11 June 2017

Suspension Bridge

by Leigh Lundin

Suspension of disbelief — While used all the time in story-telling, the phrase always struck me as a particularly awkward and unwriterly agglomeration or words. It seems more appropriate for a turn-of-the-century magic show than for literature.

To begin with, the human brain cannot grasp a negative without first comprehending or at least thinking of its positive. The mind first considers ‘belief’ and, after momentary processing, pulls up ‘disbelief’. Then the grey cells attach ’suspension of’, resulting in complex mental gymnastics for a simple concept, even if we remain unaware of the internal computing at the time.


© courtesy imgarcade, artist unknown

‘Suspend’ is one of those words that can mean virtually its opposite, a contronym if you will, like the word ‘citation’ in North American English. You can suspend fruit bits in Jell-o or suspend a balloon in mid-air. But if you suspend the suspending, they come crashing down, much like my faith in our phrase under discussion.

Imagine an author constructing posits like fragile clouds floating in the sky. That writer has suspended his beliefs. He wants his audience to believe those illusions hover there in the magical atmosphere of his tale.

Science and engineering students play sly and sometimes sophisticated jokes on one another such as disassembling a Volkswagon and reassembling it in a boy's dorm room.
    An urban legend has it Coca Cola will dissolve metals overnight, engine blocks or some such. A freshman went on about this and sophomores suggested the only way to prove or disprove it was to run the experiment himself. They helped him gather half a dozen different types of nails to leave in a jar that night.
    The next morning the freshman awoke to find the nails had dissolved into nothingness, thus proving the urban legend. Upperclassmen clapped him on the back and complimented him on his research.
    They didn’t compliment his naïveté, his suspension of disbelief. As you figured out, the sophomores silently removed the nails in the middle of the night.
Thus when you think about it, an author of fiction is ultimately asking for belief… a believing in his world rather than the reality surrounding us.

Coming to Terms

Everyone knows what ‘suspend disbelief’ means, but nobody’s bothered to come up with more elegant wording. We could toy with ‘enbelief’ or ‘sur-belief’ or even ‘lief’, although that last means ‘gladly’.

English often adapts foreign words for concepts. We could try ‘glauben’ in German, ‘foi’ or ‘croyance’ in French, ‘creencia’ in Spanish, ‘убежден’ in Russian, and my favorite, ‘credinţa’ in Romanian. Feel free to leave off the çedilla. (Pardon the childish play on that word.) Would professionals accept this following term? “A writer asks little more from his audience than credinta.”

Frankly, I’m surprised our literary forebears haven’t borrowed an equivalent phrase from French or Russian authors. All the Russians I know are in Washington busily working on the next election, but I do have good French friends. I asked two of my closest, Micheline and Jean-François, for their opinions. J-F responded with this:
“Suspension of disbelief” is a useful concept, and quite hard to render accurately in French. The direct translation is clumsy. It is close to “licence poétique” but poetic license designates a liberty of the author rather than the reader blindly following the enchantment.

Actually, “enchantement” or “envoûtement” is a good path, with the idea that the reader is so charmed by the story that he forgets about reality and plausibility. I would suggest “succomber à l’enchantement” (succumb to the enchantment), e.g. in full context:
“Readers of Tolkien willingly suspend their disbelief” ➔
“Les lecteurs de Tolkien succombent de plein gré à son enchantement.”

Succomber à l'enchantement— I like that. If I can’t have credinţa, I vote for that.

Does ‘suspension of disbelief’ seem awkward to you? What are your ideas, your suggestions?


  1. I did an article on suspension of disbelief last year in the context of a review of Ellery Queen's The Glass Village. My favorite quote on the subject is the one from Aristotle that heads up the article. "Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities."


  2. I am used to hearing the phrase as "willing suspension of disbelief," and it works just fine for me. By the way, it comes from Samuel Coleridge, 1817. Interesting piece, Leigh.

  3. A Broad Abroad11 June, 2017 14:49

    Circumstances under which I'm willing to suspend disbelief usually involve what I think of as 'believable' sci-fi and artificial intelligence, rather than LoTR-type fantasy.

    "[Science fiction is] that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesised on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin. It is distinguished from pure fantasy by its need to achieve verisimilitude and win the 'willing suspension of disbelief' through scientific plausibility."
    Kingsley Amis

    A variety of thoughts from others on the subject:

  4. Leigh -- Interesting column! And great quotes on the subject, from you and in the comments as well.

    As usual, I love your title.

  5. Interesting post, Leigh. Like Rob, I find "willing suspension of disbelief" a useful phrase--but then,I'm a big Coleridge fan. How could we enjoy a poem such as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" unless we consciously decide to shut down our usual tendency to say, "That couldn't really happen!" Works that present themselves as realistic portrayals of human experience can't expect readers to make such a complete suspension. But almost any work of fiction asks readers to suspend disbelief to some extent.

  6. Dale, thanks for mentioning your article. I like that quote.

    Bonnie and Rob, I notice outside of Coleridge, the word ‘willing’ isn’t always used. I like to think that’s because an expert story-teller can seduce the senses that the recipient loses awareness of the real world and never quite knows when she or he enters that magic.

    ABA, as you know I like hard science fiction, so I find a John Brunner style much more believable. All the same, I loved adventure stories set in Africa or South America or even Mars, the kind where the story swept the reader along. Thank you for the links.

    John, thanks for that. As you say, good quotes from France and from our readers.

  7. Tagline for first Superman movie: "You'll believe a man can fly." Sure enough, I did, or at least I suspended my disbelief. I'd been doing that since I was five or six and reading comic books and Greek myths. It's easy for me. What I have trouble believing is current reality.


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