Reading is all about suspending disbelief.
Readers stare at a two-dimensional piece of paper or a flat screen with glyphs on it and imagine they’re traveling to unknown lands and meeting interesting people. They treasure being whisked away from everyday life. It’s an addictive experience.
As writers, we want them addicted to our books. It’s our burden to help readers suspend disbelief and come along with us for the ride.
When you write paranormal romances, your world may contain vampires, or magic or time travel. That’s a lot of disbelief to suspend. One wrong step and the book is put down, perhaps never to be picked up again.
So how do you get readers to suspend disbelief?
I’ve found that the main ways are familiarity, immersion, and speed. I’ll give some examples at the end from my books.
Your readers will follow you anywhere if they believe in your characters, your settings, and your events. So you must make them very real and immediate. As you do that, you have to keep two things in mind: recognition, and immersion.
The reader has to recognize who or what you are describing so they can relate to them.
You know how to do this. For settings, use five senses in your descriptions. Imagine how it would be to really be in that scene you’re setting. Choose a few evocative details so you don’t bog down the story (see “speed” below). Make sure the reader recognizes the description, so they can relate. (That means very few made up words, especially at first.)
Your reader has to recognize your characters too. How do you accomplish it?
- Make your characters complex with opposite traits and flaws. You want your readers to be thinking, “I know a person like that.”
- Be sure your characters react like real people. “I’d do that, too, if I was confronted with that situation.” That’s why you DON’T write the “too dumb to live” heroine. No one wants to identify with someone too dumb to live, even if sometimes we are.
- Make your characters vulnerable, because vulnerability gets us on their side immediately.
As you begin your story, don’t start out with an info-dump about the world, the society, the rules of the paranormal, or anything else. Start with a setting or event that readers can relate to. (Or, if you don’t start with the familiar, at least give your reader some pretty quickly.)
Let the weirdness creep in gradually, like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs the reader can follow to your new world. It helps if you put yourself in your character’s place. What would she be thinking about her world? She wouldn’t deliver a lecture on politics. She wouldn’t explain that the light switches work differently than they do on earth. Layer the detail in through the character’s eyes. That way we’ll believe it.
This also achieves what I call immediacy. Readers need to be inside the action, right along with the character, in order for the world outside the book to disappear. That’s why showing what happens, and not having the author tell you what’s happening, is so important. Every time the author intrudes, it gives the reader a chance to say, “Oh, right, this is just a book.” We don’t want them to remember it’s just a book.
Let’s talk speed. If you keep your story moving, readers don’t have time to think.
They can’t help but go along. They’re flipping pages, dying to see what happens. They’ll buy a whole lot more strangeness when the book creates a sense of urgency. That’s why it’s important to start in the middle of the action, not only for the book as a whole, but also in each scene. That doesn’t mean you can’t leave space for the reader to catch their breath. But the book should gather momentum until it’s racing toward the ultimate moment.
Isn’t this all this just good writing? Sure. Yet reminding yourself of these principles as you write, and especially as you go back and edit, makes a book that readers can’t put down, no matter how crazy your premise, or how wild the action gets.
Frequently, I layer in these principles in editing because I can’t think of them all as I write. And they work just as well for historical settings, or unfamiliar social worlds.
Now for some examples.
When I was writing BODY ELECTRIC, before SciFi romance was big, I knew I had an uphill battle. My premise was that a brilliant hacker falls in love with the artificial intelligence she creates. And then they have to get him a body. Even I wasn’t sure I could sell the reader on this, but the book ended up getting a lot of attention. Publisher’s Weekly named it one of the ten most influential paperbacks of 2002.
I glanced back through it, to see just how I got readers to come along for the ride.
Here are the first lines:
“Vic Barnhardt slammed on the brakes of her black BMW. Adrenaline surged through her. She’d almost hit him! The guy in torn denims screamed something she couldn’t understand as he thumped on her hood with the wooden handle of his sign.”
