What is Suspension of Disbelief?
You read a review of a new novel and the reviewer says, “I had trouble suspending my disbelief.” What is he talking about? What is suspension of disbelief? One dictionary definition states it’s “a willingness to suspend one's critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.”
Since, by definition, all fiction is nothing more than made up stories, in order to enjoy the work, your audience must disregard the fact that what you’re telling them is not reality. They have to read the novel or watch the movie as if they were receiving the information from a reliable news source. When your audience suspends their disbelief of a well written story there is a win-win situation. You win because people will want to read more of your work and your audience wins by being thoroughly entertained.
There is a basic rule for maintaining the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Violate it and you risk losing your audience. They put your book down in the middle of chapter four and never pick it up again. The basic rule is this: be consistent. Be consistent in writing your characters’ actions and behavior and be consistent in unraveling your plot.
If you describe your heroine as having green eyes in the opening chapter then in chapter ten you cannot say, “Her brown eyes flashed with anger.” Do this and your book may go immediately to the used book bin. Or, if your fantasy hero is able to fly by wearing a magic ring and you have him soaring above the clouds after he’s left the ring on his kitchen table your story goes down hill from there.
If you maintain consistency in your work you can create some really bizarre plots and, as long as the writing is good, your audience will go along. One example of this is found in early American folk stories, the so-called “tall tales”.
In one, John Henry, an African-American railroad steel driver (a worker who hammered a steel drill into rock to create holes for explosives), competed against a steam-powered driver and won only to die of heart failure. In another tall tale Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack, is able to clear acres of forest in record time with the aid of his pet, Babe the Blue Ox.
Although these stories strain credulity, they are regularly taught in literature classes as examples of American folklore and continue to entertain generation after generation. They remain a staple of storytelling because, despite their fantastic claims, they are well told, reveal a great deal about the American spirit, inspire us, and are consistent in their telling.
Another example of a work that stretches the audience’s suspension of disbelief is a stage play, Our Town by Thornton Wilder. It is one of my favorites. The play tells the story of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, a fictional New Hampshire town. There is no set or props. The actors have to use gestures to indicate actions such as preparing breakfast in an imaginary kitchen throughout the play.
After a few minutes of watching this strange performance you forget that there is no setting and the actors handle no props and you settle in for a totally engrossing show. You disbelief is totally suspended.
Write a consistent and enthralling story and your audience will be sure to suspend their disbelief. And you will have a novel or short story worthy of reading over and over.
Next time I’ll discuss four things you can do in your writing to help your audience suspend their disbelief.