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Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) and Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) in the ‘Outlander’ ‘Wedding’ episode

What draws a reader into a story and compels her to keep tuning pages? This interests me both as a reader and a writer with a novel ready to publish. It interests me because so many novels I start I never finish. I’m beginning to wonder if the fault lies more with me as a reader than with the writer.

As a writer I’m used to reading my own work with a critical distance and a skeptical eye, which are essential to the purpose of revision, but deadly to the act of reading for enjoyment.  What’s essential there is what Coleridge coined “a willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.”

But if what we bring to the table, instead of poetic faith, is a skeptical and critical disposition, the novel may be doomed before it’s ever given a chance to work its magic on us.

Perhaps the reason so many novels I pick up fall short is because I’m reading through the wrong lens, with a critical eye towards revision, toward rewriting the page in my own image, rather than that willing suspension of disbelief, allowing the writer to draw me into the story in her own way.

A case in point: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon.

I had been looking for a steamy romance with a literary bent, having found nothing lately within either of those genres–romantic or literary–that held my interest.

Someone suggested I try the Outlander series. I was highly skeptical from the start. A time-travelling romance? It sounded far-fetched. But since I had nothing better to read and the book came with so many 5 star reviews and a huge fan-base, I decided to give it a try.

I was not impressed. The writing was fine, the characters okay, but the pacing was extremely slow. It wasn’t at all the book that I wanted to read and I kept thinking how to revise it to better hold my interest. But I kept reading because I wanted to get to the juicy parts, to see how the author and protagonist would handle the time gap, the sudden jolt 200 years back into the past. And I wanted to see who her love interest would  be.

Well, needless to say, I was disappointed again. Claire seemed barely phased by the fact she had been transported back 200 years. She saw it more as a logistical problem, how to get home, rather than “am I losing my mind, this can’t be happening” response I had imagined and felt would ring more true. Then when the first person she meets, a captain in the British army, tries to rape her, the whole thing seemed so implausible, I almost stopped reading right there.

But who would be her love interest? That question kept me going until I discovered it was this low-level member of a rebel band who had managed to get himself wounded, and was clearly several years her junior. If I had been writing the book I would have chosen the daring, hot-headed leader of the group, who while years older, seemed more exciting. Clearly this was not the book I was hoping to read and I set it aside.

But when the film series about the Outlander came out on TV, I decided to give it another try, and the film easily sucked me in. The music, the scenery, the costumes, the actors chosen to play each part, all were perfectly pitched to draw me in and sweep me away. The resistance I had initially for the series, and the critical distance I held it, melted away. The willing suspension of disbelief so needed for my viewing pleasure was in full force.

By the time the first season ended, I was so enthralled, I eagerly picked up the book again and began reading. This time I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t before.

I think we are more willing to suspend disbelief when viewing a movie than when reading a novel. The visual and auditory power of film-making does most of the work for us without the need to translate black letters on a white page into scenery or sounds. The musical score is an added bonus manipulating our emotions to match what the filmmaker wants us to feel, and when well-done it’s barely noticeable.

Much is required of both writer and filmmaker to make his or her creation “sing.” Both must learn their craft well and comply with the basic elements of story-telling, as I wrote about in my last post. But the filmmaker has more tools to entice the viewer into that willing suspension of disbelief needed to enjoy the film.

The writer has less to work with. So it’s essential for the reader, especially if the reader is a writer, to come to the work as a willing and eager partner. We must be willing to set aside our writerly prejudice to allow the story to work its magic on us.

Below are links to posts referenced here:

Sexy, Smart, Sweet, & Soulful

Speaking of Erotica . . .

Loss & Desire, and the Search for Something More in Life & Literature