracefully as possible. In a series, however, there’s more room to experiment with the freaky side of things. In each new book, Jim throws in some new element that the readers don’t know about, that Dresden has to figure out both magically and “professionally” for his job as a CPD consultant. But even if this process is as quick and jarring as it would be for a short story, Jim Butcher never once looks back and questions his decisions. He commits and that’s that.

  1. The Big Picture

When things don’t relate to each other in a story, they can individually start to feel like pointless concepts. This becomes especially true when there are some unnatural elements that the author already has to take care to present to the readers. It’s easy for readers to spot when an author pulls a “convenience” stunt and when they try to argue that their unusual circumstance has “always worked like that” they lose credibility pretty fast. Jim Butcher does a great job in revealing larger plot devices as the series progresses and very few magical details end up not being explicitly important to the plot. If the author doesn’t have the big picture in mind, it’s easy for the story to fall into conveniences that readers attribute to either a lazy or noncommittal author.

 

This are just some of the big uses that can be easily applied to just about every story, so let me put them in terms that you’ll be able to translate to your own work.

 

  1. Ground the reader in something concrete and real, something they can relate to in their own world.

 

  1. The characters still need to be relatable as well – not necessarily likable – but the fantastical element shouldn’t interfere with the reader’s ability to form connections.

 

  1. Take your special circumstances into account and make sure any and all limitations are both complimentary and fair.

 

  1. Commit to your craziness, whether it’s a single element that’s small, or something huge and complex. If you don’t believe it, your readers won’t either.

 

  1. Take a careful look at the big picture and tie up loose ends that your bizarre elements actually can’t fix on their own due to the limitations you’ve set forth.

 

I hope you’ve found a nugget or two of wisdom to run with, and happy writing!

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