17 February 2014

To Suspend or Not To Suspend?

                    Just because something really happened
                    doesn't make it believable in fiction.
                                               ----Dr. Christopherson

As an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, I intentionally scheduled my classes with the professors known to be demanding and eccentric.  Dr. Christopherson definitely fit that category. Sharp and witty, he was known for throwing anyone who irritated him out of his classes even if the student simply sneezed one time. He also locked the door of the lecture hall and wouldn't admit anyone after he began. He was mockingly brutal in critiques, but I learned a lot from him.  That line at the beginning, however, is the only thing he taught me that I can now quote word for word, and it leads my thoughts to today's topic--believability.

A Personal Experience:
At a writers' circle, I read a brief excerpt from a horror novel aloud to make a point. Immediately, one of the others exclaimed, "I don't think that's believable. What about suspension of disbelief?  I don't think it could be extended that far."

"How many horror or fantasy books have you read in the past three years?" I asked.

The response was, "None.  I read and write literary fiction. I've never read a horror novel."

I replied, "The piece was an excerpt, so we don't know what the author had done previously to assure extreme suspension of disbelief, but I believe that when a reader picks up a horror or fantasy novel, suspension of disbelief is a given."

Masters of  Temporary
Suspension of Disbelief
Stephen King.

Every time I spend nearly thirty dollars for a new Stephen King because I can't wait for the paperback, my disbelief is in a state of suspension before I open the cover.  However, the suspension is temporary.  I didn't continue to believe what happens in Dr. Sleep after I completed the book. 

Years ago in the classroom, the students who read R. L. Stine's Goosebumps books suspended disbelief before beginning stories about parents turning into plants in the basement and supernatural creatures living next door.
R L. Stine 

Stine's endeavors as a novelist, short story writer, executive television producer, screen writer and editor have almost all dealt primarily with topics that require suspension of disbelief: children and adult horror, science fiction, humor, and Gothic fiction.

Origin of the Concept
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The term (AKA willing suspension of disbelief) was coined in 1817  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet and philosopher, in Biographia Literaria. He used it primarily in reference to supernatural and Gothic poetry, but it is an important factor in fictional works of action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres.

Coleridge qualified the suspension by suggesting that the writer should infuse a "human interest and semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale to enable the reader to suspend judgment of the plausibility of the narrative." Personally, I think that in many cases, like my choice of King and the students' love of the Goosebumps books, the reader suspends disbelief before beginning and maintains it until the author does something that breaks the suspension.

Suspension of Disbelief in Mystery Writing and Movies

Even "realistic" fiction receives some suspension. The audience doesn't jump up shouting, "No, it takes weeks or months," when forensics reports are back immediately in CSI shows.  Readers don't cry, "Foul!" when private investigators and good guys shoot guns in public places without killing innocent bystanders or getting in trouble with law enforcement.  In real life, crime scene investigators and forensics technicians are not the people primarily responsible for investigation, arrest, interrogation, and solving crimes alone, no matter what you might read or see in Bones.  Without any involvement of supernatural, the audience suspends disbelief in exchange for entertainment.

Secondary Reality - Acceptance of the impossible, but not the improbable. 

Disbelief is usually only suspended if the character or action stays within the realm of the created fictional universe.  A reader may accept that the Grand Mage can teleport across the world or that a spaceship has technology to make itself completely invisible, yet reject that the villain (whether human or not) conveniently has a heart attack and dies just before it attacks the main character.  Like Annie Wilkes says in King's Misery, writers are expected to play fair. In other words, when dealing with fictional situations, the suspension of disbelief generally works within the reality and rules the author creates, but coincidental events aren't accepted.

Star Trek's Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk

Star Trek includes some outrageous ideas, impossible even by today's advanced technology, but the acceptance was made easy by their staying consistently within the realm of their created universe.

