Suspending Disbelief for Lies and Profit

Scott SummersOn Writing, Tips & Learns

That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.Samuel Tyler Coleridge

Call me a skeptic, one of those salt-of-the-earth, brandied types with little time for flights of fancy in the modern world. I like facts, concrete evidence, and a compass that points due north from any point on the globe. It’s familiar. It’s tangible. It’s real.

However, I’m also a reader in love with science fiction and fantasy, both of which are as far from concrete as you can get. The genre is a world of intangibles — filled with magic, monsters, and a tangled web of anomalies that can make physics more flexible than fixed.

These two views of the world intersect between the pages. It’s sometimes a struggle to willingly suspend disbelief and leap into a story on faith, and it’s something every reader is asked to do each time she turns the page.

Suspending Reality

Suspending disbelief is a practice that goes back to antiquity. It’s something mentioned by Horace in Ars Poetica and again by Shakespeare, who often used it as a dramatic convention to explain a narrative. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase in 1817, which brings us to the here and now. In short, suspension of disbelief is:

a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment

For the sake of a good story, a reader is willing to cast aside logic, reason, and doubt to dive headfirst into the narrative. This sounds very much like the first stage of a tenuous romance, and it should. As a reader, you’re on a date.

Thing is: this date isn’t an all-expenses-paid trip.

The Price of Admission

So what kind of price are we talking about? Monetary costs aside (ever feel like you got gypped because you bought a dud novel?), you’re investing time and energy into a date that could turn out to be mediocre, at best.

If the joy of reading is that there’s always another book out there, then the same reason to try new authors is the same reason to date new people. Unless you’ve had your heart broken too many times — in which case, you’re on your own.

Speculative Fiction raises the stakes because, unlike other genres, the price tag is higher. Fantastical elements, other worlds, and outrageous characters are known risks. As a reader, you’re not only trying to suspend belief. You’re trusting the author to intentionally construct an entirely separate reality.

Reality, Alternated

One might argue that all authors construct an alternate reality when attempting to suspend disbelief, but it isn’t true. Some modify the reality we know and rely on that contrast to differentiate between the fantastic and the mundane. Inside the genre, that’s often modern / contemporary fantasy or mundane science fiction.

Others take it a step further, building elaborate worlds filled with magic and technology which have no bearing on our modern day interpretation of reality. This gives us authors like Tolkien or Herbert, who both dropped readers into worlds foreign and fantastical.

This presents a paradox for suspension of disbelief. As a reader, I know that everything I’m reading is false. On the other hand, for the story to function, I have to set that cognitive bias aside and give the author a little breathing room.

Turning A Blind Eye

That’s not to say that becoming a willing conspirator to deception doesn’t have its perks. Strong characters, a compelling plot, or an amazing world are just a few of the reasons that I’ll willingly cast aside the trappings of reality. The incredible detail in which some authors put into the magic systems, characters, or the worlds they create (even when borrowing from more traditional works) makes for an amazing payoff.

It only goes so far, of course. Contrived coincidences, gaping plot holes, or magic “for the sake of magic” are all great reasons for me to turn in my golden ticket and abandon ship.

This, I’ve found, is the problem with age. The older I get and the more I learn, the more difficult it is for me to willingly suspend disbelief when something flies in the face of reality, particularly if it’s somehow critical to plot development. At that point where known reality is tested against the logic of the narrative, the fictional construction will lose. Every time.

Suspended by Wire and Trappings

Have you ever seen one of those behind-the-scenes shots from your favorite movie? The camera pulls out just far enough for you to see exactly how close everything is, how narrow and thin the walls of the fictional construct actually are.

So why are people so willing to suspend belief?

Part of it comes down to imagination, I think. Maybe escapism. But I think the most important reason is that it’s built into the way we cope with the world. Stories are how we’ve communicated since we began as a species, and the stories we tell today aren’t so different from those we told a long time ago.

At least, that’s the reality I’m choosing to believe.