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Marginal Notes

Stephen King, Suspense, and Suspension of Disbelief

In last month’s music video, I mentioned that suspense rests on the suspension of disbelief. If readers feel your story is contrived, they aren’t going to care how it turns out. In the comments, someone asked how you suspend disbelief when you’re writing about something inherently implausible like, say, vampires taking over a small New England town.

Of course, if you’re writing light comedy or satire, then it’s a lot easier to get readers to suspend disbelief. But most suspense novels depend on readers feeling the reality of whatever horrors you’re inflicting on your characters. So do most thrillers. And you often need readers to suspend disbelief about improbable events in police procedurals, or science fiction, or even cozy mysteries that have to explain why a retired governess turns out to be a stellar detective.

Stephen King is a master of making the outrageous and macabre seem real. One of his techniques is to frame his central implausibility – that small town in Maine being taken over by vampires — in a completely ordinary setting. By introducing readers to the thoroughly normal world of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, with the Excellent Café, the old guys hanging outside of Milt Crossen’s agriculture store, and Dud Rogers running the town dump, King anchors his readers firmly in the mundane reality of small-town New England.

Note, by the way, that King doesn’t give into the temptation to turn the town into an idyllic place. The newlywed McDougles in their trailer are dealing rather badly with each other and their toddler – there is hitting involved. And Dud Rogers down at the dump amuses himself by shooting rats. But by not going for the sharp contrast between the good town and the evil that invades it, King makes both the town and the evil feel more real.

He doesn’t let go of that ordinariness even as Dud Rogers starts stalking the dump’s patrons, the McDougles (including the toddler) take to hiding in the crawlspace below the trailer to avoid the sun, and the old guys outside the ag store simply disappear. Even while more and more of the town’s residents are being caught, drained of their blood, and turned into servants of the evil one, people are still eating reheated hamburgers from the McDonald’s in the next town over and getting home-canned corn from the metal shelves in the basement. And the Excellent Café is the last town business to close its doors.

The original Dracula did something similar, setting its tale of ancient horror in the midst of what were, in 1897, the trappings of the modern world. Lucy Westenra is temporarily saved by blood transfusions. Dr. Seward records his notes on a gramophone, and they are later transcribed using a typewriter. The vampire fighters track Dracula’s location through the carting companies he used to ship his coffins. And while some of the action takes place in Dracula’s dank palace in gloomy Transylvania, quite a lot of it happens in modern, gaslit London.

So if you’re introducing an element into your story that stretches belief, find a way to keep it anchored in reality. Neither a vague and forgetful priest nor an aging spinster who has lived out her life in a small, English village is likely to have the penetrating insights into human nature needed to be a good detective. Yet Father Brown and Miss Marple both root their abilities in sharp observations of the ordinary world around them – either through hearing people confess their sins or simply watching the neighbors and listening to the gossip in St. Mary Mead.

Another technique King uses in Salem’s Lot is to make his own characters skeptical of what’s happening around them. Here’s Matt Burke, a well-educated high school literature teacher, first beginning to recognize that Mike Ryerson, whom he met at Dell’s bar and invited home because he looked ill, is actually transforming into a vampire.

What you’re thinking is madness.

But step by step he had been forced backward toward belief. Of course, being a literary man, it had been the first thing that had come to mind when Jimmy Cody had thumbnailed Danny Glick’s case [one of the first victims, whose blood was drained]. He and Cody had laughed over it. Maybe this was his punishment for laughing.

Scratches? Those marks [on Mike’s neck] weren’t scratches. They were punctures.

One was taught that such things could not be; that things like Coleridge’s “Christabel” or Bram Stoker’s evil fairy tale were only the warp and woof of fantasy. Of course monsters existed; they were the men with their fingers on the thermonuclear triggers in six countries, the hijackers, the mass murderers, the child molesters. But not this. One knows better. The mark of the devil on a woman’s breast is only a mole. The man who came back from the dead and stood at his wife’s door dressed in the cerements of the grave was only suffering from locomotor ataxia, the bogeyman who gibbers and capers in the corner of a child’s bedroom is only a heap of blankets. Some clergymen had proclaimed that even God, that venerable white warlock, was dead.

He was bled almost white.

Note that King must be aware that his story will draw comparisons to Dracula – Salem’s Lot was written in 1975, a year before Anne Rice began making vampires cool. So he embraces the comparisons by having Burke make the connection himself. And because readers see their own disbelief showing up in the context of the novel, they can feel those doubts without dropping out of the story. This is why King sets this passage up as an internal dialogue. Of the two voices arguing in Matt’s head, one of them is taking the readers’ side.

So if the romance at the heart of your novel is a little improbable, one way to shore up the suspension of disbelief is by having her, or him, or both of them, feel a little surprised that they are actually falling for one another. In Fifty Shades of Grey, it takes Anastasia, the hardware store clerk and part-time journalist, quite a while to believe that Christian, the billionaire playboy, is genuinely interested in her. Her doubts echo the readers’.

It’s tempting to think of prolific, popular writers as hacks, cranking out formulaic genre novels to please a specific readership. To be fair, sometimes that is true, though it’s much less so today than it has been in the past. But as I’ve said before, even genre writers less talented than Stephen King tell their stories skillfully enough that you can learn from them, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

So let the best romances shape your character development, even if you’re writing a police procedural. Watch the way top spy thrillers manipulate how much information readers know at any given point – it could give added depth to your fantasy novel. And there is no better tutor for both suspense and the suspension of disbelief – two elements any story needs — than Stephen King.