Note that some works of fiction intentionally push the suspension of disbelief to the maximum limit. An example of that is the Indiana Jones movies where the audience was expected to react to the improbable antics as amusing. 
Jeff Dunham with Achmed the Dead

Suspension of Disbelief in Other Areas

This topic could go on forever, but we'll close with one of my favorite examples: Jeff Dunham, the American ventriloquist, whose repertoire includes a variety of characters.  I can actually see the sticks that operate some of the dummy's limbs and see Jeff's throat move when the character speaks, but during Dunham's show, my disbelief is temporarily suspended to the point that I accept their personalities and statements.  

What are your thoughts on suspension of disbelief?  Please share them.

Until we meet again, take care of… you!


  1. A good piece. I've always thought that writers, whatever the genre, get away with just as much as they possibly can.

  2. To me, Star Trek is a better example of technological miracles that have become realities since the show started, starting with the elevator doors that opened by themselves as someone walked toward them. On the other hand, I have to suspend disbelief every time an action hero in his forties or fifties jumps into bed with every attractive young woman he meets and has no trouble performing. I think it's Elaine Viets who called it the male fantasy genre. Sometimes the author fails to convince me, eg Stuart Woods's Stone Barrington novels. Nelson DeMille's another one, though his mastery of suspense gives him an edge. We all routinely suspend disbelief regarding action derring-do, which occurs in every thriller and in the climactic scene of many of today's mysteries.

  3. Janice, I agree. We do push the envelope, sometimes trying to get away whatever is possible.

    Liz, as a decadent divorcee in my youth, I'm not going near discussing the abilities of forty and fifty-year-old men, but I will say that as much as I like Stuart Woods, the Stone Barrington novels are definitely male fantasy.

  4. Just had this conversation with Andrew French on FaceBook. How come the sex is never bad, even if the plumbing descriptions make you cringe?

    Willing suspension is an interesting question. You certainly have to disguise coincidence. If you lose the reader's trust, you're up shit creek. Sometimes you can camouflage the improbable, by embedding it in convincing detail.

  5. An ultimate example where suspension of disbelief is required is "The Swiss Family Robinson." Seriously. Probably the worst novel ever written - here they are, on an island in the Pacific, in which are every animal, plant, and resource necessary for life. When I was a kid I loved it! I reread it as an adult, and when the tiger showed up, I threw it across the room! Why? BECAUSE IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE POSSIBLE IN THIS UNIVERSE. That's when you gag on it.

    It's why I've stopped DVRing Downton Abbey - because the last episode of last season Lady Mary acted like a complete selfish party-maniac idiot, running around all over the place while pregnant with the son and heir. I know my Edwardian social history, and Lady Mary - desperate to have a child, still besotted with her husband - would never have endangered her future child that way. (They could have killed Matthew off in a car wreck anyway) And at that point, I quit.

  6. Thanks, David. I think convincing detail, especially in his earlier works, has been one of Stephen King's devices in regard to believability.
    I'd like to friend you on FaceBook. Would that be okay?

  7. Eve, I've found that many books I loved as a child disappointed me when I read them as an adult. We find it far more difficult to accept the things we read when we have more experience and also when we've learned about devices in writing. The exception for me has been the Dahl books. BFG is totally far out, and I still love it, and when I read it, I BELIEVE in him.

  8. OOps, David! We're already friends on FaceBook.

  9. This is a timely subject for me. I was recently the target of a web group because they had to suspend disbelief to accept the story. I am sure there are many things one could find to criticize in my writing. But suspension disbelief is so much a part of writing that I never give it a thought. I wondered if these folks ever watched TV or movies. I consoled myself by saying: well, they felt it necessary to criticize and couldn't find anything else to hit on. In this case even I had to suspend disbelief.

  10. Herschel, I'm sad to say that the lady I spoke about in the personal experience part of this blog is one of those who absolutely has to find something to criticize. Sounds like a similar situation,

  11. Good stuff. Reminds me... years ago Jay Cronley wrote a novel that was very much a homage to Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books. Westlake wrote a blurb for it that went, approximately "Cronley doesn't make me suspend my disbelief so much as make me toss it out the window and drop rocks on it."

  12. Rob, I love that quote and was not familiar with it. Thanks.

  13. Great quote - and Fran, I still accept each and every word of "The Jungle Books" as true...


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