Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Suspending Disbelief

I got into bed last night and was happy to see that one of my favorite movies—“Unfaithful”—was on.  You remember it:  it’s the one that stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane as happily married suburbanites whose world is rocked by the affair that Lane embarks upon with a very sexy French bookseller. As I watched the movie, I was struck by a few things, namely that:

* Richard Gere is sixteen years older than Diane Lane yet we believe completely in that fact not being an issue in their marriage.

* It was so windy the day that Diane Lane first goes into the city that she is knocked down, skins her knees, and can hardly walk upright for fear of that happening again.  That’s some wind, people.

* After skinning her knees, she willingly goes into the apartment of the sexy French bookseller to get bandaids.  And doesn’t get killed.

* Such a thing exists as a “sexy French bookseller.”  Who owns an apartment that is approximately six-thousand square feet and filled with as many books as my son has soccer socks.  (It’s a thing now, soccer socks.  I had no idea.)

* Richard Gere is hardly suspicious when Diane Lane says she’s going into the city day after day wearing nothing but a little black dress and sling-back stilettos.  Well, I guess I can cut him some slack.  If my husband saw me dressing that way, day after day, he would just assume that there had been a spate of deaths in our circle and that I was attending a lot of funerals.  Never would it cross his mind that I was having an affair with a sexy French bookseller.  He knows I’m way too tired for that.

Those are just a few of the things that you have to get past in order to enjoy the movie, and trust me, I did both get past them and enjoy the movie.  As a matter of fact, every time Diane Lane decides to go into the sexy French bookseller’s apartment to get the bandaids, I scream, “Don’t do it!  You’re married to Richard Gere!” but she doesn’t listen.  She goes in every single time.

But watching the movie was informative because it got me thinking about what we do as writers, and how far we push things—realistically—in the name of the story.  More to the point, how far can we go with the details before the reader is scratching his or her head and saying “That would never happen”?  Pretty far, I imagine, if “Unfaithful” is any indication.

Several years ago, I was minding my own business when I saw flashing lights outside my house.  Since I was the only person home on the street, I went outside to investigate and was told by the responding officer that the station was receiving 911 from inside the vacant house next door. I assured him no one lived in the house and took him for a tour around its perimeter.  Satisfied that this seemingly normal housewife/mystery writer was telling the truth, he drove away.

Let me repeat:  HE DROVE AWAY.

I put that story—truncated here—in a book and got some comments.  “That would never happen.”  “Cops would never drive away.”  “What if you were doing something wrong?  Why didn’t he ask you any questions?”

All good comments.  I asked myself the same things.

Turns out that there was an electronic malfunction in the home’s existing phone service.  However, what if that wasn’t the reason? What if I had attempted to murder the upstairs tenants before they left?  What if one of them was still alive and trying to alert the police?

I think part of the enjoyment of any story, be it a mystery or a thriller or a family drama, is suspending disbelief.  I tell that to my friends who find my upcoming thriller—ONCE UPON A LIE—so dark that they are scared to be around me.  “Suspend disbelief,” I tell them.  “Pretend that someone who looks like me—happy, friendly, unsuspecting—could write a book about abuse and murder.  Pretend that some of the things that happen in the book could happen in real life.  And then enjoy the read.”

Strange things happen in the world.  Three women can be abducted and go missing for ten years, just blocks from where they lived previously.  A seemingly innocent school bus driver could harbor a predatory nature so gruesome that even his neighbors—who enjoyed barbecue dinners with him on pleasant sunny nights—never would have guessed what went on inside the house. The world is full of unbelievable stories.

And it’s our job to make them believable, enough to keep a reader guessing or up at night wondering how such luridness could come out of someone’s brain.

But back to the movie.  “It was a dark and stormy day and happily married Constance begins a torrid affair with a swarthy Frenchman.”  On paper, it doesn’t sound so great.  But in the hands of the right actors—namely someone as gifted as Diane Lane—the story becomes believable.  The right writer can do the same thing and hope that you, the reader, doesn’t have to suspend so much disbelief as to scratch your head when you finish the book.

I’ll end this now.  I have to figure out how to ruin someone’s life so as to teach him a really good lesson.  On the page.  In my book.  And then later, if it’s not too windy, I’ll go buy broccoli.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Just be sure to take band-aids with you so you won't be tempted by a sexy French bookseller if the wind knocks you to your knees, Maggie. ;-)

    It's not uncommon for us to be unable to put things that really happened into a story because they're unbelievable. Students cry out to me, "But it really did happen!" I tell them, "I have no doubt it did, but in the story I can't believe it. And it only works if it works in the story, no matter that it actually occurred." The trick, of course, is learning how to make it believable anyway.

  2. Well, now i'm going to have see that movie! Great post, Maggie! Looking forward to you new book!

  3. Linda, good point: "it only works if it works in the story." Words to live by.

    Thanks, Laura. Yes, rent the "uncut" version. Make sure you have wine available and a damp cloth to wipe your brow. Maggie

  4. OK - I think the knowledge that your husband would assume you were attending funerals in that slinky black dress says much more about your perfect integrity and sterling character. Which is why the policeman got in his car and drove away. Your good character shines out of every pore. That and the fact that you do not appear big enough to easily hide a body and there were no newly dug holes in the back yard of the empty house.

  5. Annette! That is so funny. Thank you for putting a good spin on it. That really made my day. Maggie

  6. The only thing I regretted about seeing Unfaithful was that I broke a personal rule and gave watching the "alternate ending" that came with the DVD a try. Big mistake. I HATE the concept of the alternate ending as a shared piece. Such a sissy move to not stick your landing, you know? Have some confidence in the whole story and don't try to make what you present as a complete story just another "draft" or version!

    Back to your interesting points: believability is linked to credibility. If your world and characters are credible, then each little action and word is believable as part of a string of story development. As Linda said, it has to work in the story, as a part of that whole.

    Christopher Walken once said about saying bizarre lines (or taking bizarre actions) that you don't have to know what your talking (or what you're doing) about but you have to seem like you know it all fully and then the audience will accept and believe what you're saying and that you are saying it.