5 Ways Readers Approach Stories Part I. Suspended Disbelief

I have organized certain tendencies about how people engage with stories into 5 different categories, Analytical, Immersive, Psychological, Logical, and Spectacular. These categories are meant to convey a hierarchy of values—none of them are mutually exclusive. If you are applying this to your own reading habits, you’ll probably notice that there is some overlap. Also, you may use different approaches for different genres or contexts (e.g. academic vs. leisure, or trashy romance vs. literary fiction).

This is just me trying to understand the different ways different people approach stories. It is not the only way to think about or organize these tendencies and is not meant to be prescriptive. I share it here for the curious, comments are welcome.

Part 1. Suspended Disbelief

Analytical-This approach doesn’t require a significant amount of suspended disbelief at all. The reader approaches the work as fictional construction. The symbolism and metaphorical meaning implied by the text is more important than a logically crafted world. Plot holes or inconsistency in characterization are more likely to be tolerated if this can be attributed to some kind of symbolic, metaphorical, or allegorical purpose.

Immersive- Maintaining suspended disbelief is paramount throughout the story for reader enjoyment. The reader approaches the story as a pocket reality—they want to forget the story is just a story. The fictional world must maintain a consistent internal logic in all respects, and character actions must be motivated according to the same internal logic. The story as it happens in the text is more important than any possible symbolism or metaphorical meaning.

Psychological—Suspended disbelief applies predominately to the characters. The characters must act in logically consistent ways. The world around the characters may be illogical and inconsistent without the reader losing interest. Emotional investment in the characters keeps the reader in the story. The reader is more willing to tolerate winding plot structures or even glaring plot holes in the service of character development.

Logical—Suspended disbelief applies predominately to the structure of the world. Internal logic must be consistent. Magic systems or technology must adhere to clear rules. The reader is likely to be put off by fuzziness or non-explicit cause and effect. The reader is more likely to be bothered by inaccuracies when a work incorporates real world settings, particularly if it pertains to a subject or profession with which they are familiar. They may be more forgiving of inconsistent or flat characters if they find the world interesting enough. The reader may be more inclined to forgive sacrifice of character consistency in service of the plot.

Spectacular—No suspension of disbelief is really required, and in fact, consciously understanding the work as fiction may be necessary for enjoyment, especially for works depicting graphic violence. The reader finds enjoyment in the spectacle presented by the work. They are there for the show, but the reader has little emotional or intellectual investment in the work, and is purely interested in amusement, excitement, or titillation. The reader tends to skim and is likely to drop the work without finishing it if the spectacle is not maintained. The reader will tolerate any logical consistency, in plot or characterization being sacrificed for the sake of a punch line or cool effect.

7 thoughts on “5 Ways Readers Approach Stories Part I. Suspended Disbelief

    1. Yeah, I am planning a series on what kinds of approaches are more or less likely to lead the reader to forgive editing fails when it comes to unintentional slip-ups. In this case, I am considering interpretations which are based on intentional choices made by the author.

      Did it seem like an intentional (if ill-advised) choice on the part of the author?

      Or was it more like an unintentional oversight along the lines of a typo or grammatical error?

      Was this detail alone enough to throw you out of the story, or were there other issues? Or did you like it despite this detail?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was an oversight. She had soft “blue eyes” once then soft “brown eyes” later.

        This was a ghost writer for a deceased author, so I take that into account. They still should have an editor catch it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oof. Yep. You can’t even mix that up in different lighting or anything.

        I think no matter what approach you have glaring mistakes like that are going to look bad. Comes off as sloppy and unprofessional.

        Liked by 1 person

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