Suspension of Disbelief

According to my thirty seconds of research (thanks Wikipedia!) the phrase “a willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Coleridge.

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith

Apparently fiction that involved the supernatural had fallen out of favor (thanks secular humanism!) to a degree and he was intent on bringing it back. As such his audience needed to set aside their rationalism and approach the story as though it’s fantastic elements were plausible, but he realized that they could only do that (provided I’m parsing this sentence right) if he granted his characters a certain “semblance of truth”.

Since then, and it’s been a long strange two hundred year trip, that three word phrase “suspension of disbelief” has been a burden placed on authors who seem unable or unwilling to paint their characters as realistically human in spite of fangs, fire breathing, or incanting. If we don’t enjoy a B-movie or a cult favorite it’s not because the writing wasn’t good or the characters were so thin you could see through them. It’s because we didn’t “suspend our disbelief”.

This is akin to movies were I am told I must “turn my brain off” to enjoy them. Believe me, I know that sometimes that helps. There are certainly plenty of books/movies that “over-thinking” will destroy utterly. And you know what? Part of me doesn’t mind that, but another part of me objects when entertainment asks me to be too dumb.

So this raises some questions to both the readers and writers out there. How much of a burden should be on the writer vs. the reader? Is it true that the farther/zanier you go with the plot, the more human you must make the characters (or vice versa)? How far can you (or the author) go before that’s just not possible or before the fiction becomes so implausible that you just can’t finish? How much will you as a readers forgive in terms of the absence of a semblance of truth before the shadows fade away? How dumb is too dumb?

And a bonus question. What have you read and enjoyed that everyone around you thinks is complete drivel? I won’t call that a guilty pleasure since I don’t think you should feel guilty, but that’s what it’s commonly known as.

34 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. I'll admit to enjoying quite a few things that a lot of people consider drivel. I tend to enjoy upper-middle-school and young adult lit in addition to other areas of literature, so I admit to enjoying things like Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. I don't claim at all that Twilight has high-quality writing, but I'd say that Stephenie Meyer writes to her audience well, and does a good job of telling a very interesting story that captures my attention and interest easily. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I'm not sure that you can isolate the character away from the plot and setting when solving the calculus of suspension of disbelief. I think the key to a successful outcome is based on how well it all hangs together — how internally rational and consistent it might be. As author, it's my job to lay out a story that has a setting in which the plot can rationally occur — so, we're not going to have fish swimming in air down Park Avenue in NY in the middle 1800, unless we've created the rationale for that unlikely occurance to happen. The more consistent the explanation with the unfolding narrative, the more likely it is that a reader can suspend disbelief. Likewise, a mundane human — totally believeable in current context — would be out of place if he or she acted inconsistently with being “mundane human” when faced with fantastical contexts. Unless, the author sets the story up in advance a la Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. So, too long an answer to a short question, but I think how well you “sell the whole package” has more bearing on the reader's willingness/ability to suspend disbelief than how “human” the character might be.JMO. YMMV. I don't know what other people think is drivel… So I don't know what might be called “guilty pleasure.” Other than, maybe Twitter… ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Yeah there's something to be said for knowing your audience. The interesting thing about HP and Twilight is that they both aim at YA and have managed to hit a MUCH broader spectrum. I've read the first HP book and the first chapter of Twilight (the first one) and I must admit to not being sure why that's so, but regardless belief is being suspended in terms of the more fantastic elements.

  4. Agreed, I'm not sure that separating them is either wise or easily done, but going off of Coleridge's definition it seemed that SoD was more about good characters leading to being forgiving of implausible plot/setting. I suppose where I disagree is that believable does not necessarily equal mundane. For instance your own protagonist is not mundane, certainly not by the end of CS and I would argue not even at the beginning. He is in many ways exceptional. You did give him flaws though and that made him believable though far from mundane.A character should be “realistic” I think in terms of how it loves, lives, reacts to situations not like we might, but how a “realistic” human in that setting would act. That is at least how we think a realistic human with the character's specific traits might react. Those traits could push a human way out beyond normal, but as you say context aka the total package is important.

  5. I've only read Harry Potter, and no Twilight (although I have seen the film), but I can say my initial interest in Harry Potter probably came from beginning the first book in sixth grade. Even though I was well into college by the time the last one came out, and probably outside of the target age range, I'd basically grown up with the characters.Maybe I personally would have adapted better to Twilight if I'd started reading as a pre-teen; but as it is, it just rubs me the wrong way.

