Oct
6
2014

Suspension of Disbelief – Taking the Hits Only Where You Have To

A reader’s suspension of disbelief is like a bank account. As the reader emotionally invests into the story, the balance builds. Each time the writer deviates from the story’s established reality, a fine is imposed. If there is enough credit stockpiled, the imagined reality holds and the reader glosses over the issue. When the bank runs empty, however, the reader is jerked out of the story.

As an example of this, take a scene from a contemporary thriller in which a hard bitten detective tracks down his lover’s kidnapped daughter. In order to make the detective distinct from the police, his preferred weapon is a Springfield Armory XD9 semiautomatic pistol. In the climactic scene, the protagonist shoots his way through the kidnapper’s hideout, killing 10 minions with 12 shots. He then faces off with the big bad, firing 8 more shots before the gun emits the expected dramatic click.

This rough outline would not likely have raised any flags for the average reader. However, if the author hadn’t established that gun mechanics are different in the story world, the capacity of the XD9’s magazine is still only 16 cartridges. Above, I count 20 shots fired without a reload mentioned. As an author, how much does this detail matter? It depends on your audience.

Fiction is inherently a mimicry of real life, not a true depiction. As such, any firearm in an action scene will have as many bullets as needed for the dramatic timing to work out. This is known as the Bottomless Magazine trope. As authors, we seek to streamline real life, causing us to skip over moments that are boring, inconvenient, or taboo to our audience - unless those moments suit our purposes. Reloading is boring and breaks the flow of the action sequence, so it is often either skipped or ignored.

Additionally, the detail is small, requires specialized knowledge, and is buried in a scene in which the audience has plenty of distractions. Many readers will neither know, nor care about the technical specifications of the XD9 pistol. Therefore, as an author, I would only be concerned about the small subset of gun enthusiast readers who will have the knowledge necessary to notice and care about that sort of detail.

Like many other questions regarding taking risks as an author, it comes down to knowing your audience. Are your readers mostly gun nuts or gun ignorant? That fact will determine how costly the mistake will be to your story. In either case, it is better that the author do their homework than to look foolish because of a simple mistake.

Though the use of the Bottomless Magazine trope is justified in this case, having 3-4 extra bullets in the gun will have an effect on some readers’ suspension of disbelief. A small group, true, but why accept the fine on such a small detail when it is unnecessary? Better to save that emotional currency for a moment in which it can be spent more effectively.

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