How often has this happened to you: You’re reading a book. Everything is going great. You’re enjoying it. Then, out of nowhere, you’re hit with that dreaded moment where you stop and roll your eyes. You put down the book and sigh. “That’s not how that works,” you say.
As readers, only the most incredibly fortunate of us can say that we genuinely have not experienced this moment before. It’s more than likely that you’re in the majority that has experienced that situation yourself.
Nothing ruins a good book quicker than inaccuracies and inconsistencies. As writers, that should be front and center on our minds as we develop our stories. Ideally, there will be people reading what we’ve written. And ideally, that readership will grow exponentially.
That equates to a lot of readers with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experiences and a lot of interests on one side. On the other, we find ourselves. ‘Little old me,’ having every word I write critiqued and analyzed.
Is it possible for us as individual, lonely writers with simple, introverted lives to convince our audiences, with a combined IQ far beyond anything we could even conceive of, that we do, in fact, know what we’re talking about? Can we convince them that our stories are accurate and that they can feel free to check their concerns at the door and just enjoy them?
The solution, I believe, is that we have to work hard to “trick” our readers. There was a suggestion discussed on multiple episodes of the writing podcast Writing Excuses that I believe is key for achieving this goal.
The idea they presented was that, as a writer, you have a budget of free passes, or gimmes. There are a certain number of things you can expect your audience to accept without question.
The number of free passes you get is not static. You can earn your reader’s suspension of disbelief as if its currency that you can collect and spend as needed.
Put simply, if you convince your readers that you know what you’re talking about by demonstrating your knowledge clearly and early on, then they will be more and more inclined to put their faith in you as a writer.
Take as an example the first two excellent seasons of the BBC drama Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes has been an incomparable genius ever since his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, released in 1887.
The problem is that the writers who have depicted him in adaptations such as Sherlock have had to do so without his unbelievable gifts. This would justly scare the crap out of any sane writer. They’re not just being judged on the quality of their story, but on their ability to do the impossible.
So, what did Stephen Moffat do in his premiere episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, to demonstrate the main character’s extraordinary capacity for deduction?
From Sherlock’s very introduction, Moffat took advantage of every opportunity to demonstrate his mental abilities.
With one glance at his future best friend John Watson, he was able to identify his career as a medical doctor, the location of his stationing, his psychological profile, and his desire to be Sherlock’s flatmate.
When Watson pulled out his cellphone, Sherlock managed to deduce that it was a gift from his alcoholic brother, a deduction that was accurate in everything but gender.
All of these deductions, upon further inspection, make perfect sense. They hold up under scrutiny. Every piece of the evidence presented fits into place perfectly to form the picture as he portrays it.
After careful observation, you can’t help but believe that Stephen Moffat himself is fully capable of discovering the same amount of detail if he was to meet John Watson in real life.
That, of course, is so far from the realm of possibility for most writers that it’s laughable at best. What Stephen Moffat did in the creation of this episode was to work backward. He started with the answers, the deductions, and then no doubt spent days, if not weeks, figuring out what clues there could possibly be to lead him towards that answer.
There are three advantages that Moffat had in the creation of this episode.
First, Stephen Moffat had as much time as he needed to depict Sherlock Holmes as a genius. He could brainstorm, discuss, organize, and polish what became a scene of less than a minute on-screen.
Second, Stephen Moffat had near-unlimited resources available during the writing of this episode. He might not have known anything about the qualities of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he had the internet. He had experts available on any field imaginable that could answer his inquiries with the click of a button. He could research as much as needed until his writing was polished like a gem.
Third, the viewer had precious few moments to register what Sherlock had said to John Watson and even less time to decipher it and come to the conclusion that Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, a genius.
From that moment on, the viewer is willing to believe more and more of what Sherlock says on blind faith. Eventually, the writers of the show got to the point where they could simply let him make an observation and go about his business without any need for explanation.
That trust built all the way to the end of the second season when not a single viewer doubted that Sherlock had an unbelievable plan in place when he jumped off that roof.
Unfortunately, that trust does have limits, and the premiere of season three of Sherlock pushed the viewers’ suspension of disbelief past its breaking point. They realized how implausible everything they were being presented was, and thus the writers’ spell over them was broken.
How can we succeed in tricking our readers? Just like Stephen Moffat, there are three things we can do.
1—Take as much time as you need.
Writing a novel is a journey of months, if not years. The best part is that you don’t have to get it all perfect on your first go.
Most writers operate under the belief that the first draft of their novel has to be perfect. The truth is that it is the first step in a long, multi-faceted process. You don’t have to have all the answers when you start writing.
2—Do your research and talk to experts.
Unfortunately, there are occasions when time alone will not be enough to successfully write a story. There’s only so much that you can do on your own, and there are many occasions where you can’t BS your way through the details.
There will be times when you do not have the knowledge necessary to complete your writing on your own. This is especially the case when dealing with topics of science, real-world cultures, jobs, settings, and so on. Ask the experts. Read articles about the topics of your story. Heck. Read entire books about them.
If you want to write about Cleveland, Ohio, go visit Cleveland. Or, during this COVID-19 pandemic, traverse the city on Google Maps. Open up Twitter and find some Cleveland natives to give you the lowdown on the city.
If you want to write about police officers, watch a documentary or two. Interview an officer or, when the stay-at-home orders are rescinded, look into the possibility of going out on a ride-along so you can gain first-hand knowledge.
If you want to write about the effects of relativity, such as those on display in the Ender’s Game series and Interstellar, pick up a couple of books from the library. Message a college professor or a science aficionado. You have the opportunity, and the time, to learn and discover as you go.
3—Keep up the pace of the story.
Many of the deductions presented in Sherlock, especially the early ones, were explained and reasoned out for us to understand, even if just for a second.
Later on, they were presented at breakneck speeds. We often didn’t have the time to even register the details before the next deduction came along.
As writers, we have the option to either slow down the pace and focus on every little detail, keeping things front and center in our readers’ minds, or we can present the facts and move on.
We can give whatever details we need to, as quickly as possible, to make it sound like we know exactly what we’re talking about. Then we can keep moving, letting the high quality of our narrative carry our readers forward through the story without a second thought.
What tactics have you found for tricking your readers? If you’d like to share your techniques, send me a tweet at twitter.com/qj_author. And be sure to check out the incredibly helpful writing community while you’re there.