“Willing Suspension of Disbelief”: When it Works, When it Fails

An immutable requirement that impacts the success of any work of #ScienceFiction or #Fantasy is the audience’s ability to be able to willingly suspend their disbelief, which can be defined as follows:

The willing suspension of disbelief refers to an individual willingly suspending their critical faculties, logic and realism in order to believe something surreal for the sake of enjoyment.

It can also be defined as “a literary term of art referring to one of Aristotle’s principles of theater in which the audience accepts fiction as reality so as to experience a catharsis, or a releasing of tensions to purify the soul.”

Before sci-fi or fantasy were recognized literary genres, poetry and fiction involving the supernatural had gone out of fashion to a large extent in the 18th century, in part due to the declining belief in witches and other supernatural agents among the educated classes in favor of science. However, the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge sought to revive the use of fantastic elements in poetry and developed a concept to support how a modern, enlightened audience might continue to enjoy such types of literature.

In 1817, Coleridge introduced the term “suspension of disbelief” in Biographia Literaria and suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. The term resulted from a philosophical experiment, which Coleridge conducted with William Wordsworth within the context of the creation and reading of poetry. It involved an attempt to explain the supernatural persons or characters so that these creatures of imagination constitute some semblance of truth.

Who’s Responsible?

The individual(s) most responsible for enabling and maintaining an audience’s ability to willingly suspend their disbelief is the author(s) or creator of the work. It’s not the responsibility of the audience and any author or creator who fails to understand that isn’t going to have a successful work.

What Allows it Work?

Any creative endeavor is only successful to the extent that the audience offers their willing suspension of disbelief as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: the author or creator provides the audience with a good story; and in return, the audience accepts the reality of the story as presented, as well as the characters in the fictional universe as they seemingly act on their own accord.

But the author or creator has the important responsibility of enabling and maintaining the audience’s ability to willingly suspend their disbelief, and they key to doing this successfully is internal consistency.

Internal consistency means being consistent with itself.

Any rules, events, settings, or characters that have been established within a fictional work (as well as sequel or prequel works) are expected by an audience to continue to exist and function as they did previously, unless otherwise indicated.

What Causes it to Fail?

Suspension of disbelief can be broken when a work breaks its own established laws or asks the audience to put up with too many things that come off as contrived.

A common way of putting this is as follows:

“You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable.”

For example, people will accept that the Grand Mage can use a magic spell to teleport across the world, or that the spaceship has technology that makes it completely invisible without rendering its own sensors blind; but the audience won’t accept that the ferocious carnivore just happened to have a heart attack and die right before it would have killed the main character, or that the hacker guessed his enemy’s password on the first try just by typing random letters.

A respondent to a question posed on the website “stackexchange” wrote an excellent response to the question, “What breaks suspension of disbelief?” in 2011:

“Basically, anything that the reader considers implausible when he’s already suspending disbelief, can spoil the illusion and break that suspension. The key issue to understand is that up to a certain point, your story is exposing the world of the story, and explaining what’s allowed and what isn’t. Anything you establish clearly, the reader will be willing to accept, and suspend disbelief over. Anything implausible that you don’t explain, or suggest can be explained (perhaps later), is not ‘protected’, and can prompt readers to feel that the story is nonsensical or contrived – not in the agreed-upon, ‘protected’ premise, but in the reasonable flow of events and consequences from that premise.”

The respondent then provided some specific cases. We’ll share two of them:

Setting rules are inconsistent or unclear: An SF/F reader will generally be willing to accept bizarre and impossible world constructions, as long as they are internally consistent. But if your stardates don’t match up with each other, or if something impossible turns out to be possible with no real justification, then the reader senses that your rules are arbitrary and that the author does not feel bound by his own rules. The same thing happens if he can’t figure out what your rules are meant to be to begin with. It’s like playing a game somebody invented where he gets to change the rules all the time, and then declare himself the winner if he’s losing anyway.”

Coincidence as a plot development: If anything immensely unlikely happens, it’s best for it to happen at the beginning – as part of the premise. Using coincidence as a plot development can feel contrived – since it’s not really a coincidence, but fiat on the author’s side, the reader can sense that the author is deliberately manipulating the story in implausible, artificial directions, and he loses faith in the plot as being plausible, natural, and thus significant.”

Additional Causes of Failure

Here are some additional causes that can cause an audience to lose their ability to suspend their disbelief.

  • Character derailment. When an established character becomes largely different, exhibiting behavior contrary to what has been previously shown that is not a matter of organic growth. Rather than gradually changing in response to events and experiences, a derailed character will exhibit shockingly unusual behavior that implies malfeasance or incompetence on the part of the writers.
  • Dues ex Machina. A Deus ex Machina is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way. It’s often used as the solution to what is called “writing yourself into a corner,” where the problem is so extreme that nothing in the established setting suggests that there is a logical way for the characters to escape. If a bomb is about to go off, someone finds a convenient bomb-proof bunker in easy reach.
  • Fridge Logic. This refers to some illogical or implausible plot point that the audience doesn’t realize during the show, but only long afterwards. This naming is highly subjective, since not every person follows the same train of thought. Some people will never even realize there was a problem, while others will call it a plot hole, since they already noticed the problem during the show. The phrase was technically coined by Alfred Hitchcock. When asked about the scene in “Vertigo” when Madeleine mysteriously, and impossibly, disappears from the hotel that Scottie saw her in, he responded by calling it an “icebox” scene, that is, a scene that “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.”
  • Plot Hole. Plot Holes are those gaps in a story where things happen without a logical reason. When a Plot Hole involves something essential to a story’s outcome, it can hurt the believability, for those who are bothered by such things.
  • Retcon. Short for Retroactive Continuity, this is the reframing of past events to serve a current plot need, meaning that the new plot need was not intended from the beginning. A retcon is considered by many to occur when current events contradict the past continuity of the series, and is often evidence of authorial intrusion.

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