  6. “Suspension of disbelief” may be less of a “turn your brain off” deal and more of a “certain aspects may flout your acquired knowledge of history and science, but the work is aesthetically appealing, the characters are full-fleshed, the world is internally consistent, and/or something about it just feels right.” I can suspend disbelief for the Anita Blake novels (to a point) because I enjoy the characters, the “rules” are internally consistent (to a point), and they're a fun read; I can suspend disbelief for Wristcutters because it's quirky and cute and satisfies an internal narrative structure that resonates with me; I can suspend disbelief for Across the Universe because it's Beatles music and it gives me warm fuzzies; I can suspend disbelief for The Mummy (the newer version) because it's Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser and John Hannah and made of awesome; I can even, for the most part, suspend disbelief for CSI despite their mood-lit labs etc, because the stories are compelling and the regular characters are three-dimensional; I can be patient with Joss Whedon because he has produced masterpieces, even if some of his conceits make me wince.It's very difficult for me to suspend disbelief when claims to hard science just aren't; I can't suspend disbelief for Final Destination because it just feels wrong, and I don't even want to know if it's internally consistent; I can't suspend disbelief for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire because…just…no; I can't suspend disbelief for Fatal Attraction because the stereotypes are driven in with a sledgehammer and it takes longer than that to drown someone!I actually find “suspension of disbelief” coming into play with book-to-film adaptations. Can I hold my loyalty to the book in reserve while I evaluate the merits of the movie on its face? Stardust and Coraline, while different in both subtle and extreme ways from their Neil Gaiman novel originals, really worked for me. Others just failโ€”although I don't have a good example to hand just now;

  7. I've seen most of the Potter films and they resonate with me. Not sufficiently to peel off that many pages though.And now I feel old.

  8. Yeah I get the difference I just think that they've become to a degree interchangeable. And I definitely think you can be loyal to a book and not a movie and vice versa. I find myself enjoying the LOTR movies quite a bit more than the books for example. The real test will be if I like the Hobbit movie better since the Hobbit book is my favorite.

  9. Profound post and comments, Master Scott! I think the burden for suspension of disbelief is mostly on the writer. But it's a two-way street… if the reader decides to “engage” with the author, then they agree to at least open the door to suspend their disbelief. Then the author has to do the hard work to invite the reader in, get them to cross over the threshold and keep them inside the author's world. It's hard, hard work, as you well know. And I love it when I'm caught up in the world of a master storyteller. Gene Wolfe does it for me, in terms of a richness in his worlds and the lavish, oozing details in his words. Lois McMaster Bujold does it for me by engaging my interest in her characters, even in the most bizarre of circumstances. Once I truly care for one of her characters, she can throw a lot at me in her worlds that other authors could never get away with. I'm always amazed when I get sucked into a massive alternate reality of a great storyteller, and it sticks with me long after the story is done. For me, it does have to resonate on a certain level, and appeal to my sense of truth. Truth of character, human nature, “metaphorical physics” of life, the world, etc… I do try to be forgiving when they screw up here and there, but I do expect a certain level of consistency. And all the while, I'm trying to learn how those amazing writers do it, so I can attempt to do it too. :)At the same time, every reader is totally unique, so it's impossible to know all their triggers, social paradigms, expectations, needs… and basic profile. I guess that's why publishers often say things like “know your target market.” ๐Ÿ™‚ Personally, I just want to tell a good story (try that I might) and I attempt to keep in mind this general issue, and I'm still learning about my audience, and hope they're forgiving enough to stick around. At first, I started writing just for the audience of one — me — and I'm a pretty harsh critic. But I'm trying to understand and learn how to better reach the audience, to throw such a great party in that proverbial “room of suspension of disbelief,” that they won't want to leave. :)I also think there are a lot of people out there for whom “turning their brains off” is second nature… Perhaps some even live in a perpetual state of suspension of disbelief. What scares me are the brilliant writers who totally understand that state of mind, and know the triggers to manipulate those people, leading them deep into a paper-thin story or worse-yet, propaganda. Indeed, there is so much power in words.Guilty pleasures? I used to think Alan Dean Foster was a guilty pleasure… until I re-read some of his early work and was blown away by how good of a writer he really is, even in the most basic of his stories. So I'm not sure any more. I thought Peter Beagle was a guilty pleasure until I re-read The Last Unicorn and was stunned at how profound it is. Now that I'm writing more and more, and understand with each new paragraph how damned hard it is, I have a lot more respect for any writer who puts his heart and soul on the page.

