Suspending Disbelief in Thriller Novels

Can Your Readers Suspend Disbelief?

Here I’m not going to discuss literary fiction – such as written by Ian McEwan or V S Naipaul; I’m discussing thrillers, specifically techno-thriller novels. Now, you might think immediately of Tom Clancy, or maybe Craig Thomas, but Patricia Cornwell is also, to me, a techno-thriller author. When I read Cornwell, I believe pretty much everything – she was a medical examiner and knows bodies inside out. Clancy or Thomas though? Certainly their work is plausible, even when Thomas invented a new Russian plane, in Firefox, it was fairly credible tome.

If we look at the work of someone like Colin Dexter (who wrote the Morse series of detective stories), each tale is well written and credible, but the context – which makes Oxford the murder capital of England – is perhaps a stretch too far. Nevertheless each story is holistic and credible in its own right. It’s not in the techno-thriller genre, but you get the point, I hope.

To what degree do you suspend disbelief when you read these works, and as a writer, what would you expect of your readers? My academic background is physics and oceanography, and I did find some of Clancy’s writing hard to swallow when I read it first, but I still enjoyed it. When he is developing his franchise with other authors in his later books, the stories, to me, become less credible.

Now, there are techno-thriller writers, very successful ones, whose work I cannot read. Some of it is down to style, and some to content. I cannot suspend disbelief, even when the storyline is all action and racing along.

Science Fiction

When techno-thrillers are set well into the future, they become science fiction. To me, science fiction invents new technologies – for example a black hole interstellar drive for a spaceship. I argue that in between techno-thrillers and science fiction, there is a genre which we could call science-faction. This projects existing technology (or tech that is just being developed), into the near future. It is on the edge of credibility.

This is where I would pitch some of Arthur C Clarke’s work. With his prediction of earth-orbiting satellites he was just ahead of the curve.

Science Faction

So, when I wrote ‘Gate of Tears’ – and I classify my work as science faction – I looked a little ahead into the future, projecting existing technologies (together with trends, politics and international events).I didn’t want my readers to say – “that’s incredible” (literally) and maybe have their enjoyment curtailed. To that extent I like to include a bibliography of research resources just in case readers are interested to look further into my ideas.

I do love science fiction though, and as I get older, more of it seems to become credible. I have seen Clarke’s satellite prediction come to fruition during my lifetime, and there are aspects of William Gibson’s work – e.g. ‘jacking into the web’ with a direct connection from a chip implant in the brain to the internet which I believe are not more than a generation away. Science fiction in itself has a spectrum – from extreme technical content, through all action adventure, to societal science fiction concerned with how alternative societies on alternative worlds might be structured and behave. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ is an example of this.

Whichever one you go with, there is plenty of room for creative writers, and plenty of material for readers – whether they can suspend disbelief or not.


In a way, I guess it’s just a question of timescale – as we progress technically, science fiction becomes science faction becomes reality. It may also be a matter of the reader’s perception, based on their individual levels of scientific knowledge. Now that a writer cannot address!