Showing posts with label suspension of disbelief. Show all posts
Showing posts with label suspension of disbelief. Show all posts

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
by Robert Lopresti

There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

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.

Enantiosemy

suspension
© 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?

27 March 2016

The Glass Village -- Suspending Disbelief?

by Dale C. Andrews
Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.                                                                                             Aristotle
What do you know?! Haven't you heard of suspension of disbelief?                                                                                                    Ed Wood, Ed Wood 
Unfortunately, my disbelief is very heavy, and [at times] the suspension cable snap[s].                                                                     Roger Ebert
        It only seems proper on Easter Sunday for SleuthSayers to focus on Ellery Queen. What? Some of you may ask. After all, the Queen mysteries were written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who were born Daniel Nathan and Manford Lepofsky, respectively. Francis M. Nevins in Royal Bloodlines describes the two as follows: “Both were born in 1905, nine months and five blocks apart, of immigrant Jewish stock in a crowded Brooklyn tenement district.” So -- how do you get from there to Easter? 

       Well, while the basis for this remains an unsolved mystery, the holiday Easter is repeatedly referenced throughout the works of Queen. Those references, often hidden, could easily provide the basis for an Easter article. Unfortunately for me, that is an article that I have already written. Anyone wanting to re-visit (or visit) that previous discussion of Ellery Queen’s hidden (and mysterious) “Easter eggs” can do so by clicking here

       My re-visit to the Queen library this Easter is a bit more attenuated. Easter is a holiday premised on faith and belief; acceptance of that which we might otherwise deem to be impossible. Faith is an oft analyzed foundation of religious belief. But it is there that mystery fiction and religion part ways. By and large mystery readers take little on “faith." Instead, mystery fiction requires a well-grounded basis for “belief” premised on demonstrable logic in order to explain the otherwise inexplicable and thereby keep the reader in tow. 

       When fiction is at its best it immerses the reader in a believable world, one in which we can live comfortably; where occurrences, clues and characters are of a sort that we would expect to encounter. But often laying the foundation for such a world presents a formidable challenge to the author. This is particularly so in Golden Age mysteries, such as those of Ellery Queen. It is hard to reasonably anticipate, for example, a reasonable world that offers up dying messages or locked rooms. When the otherwise unbelievable occurs in theology (think Easter) the devout among us often are able to answer incredulity with faith. For the mystery reader, however, it’s a bit tougher. And the preferred bridge to believe the otherwise unbelievable is the literary tool "suspension of disbelief.” 

       This handy little device -- which was excellently discussed in guest SleuthSayer Herschel Cozine’s recent article and by Fran Rizer a couple years back -- is defined by our old pal Wikipedia as follows: 
Suspension of disbelief, or willing suspension of disbelief, is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who 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 trick to the tool, as the above quote suggests, is that “semblance of truth” requirement. The reader has to be given just enough to go along with the plot device that otherwise presents as implausible. And as the quote from Roger Ebert at top of this article also suggests, if that semblance of truth proves insufficient to tempt the reader down the author’s intended path, well, the suspension cable snaps, risking the loss of the reader. 

       And that brings us back to Ellery Queen and a particular mystery where, at least for me, that cable has never been sufficient to withstand the load the authors demand of it. My reference is to the 1954 mystery The Glass Village.

       In over fifty years of reading Queen The Glass Village has always been my personal stumbling block. Recently I confronted The Glass Village again and, after previous failed attempts this time I finished the novel. But not without some grumblings.

       Before getting to all of that, a little background is in order.

       My latest confrontation with The Glass Village began a couple months back after I wrote a SleuthSayers article focusing on some underlying riffs in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town. Looking back on the completed article, particularly in light of some very erudite comments offered by some SleuthSayers readers, I decided that it was a good time to re-visit not only Calamity Town, but the Queen mysteries that immediately followed it. There was good reason for this re-visit. When I first started reading Queen in my teenage years the path I followed through Ellery’s adventures meandered a bit. Some volumes I checked out of the local library, but more often than not I acquired Ellery Queen mysteries piecemeal at used book fairs held often in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. (My Queen library still has many volumes from those book fares, each with a ten cent or twenty-five cent price inscribed inside of the cover.)