  10. Its definitely a matter of opinion. I know suspension of disbelief has ruined a few books for me, because I judged them before I got past the first few chapters. Eragon, for example, struck me as incredibly stereotyped, like he read Tolkien and changed the names.I would also say that mundane characters can help with suspension of disbelief. For example, my current favourite movie, Donnie Darko. Here's a movie that's about as messed up as you get, with a surreal plot and quirky black humour, and I can still find it compelling because the protagonist (Darko) is easy to relate to. He has mental issues, and hes rather blunt, but hes human, and recognizably so. I think authors can write about, oh, three kinds of books: Drivel with entertainment value, Deep, albeit dry novels, and then gems, where both elements merge nicely.Just my opinion.

  11. I’ll admit to enjoying quite a few things that a lot of people consider drivel. I tend to enjoy upper-middle-school and young adult lit in addition to other areas of literature, so I admit to enjoying things like Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. I don’t claim at all that Twilight has high-quality writing, but I’d say that Stephenie Meyer writes to her audience well, and does a good job of telling a very interesting story that captures my attention and interest easily. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Yeah there’s something to be said for knowing your audience. The interesting thing about HP and Twilight is that they both aim at YA and have managed to hit a MUCH broader spectrum. I’ve read the first HP book and the first chapter of Twilight (the first one) and I must admit to not being sure why that’s so, but regardless belief is being suspended in terms of the more fantastic elements.

      1. I’ve only read Harry Potter, and no Twilight (although I have seen the film), but I can say my initial interest in Harry Potter probably came from beginning the first book in sixth grade. Even though I was well into college by the time the last one came out, and probably outside of the target age range, I’d basically grown up with the characters.

        Maybe I personally would have adapted better to Twilight if I’d started reading as a pre-teen; but as it is, it just rubs me the wrong way.

        1. I’ve seen most of the Potter films and they resonate with me. Not sufficiently to peel off that many pages though.

          And now I feel old.

          1. I was so taken with the book I wore a cloak to school for a week; and corrected people who asked me why I was wearing a cape.

  12. I’m not sure that you can isolate the character away from the plot and setting when solving the calculus of suspension of disbelief. I think the key to a successful outcome is based on how well it all hangs together — how internally rational and consistent it might be.

    As author, it’s my job to lay out a story that has a setting in which the plot can rationally occur — so, we’re not going to have fish swimming in air down Park Avenue in NY in the middle 1800, unless we’ve created the rationale for that unlikely occurance to happen. The more consistent the explanation with the unfolding narrative, the more likely it is that a reader can suspend disbelief.

    Likewise, a mundane human — totally believeable in current context — would be out of place if he or she acted inconsistently with being “mundane human” when faced with fantastical contexts. Unless, the author sets the story up in advance a la Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

    So, too long an answer to a short question, but I think how well you “sell the whole package” has more bearing on the reader’s willingness/ability to suspend disbelief than how “human” the character might be.

    JMO. YMMV.

    I don’t know what other people think is drivel… So I don’t know what might be called “guilty pleasure.” Other than, maybe Twitter… ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Agreed, I’m not sure that separating them is either wise or easily done, but going off of Coleridge’s definition it seemed that SoD was more about good characters leading to being forgiving of implausible plot/setting.

      I suppose where I disagree is that believable does not necessarily equal mundane. For instance your own protagonist is not mundane, certainly not by the end of CS and I would argue not even at the beginning. He is in many ways exceptional. You did give him flaws though and that made him believable though far from mundane.

      A character should be “realistic” I think in terms of how it loves, lives, reacts to situations not like we might, but how a “realistic” human in that setting would act. That is at least how we think a realistic human with the character’s specific traits might react. Those traits could push a human way out beyond normal, but as you say context aka the total package is important.

