Bait the Hook: Encouraging Suspension of Disbelief
In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term suspension of disbelief, referring to a reader’s willingness to enjoy a fictional story as if the events were really happening. It applies equally to realistic and speculative fiction, and the burden of luring the reader into this state falls on the author.
Immersing readers in the story is considered essential for suspension of disbelief, but that doesn’t mean rushing the plot. Writers are told so often to hook the reader that we sometimes forget what makes a fish fall for a hook in the first place. Without the right bait and lure, a hook is nothing but a pointy thing that nobody wants to swallow.
Several years ago, I submitted early pages of my then-WIP, The Caged Graves, to a first five forum. I received lots of excellent feedback, but I was also struck by how many writers said, “Your title is intriguing, but you need to get those caged graves into the first five.” Since the opening chapter is about my protagonist meeting her estranged father at a train station, some writers suggested that the characters pass by the cemetery — and the caged graves — on the drive home.
I know this feedback was well meant and inspired by the belief that we must hook the reader at the outset, but I also knew it was wrong. My protagonist was going to see the graves for the first time only once, and I needed to build up to that moment — not plop it into the opening scene. The Caged Graves was supposed to be a mystery, after all, and mysteriousness needs time to develop. If you rush it, it’s not… well, mysterious at all.
Bait is what makes us take the hook. In a mystery that bait is going to be an atmosphere of intrigue and foreboding; in a thriller, it’s a dark and sinister mood. World-building is the lure in speculative fiction — and historical fiction, for that matter. In those genres, the reader needs to believe where the story is taking place before buying into the events. In realistic fiction, the bait is a strong sense of the here and now. The inciting incident doesn’t have to happen in the first chapter, but the author should be setting the stage for it.
Introducing important events prematurely can shift the reader’s attention from the story to the storyteller — like Toto revealing the Wizard behind the curtain. I find that if a ghost shows up before the end of the first page, or a “meet cute” with the love interest is attempted in the opening paragraph, I’m unlikely to swallow the story. Those hooks are a little too bare for my liking, and once I become aware of the author trying too hard to catch my attention, any chance of immersion is gone.
Sweet, juicy bait should take the form of a finely-drawn setting and a compelling voice that brings the protagonist to life. Lure the reader in with tone and foreshadowing and secondary characters worth turning pages for. In a sense, to truly establish suspension of disbelief, the reader has to be hooked before the hook itself — by good writing and an astute sense of timing.