The Suspension of Belief

In college, I learned how to properly drop a noose. We performed Metamorphoses  by Mary Zimmerman, an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I was a stage hand and from the catwalk dropped the noose for a character’s attempted suicide. Each night the audience produced a different (but always audible) reaction. Nervous laughter. A collected breath. They suspended their disbelief and were emotionally invested in that scene.

But I’m certain someone in the audience suspended their belief instead. There had to be at least someone watching the show who, while emotionally invested in what was happening, was equally invested in how it was happening. A directing student who considers that the noose is dropped and was not there at the start of the scene. An acting student who watches the heave of the shoulders of the actor on stage as she brings her neck to the rope.

When we suspend our belief we become reflective participants in the media we consume. You believe the noose is real. You believe the character’s motivation. But you suspend this belief to dangle in front of you as you analyze what made you believe in the first place.

imagesFor writers, this is also known as “reading as a writer” to improve your own craft. Here are some strategies to suspend your belief when you read. Soon, you’ll get the audience whispering as they read your work, “How did she do that?”

Keep a pen or pencil (or the equivalent on an e-reader) in your hand. For those who favor print books, I know writing in the text can be blasphemous to many, but annotations aren’t the busy work your high school teacher made you do. Annotations make for active readers. You retain information and have a record of your thoughts where and when they happen in a text. This is a great strategy for slowing down as you read. Challenge yourself. Mark when the author uses direct or indirect dialogue. Mark when (and how, and for how long) the author brings us into a flashback. Writing is reading and reading is writing.

Keep a journal of favorite quotes and phrases. For myself, I keep a notebook of words that I would never think of, or phrases that out of context could be an inspiration. A few examples from my journal:

“muscular animals”; “a wet scream”; “the whole world heaved”

Keeping a list of quotes, keeps you constantly engaged with fresh language used in ways you would have thought of. All those moments when you pause to savor a sentence? Savor it by writing it down.

Pull a phrase (or a situation) from a book and use it as a prompt. Enjoy a good free write out of what you read. If you start with the wet scream, well what comes next? The story is yours to own.

It’s one thing to be lost in a story. It’s the best kind of getting lost. But it’s another thing to look up from your wanderings and begin to draw a map. When you pick up the book you’re currently reading, try to suspend your belief. How and why do you believe?

And, as you learn more strategies and gain more experience reading as a writer, you come to a greater belief in yourself and your writing skill.