  13. I think the burden for this one is almost entirely on the author — since Coleridge, the craft of fiction has advanced to the point where the rules for making a fictional world are pretty well understood. The basic premise is “integrity” – i.e. when entering a fictional world, the reader is buying into the rules you set up for your universe. If you don't abide by those rules, then you're betraying the reader's trust. With the amount of fiction (in all its forms) the average reader consumes, by the time they're ten (if not before) they've developed a very keen sense of when they're being toyed with. That's why things such as Deux Ex Machina, which was a staple of Greek Drama, are generally frowned upon now — it's not because it's involving the supernatural, but because it's introducing an element previously external to the story to bail the writer out of a jam. In stories that rely heavily on the supernatural, you can have God or The Gods intervening and not be a problem in this sense, so long as it doesn't cheat the reader of their sense of investment in the struggles of the hero(s).The major exception to this general rule is, I think, stories where the caprice of the deity and/or the natural world is a major theme of the story – but even stories like this have to abide by their own internal logic to work. Scott Sigler employs this device heavily in his books — nobody's safe, his hero might get killed at any moment and derail the plot — because the caprice of nature and human nature is a major theme in his work. Similarly, the book of Job and The Odyssey both have the caprice of a God as their major theme, and because of this it is the actions of the respective Gods that move the story — however, in both cases, the Gods themselves are characters with discernable motivations, so even though you don't know what's coming, as a reader you subconsciously expect the unexepected.So, this is a long-winded way of saying that I think the writer's job is to furnish a universe that is so internally consistent that it requires the minimum suspension of disbelief. Like walking into Disneyland, the rules should be apparent and they should not be changed without significantly prepping the reader (Ambrose Bierce was a master at changing the rules without cheating the audience).

  14. “Suspension of disbelief” may be less of a “turn your brain off” deal and more of a “certain aspects may flout your acquired knowledge of history and science, but the work is aesthetically appealing, the characters are full-fleshed, the world is internally consistent, and/or something about it just feels right.”

    I can suspend disbelief for the Anita Blake novels (to a point) because I enjoy the characters, the “rules” are internally consistent (to a point), and they’re a fun read; I can suspend disbelief for Wristcutters because it’s quirky and cute and satisfies an internal narrative structure that resonates with me; I can suspend disbelief for Across the Universe because it’s Beatles music and it gives me warm fuzzies; I can suspend disbelief for The Mummy (the newer version) because it’s Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser and John Hannah and made of awesome; I can even, for the most part, suspend disbelief for CSI despite their mood-lit labs etc, because the stories are compelling and the regular characters are three-dimensional; I can be patient with Joss Whedon because he has produced masterpieces, even if some of his conceits make me wince.

    It’s very difficult for me to suspend disbelief when claims to hard science just aren’t; I can’t suspend disbelief for Final Destination because it just feels wrong, and I don’t even want to know if it’s internally consistent; I can’t suspend disbelief for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Empire because…just…no; I can’t suspend disbelief for Fatal Attraction because the stereotypes are driven in with a sledgehammer and it takes longer than that to drown someone!

    I actually find “suspension of disbelief” coming into play with book-to-film adaptations. Can I hold my loyalty to the book in reserve while I evaluate the merits of the movie on its face? Stardust and Coraline, while different in both subtle and extreme ways from their Neil Gaiman novel originals, really worked for me. Others just failโ€”although I don’t have a good example to hand just now;

    1. Yeah I get the difference I just think that they’ve become to a degree interchangeable. And I definitely think you can be loyal to a book and not a movie and vice versa. I find myself enjoying the LOTR movies quite a bit more than the books for example. The real test will be if I like the Hobbit movie better since the Hobbit book is my favorite.

  15. Profound post and comments, Master Scott!

    I think the burden for suspension of disbelief is mostly on the writer. But it’s a two-way street… if the reader decides to “engage” with the author, then they agree to at least open the door to suspend their disbelief. Then the author has to do the hard work to invite the reader in, get them to cross over the threshold and keep them inside the author’s world. It’s hard, hard work, as you well know.

    And I love it when I’m caught up in the world of a master storyteller. Gene Wolfe does it for me, in terms of a richness in his worlds and the lavish, oozing details in his words. Lois McMaster Bujold does it for me by engaging my interest in her characters, even in the most bizarre of circumstances. Once I truly care for one of her characters, she can throw a lot at me in her worlds that other authors could never get away with.

    I’m always amazed when I get sucked into a massive alternate reality of a great storyteller, and it sticks with me long after the story is done. For me, it does have to resonate on a certain level, and appeal to my sense of truth. Truth of character, human nature, “metaphorical physics” of life, the world, etc… I do try to be forgiving when they screw up here and there, but I do expect a certain level of consistency. And all the while, I’m trying to learn how those amazing writers do it, so I can attempt to do it too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    At the same time, every reader is totally unique, so it’s impossible to know all their triggers, social paradigms, expectations, needs… and basic profile. I guess that’s why publishers often say things like “know your target market.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    Personally, I just want to tell a good story (try that I might) and I attempt to keep in mind this general issue, and I’m still learning about my audience, and hope they’re forgiving enough to stick around. At first, I started writing just for the audience of one — me — and I’m a pretty harsh critic. But I’m trying to understand and learn how to better reach the audience, to throw such a great party in that proverbial “room of suspension of disbelief,” that they won’t want to leave. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I also think there are a lot of people out there for whom “turning their brains off” is second nature… Perhaps some even live in a perpetual state of suspension of disbelief. What scares me are the brilliant writers who totally understand that state of mind, and know the triggers to manipulate those people, leading them deep into a paper-thin story or worse-yet, propaganda. Indeed, there is so much power in words.

