Research and Suspension of Disbelief

Researching is probably one of the most important things when it comes to writing. The fastest way to make someone put your story down is to have something wildly inaccurate in your writing. For instance, if I wrote that women enjoyed having pants without pockets and my setting is modern Western society, people that wear women’s pants would reread the lines a few times and probably start laughing in disbelief.

One of the most infamous cases of a lack of research that I’ve read about (although I unfortunately do not remember the title of said work) involved an adventurer and his horse. After a battle, the adventurer turned around to sheathe his sword. And where did he sheathe it, you ask? Well, he sheathed it in the horse’s girth. Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with horse tack, here’s a diagram so you can understand why this wouldn’t work out so well.



As you can see, sheathing a blade in a horse’s girth would be completely and utterly impractical. Many readers put the book down because of this glaring error. So, if you’re writing anything that involves knights, research their equipment first. If you’re going to write about wolves, don’t just make up your own behavior for them, actually research how wolves act. They’re a bit more complicated than “a pack of aggressive canines that follows an alpha”. When they are dominant, they display that by doing things other than growling and biting and fighting. It’s all in their body language, how they hold their tails, and what they eat from kills. If you’re going to write about a culture, actually look into it and don’t assume things. Research can be fun, and trust me when I saw there’s plenty of wacky information you can find to shock and impress people.

Now, many of you are probably saying something like: “but that doesn’t make sense, J.R.R. Tolkien and many other writers have dragons and elves and shapeshifters and stuff like that, but none of that is real”. Well, first, trust me when I say that Tolkien did his research. Second, there is a literary concept called Suspension of Disbelief, coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1817 meditative work Biographia Literaria. defines Suspension of Disbelief as “a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment”. Essentially, Suspension of Disbelief means that people can temporarily ignore that something doesn’t exist so that they are able to enjoy it. For instance, everyone knows that dragons do not exist, but we can accept that they do in places like Middle-earth or in the world of Harry Potter without needing an explanation.

Now, Suspension of Disbelief is not an excuse not to do research. Asking readers to suspend their disbelief is a bit of a fine line. You have to know what works and what doesn’t. For instance, dragons, magic, aliens, and giant spiders, among other things, work. Buses always arriving on time, or dishes not getting moldy when they’re left in the sink too long, don’t work without some sort of explanation.



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