I wrote this scene during editing when I realized that the book didn’t start fast enough. So I put her in the middle of a protest against her megalithic computer company employer, Visimorph. Lots of action and danger to draw the reader in, but almost nothing paranormal.
Only in the second scene did I go back and begin laying in the situation, hinting that it was the near future, showing Vic working illicitly after hours to create her AI, Jodie, always on the verge of being discovered.
“The glowing silver symbols on the monitor burned in the darkness like the white light you walk toward after your heart stops beating. But tonight they didn’t seem like salvation at all. Music pounded through her earphones. Instead of helping her concentrate, the syncopated rhythms and whining keyboards of the Shards just scraped her nerves. Vic knew she was close, either to a break through or a break down… The smell of stale coffee and recycled air mingled with the vague chemical odor from her printer. Vic tapped her headset, clicking over to a soothing track of Organic R&B and took a swig of Diet Coke from the half-full can standing among several empties.”
Here I’m trying to put readers into that dark cube farm, with someone who’s on the edge. I insert some familiar things like Diet Coke among the unfamiliar names of bands, etc.
Lots of people have used work resources to do something personal, even if it’s just the copy machine. That’s something readers can relate to. I give Vic a character-based reason for her project, and some desperation to initiate a sense of urgency.
I ramp up the tension with an employee who knows she’s up to something and threatens to tell her boss. We learn that Vic has built a mole into the powerful secret computer in the Visimorph basement. I throw around one or two computer terms, but only one or two. Vic is surprised when the giant in the basement comes on line, and power surges through her desktop. But the reader knows what’s going to happen here. And I think they’re ready for it.
“She had raised her hands into position, wondering what she should type, when the top box rippled. And a capital H appeared. Vic thought she might faint. An e joined the H. Her hands, still hovering above the keyboard, trembled. As she watched, the screen slowly wrote Hello. A question mark appeared at the end, almost tentatively. Hello?”
This all happens by page 13. And, even with one word, I’ve started giving Jodie his own personality and vulnerability.
I won’t tell you how they get him a body. But by that time, the romance between them has grown to the point that you really want Jodie to have a body. Is the way they do it preposterous? Sort of. (No, I’m not going to tell you how.) Does the reader care? Nope.
Series are hard. For the first book, you can layer in the paranormal really slowly. But in subsequent books, you have some quicker explaining to do. So avoiding info dumps is really hard.
In DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?, the first of the series, I went back and re-wrote the beginning to give it more punch, using the old thriller technique of starting with the villain’s point of view.
“Jason saw his reflection wavering in the pool of blood under the streetlight. Pale eyes, buzz cut, burly. He looked like what he was: a hard man.”
At the end of this one-page first scene, the reader knows only that this hard man is afraid of an old woman, who leads something called the Clan, and they’re searching for the kids of a family named Tremaine, who might or might not have some unspecified powers.
No rules of the world. No explanations. Now it’s all about making the main characters seem approachable and real. So I opted for the mundane.
“Maggie O’Brian’s rig clattered into the dirt parking lot next to the diner. The four-horse trailer was one of those old iron slat jobs where the horses were tied in at an angle. It made a God-awful racket when it was empty. Truck wasn’t exactly new either. Ford F250, vintage 1970. But the big 390 diesel did the job. You couldn’t see much of the faded red paint under all the dust anyway, so the dings and dents didn’t matter. She climbed out of the cab. A kick-ass black Harley with minimum chrome and scarred leather saddlebags leaned on its stand in front of the diner windows, no doubt so the owner could keep an eye on it. Covered with road grit and sporting a couple of dings itself, it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon ride for some rich Hell’s Angel wannabe. That bike had seen action.”
The descriptions of their rides are really descriptions of the characters themselves, and the reader will know, if only subconsciously, that they’re made for each other, even when they don’t.
One way to make characters relatable is to tell the reader what they think of themselves and each other. Vulnerability is key to getting the reader interested.