    Guilty pleasures? I used to think Alan Dean Foster was a guilty pleasure… until I re-read some of his early work and was blown away by how good of a writer he really is, even in the most basic of his stories. So I’m not sure any more. I thought Peter Beagle was a guilty pleasure until I re-read The Last Unicorn and was stunned at how profound it is. Now that I’m writing more and more, and understand with each new paragraph how damned hard it is, I have a lot more respect for any writer who puts his heart and soul on the page.

  16. Its definitely a matter of opinion. I know suspension of disbelief has ruined a few books for me, because I judged them before I got past the first few chapters. Eragon, for example, struck me as incredibly stereotyped, like he read Tolkien and changed the names.

    I would also say that mundane characters can help with suspension of disbelief. For example, my current favourite movie, Donnie Darko. Here’s a movie that’s about as messed up as you get, with a surreal plot and quirky black humour, and I can still find it compelling because the protagonist (Darko) is easy to relate to. He has mental issues, and hes rather blunt, but hes human, and recognizably so.

    I think authors can write about, oh, three kinds of books: Drivel with entertainment value, Deep, albeit dry novels, and then gems, where both elements merge nicely.

    Just my opinion.

  17. I think the burden for this one is almost entirely on the author — since Coleridge, the craft of fiction has advanced to the point where the rules for making a fictional world are pretty well understood. The basic premise is “integrity” – i.e. when entering a fictional world, the reader is buying into the rules you set up for your universe. If you don’t abide by those rules, then you’re betraying the reader’s trust. With the amount of fiction (in all its forms) the average reader consumes, by the time they’re ten (if not before) they’ve developed a very keen sense of when they’re being toyed with. That’s why things such as Deux Ex Machina, which was a staple of Greek Drama, are generally frowned upon now — it’s not because it’s involving the supernatural, but because it’s introducing an element previously external to the story to bail the writer out of a jam. In stories that rely heavily on the supernatural, you can have God or The Gods intervening and not be a problem in this sense, so long as it doesn’t cheat the reader of their sense of investment in the struggles of the hero(s).

    The major exception to this general rule is, I think, stories where the caprice of the deity and/or the natural world is a major theme of the story – but even stories like this have to abide by their own internal logic to work. Scott Sigler employs this device heavily in his books — nobody’s safe, his hero might get killed at any moment and derail the plot — because the caprice of nature and human nature is a major theme in his work. Similarly, the book of Job and The Odyssey both have the caprice of a God as their major theme, and because of this it is the actions of the respective Gods that move the story — however, in both cases, the Gods themselves are characters with discernable motivations, so even though you don’t know what’s coming, as a reader you subconsciously expect the unexepected.

    So, this is a long-winded way of saying that I think the writer’s job is to furnish a universe that is so internally consistent that it requires the minimum suspension of disbelief. Like walking into Disneyland, the rules should be apparent and they should not be changed without significantly prepping the reader (Ambrose Bierce was a master at changing the rules without cheating the audience).

    1. I certainly agree that an internally consistent world is a must and is the author’s burden to bare. I also think that because we are exposed to a wider variety of lit than the audience in Coleridge’s time the suspension is easier.

      What’s your opinion of the whole “check your brain” thing?

      1. Frankly, I think “checking your brain at the door” is a cheat, and a pretty dependable sign of lazy writing. Some films are worth it even so, for the craft of the non-writers in the production. If “overthinking” something makes it fall apart, then it’s not well put together in the first place – it means the story’s conceit doesn’t hold up under its own terms.

  18. I certainly agree that an internally consistent world is a must and is the author's burden to bare. I also think that because we are exposed to a wider variety of lit than the audience in Coleridge's time the suspension is easier.What's your opinion of the whole “check your brain” thing?

  19. Frankly, I think “checking your brain at the door” is a cheat, and a pretty dependable sign of lazy writing. Some films are worth it even so, for the craft of the non-writers in the production. If “overthinking” something makes it fall apart, then it's not well put together in the first place – it means the story's conceit doesn't hold up under its own terms.

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