Suspension of Disbelief

Some level of suspension of disbelief is necessary for any fiction. Larger or lesser, but always necessary.

“Unbelievable” is hardly criteria for failure. In fact, it’s entirely immaterial, as long as the writer observes the only rule that matters about making sense: never pull the reader out of the vicarious experience.

Internal logic and consistency is important in helping readers stay in the vicarious experience.

I lean strongly toward the belief that readers want to believe, or at least suspend disbelief, and most will gloss over even glaring issues. I remember Michael Crichton’s translating earbuds in Timeline and after a moment of “Really?” I moved on and enjoyed the book immensely. (The movie, not so much.)

As writers we need to be as careful as we can, especially when the contrivance is core to the story’s spine and resolution. Coincidences and contrivances that make the story possible, on the other hand (like magic translating earbuds) are places where readers will go to great lengths to dive into a story they want to love.

It’s easy to go down the path my mom takes in stories, where she’ll spend 12 minutes talking to herself about whether Margaret’s middle name was Elisabeth with an ess or Elizabeth with a zee and in the end, accuracy had no bearing on the emotional impact of the story; in fact, the search for accuracy destroyed it.

I’ll take Crichton’s magic earbud over Melville’s endless treatise on whaling any day.

As writers, we tend to seek out readers who read like us. Your own experiences and dislikes are probably a good rule of thumb for what you can pull off with your own readers.

6 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. I agree; we do in our own stories what we like to read about. I’m a logical person. I don’t suspend belief very soon. (Hardy Boys notwithstanding.) I don’t care for characters who act in stupid ways, without some reason.
    Say there have been four home invasions, two violent, on Elm Street this month. Jane, living alone at #39 is not going to come home after work, drop her purse on the kitchen table and head for the bathroom without locking her door — unless she’s really an airhead. If she leaves the back door open and some baddie walks in while she’s in the shower, the scene clangs in my mind. Or I lose sympathy for her; she was asking for trouble. Give me some reason why she didn’t lock the door, or tell how he broke in.
    I just read a Louis L’Amour novel where several baddies, all “crack shots”, missed the hero as he stood in front of the door of his cabin dealing with another baddie in the doorway. That takes real suspension of disbelief! You accept it because you KNOW the good guy CAN’T get shot — but it defies fact.

  2. Suspension of disbelief is different from accepting unbelievable actions.

    If I make it clear in my story that my protagonist can fly, as long as you’re willing to accept that, when he’s running from the bad guys and jumps off a cliff and flies, you expected it and accept it.

    On the other hand, if he’s walking down the railroad tracks, sees a train coming, and tries to outrun it, accepting that isn’t suspension of disbelief.

    Our characters have to behave like real people, no matter what special abilities they have or the characteristics of the world we’ve put them in. People are still people, and they behave in certain ways.

    The plot devices you mention are just plain bad writing: the fact that Imperial Storm Troopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn, or when Mary leaves her door unlocked and decides it’s a good day to shower with the bathroom door open. People don’t behave that way, and if a writer needs those unbelievable actions to make their story, they need better writing, not more willing disbelief.

    Make sense?

  3. Thanks for explaining. Yes, this makes sense.

    If Mary drank too much at the office farewell party, or just had a dose of chemo and is still groggy she may forget. If someone said something that make her furious she may slam the door in anger but not think to lock it. But normally we females fear assault enough that we take precautions.

    The first ghostwriter for the Hardy boys series, Leslie McFarlane said, “They walked into traps even a six-year-old would have seen coming.” But they always did rush into whatever, so we accept it as their impetuous natures — and their era. Few writers can pull that off these days.

  4. If we love the character we’re going to be okay with some of the crazy stuff that the author/director tossed our way. But sometimes we do need a dash of accuracy. Things cannot magically happen over and over. That will dilute the story. It all comes down to balance. The writers needs to keep this in mind if they want their readers to come back.

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