This series is one of the few times I’ve let my characters be instantly attracted to each other. I always have a hard time believing that in a story. So I took pains to let the reader know that this attraction feels unnatural to the characters themselves. They fight it. We will eventually learn there’s a reason for that attraction. But because instant, violently sexual attraction requires more suspension of disbelief, I have to work extra hard to make the characters seem human and relatable, and…made for each other.
In that book nothing happens that the reader is sure is magic until page 30. By the time the magic really can’t be denied, the reader is prepped. I’ve heard readers say that they didn’t even like paranormal romance, but that this one captured them before they knew what had happened.
So that brings us to HE’S A MAGIC MAN, and the task of not doing an info dump in the first pages of the second book of the series to “bring the reader up to speed.” I again found a scene from the villain’s point of view useful.
“The old woman wheezed, gasping for breath. Time was running out. “Jason,” she whispered. “Come closer.”
I’m hoping the reader is intrigued enough by the first words of the book to want to know what she’s going to say. Facts can get revealed in conversation, and conflict can disguise what you’re doing.
The conflict here is that the old woman knows that Jason wants to kill her. At the end of that short scene, we know the old woman is dying. She thinks a sword buried somewhere in the Caribbean can save her. But since she has no time she needs a Finder to get it for her. This will create suspense when we first encounter someone who can find things. That’s all we need to get the story started.
That means I can get busy making my heroine into someone you can relate to. I let Drew tell us how good it is to know you have a destiny, while she displays her sophistication at a museum opening of Anglo Saxon artifacts sponsored by her parents. She comes off as a little smug, but we see why her friend Jane loves her. And I give Drew the first big setback to her certainty. She thinks she’s found her one true love in her professor, Roger.
“Girls did fawn on him of course. Understandable. There was one now, earnestly discussing bronze belt fittings, gaze glued to his face. The girl was stuttering something.
And Roger’s expression went soft.
Drew sucked in a breath. The exhibit seemed to recede. She knew Jane was standing beside her. But it all seemed distant. Because she knew what was going to happen. And it didn’t take a magic power to see it…”
As Drew leaves, Roger invites the coed out for coffee. And even sheltered Jane knew he was the campus Lothario.
This accomplishes two things. Who hasn’t been totally, embarrassingly wrong about something? We can identify with that. And we’re on Drew’s side. She’s been taken advantage of by her professor. She’s vulnerable. So when she’s instantly attracted to a guy she sees on television, and thinks she got a magic power as a consequence, we’re protective of her. Even I was silently shouting to her, “You could be wrong, Drew. You’ll get hurt.” When he turns out to be an alcoholic who’s still in love with his dead wife, we’re pretty sure we were right.
Of course she’s instantly attracted to Michael (aka Dowser because he can find things), because that’s how the magic gene they share works. But the fact that they’re perfect for each other gets layered in slowly this time. I want the reader to WANT them to be perfect before they are.
Michael is fragile, because of how his wife died, and guilty over being attracted to Drew. So we feel protective of him too. That way, when we get to Michael’s dead wife speaking to him, Drew’s visions of the future and a woman who has the power to raise storms, not to mention chasing off to Caribbean islands to find the lost sword of Merlin, the reader is already so involved in Drew and Michael, they accept all the craziness that ensues.
- Make your settings as real as you can.
- Use the five senses and a deep point of view to make the story feel immediate.
- Make your characters someone your readers know, and someone to root for.
- Don’t ever pull your readers out of the story.
- Layer in the craziness slowly.
- Have faith your readers will figure it out.
- String them along, all the time giving them something familiar to hang on to.
- Keep the story moving fast.
Your readers won’t have a chance to disbelieve. And they’ll be addicted to that feeling of being swept away to another world. Have some fun with it.
Can you think of examples from books you’ve read, or books you’ve written, where you’ve been using some of these techniques to help draw your reader into your world? Which ones are your favorites?
Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.
Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.