       The upshot of this approach was that I read the Queen library as I acquired it, which is to say out of order. I skipped from The Siamese Twin Mystery to Double, Double, and then proceeded to The Player on the Other Side before going back to Calamity Town. It was years before I reached Cat of Many Tails. It occurred to me lately, however, that it would be interesting to re-read these works, particularly those written in the 1940s and 1950s, in the order that they were published. I set this course so that I could more clearly follow the nuanced changes in Dannay and Lee’s writing, and in Ellery’s character, particularly his humanization as he coped with his own mistakes in the early Wrightsville stories, confronted those human foibles in Cat of Many Tails, and then moved on through other works, ending with 1958’s The Finishing Stroke, once intended as the last Queen mystery.

       In the midst of this span, is The Glass Village, published in 1954. 

       The Glass Village is a rarity among Queen mysteries. While there are many novels that profess to be “written” by Ellery Queen that do not feature Ellery and/or his father as essential characters, the vast majority of those books were not in fact written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Rather they were the infamous works franchised out to other writers. The Dannay and Lee contributions to these decidedly inferior stories amounted to little more than some final editing. But there are two exceptions to this rule. And aside from the 1968 police procedural Cop Out, The Glass Village is the only novel written by Dannay and Lee as Ellery Queen that does not feature Ellery or the Inspector.   

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
       As an aside, reportedly this almost was not the case. There is, some evidence that The Glass Village was originally intended as an Ellery Queen Wrightsville mystery that was then revised to remove Ellery and Wrightsville while the writing was already under way. (Indeed, the debut episode of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, broadcast on NBC on September 26, 1958, is based on The Glass Village and re-fashioned the story so that the detective-protagonist is, in fact, Ellery.) We can only speculate as to why Dannay and Lee decided on a different approach, but there are several possibilities. First, a key element of The Glass Village requires a finite and limited number of town residents, something that would not have been possible in the context of the larger community of Wrightsville. Second, Dannay and Lee frankly may have been uneasy concerning the descent into mob mentality that The Glass Village would have required of the residents of Wrightsville -- people Ellery often describes with admiration and affection. The story, after all, is an allegory to the McCarthy mania of the early 1950s, and Dannay and Lee may not have wanted the good citizens of Wrightsville to play the Mcarthy-ite roles required by the story. 

       So there were many reasons that I could have opted to avoid The Glass Village when I revisited Queen, principally revolving around the lack of Ellery. But it seemed to me that would be a bit unfair. The book was widely heralded, when published, as a celebration of 25 years of mysteries authored by Ellery Queen. And even though it is not directly part of the “Ellery as detective” canon, the authors made certain that it did not stray too far.  Shinn Corners, the locale for the novel, is geographically close to Wrightsville, the town Ellery frequents, and we know this from references in Ellery’s Wrightsville novels. There are other hints that also tie the mystery back to those in which Ellery is present, and the young detective protagonist in Glass Village is fashioned with several knowing winks to the avid Queen reader.  That character, “Johnny Shinn,” approaches the mystery as would Ellery, sports a name with the same number of characters as “Ellery Queen,” and one character in the The Glass Village persists in mispronouncing that last name as “Sheen.” In light of all of this I could only conclude that Dannay and Lee intended that I should read the book. So I (finally) did. 

       This brings us back to my problems with The Glass Village, which involve suspension of disbelief, how it works, and how sometimes it doesn’t.  The Glass Village begins very well, and contains some excellent prose and believable characters, but to me it grinds to a halt mid-way when it asks of the reader a suspension of disbelief that simply cannot easily be delivered.

       Specifically, a major premise of the story is that in order to calm the near riotous citizenry of Shinn Corners it is decided that a trumped-up trial must be conducted. Over the years each time I have attempted to read The Glass Village it is at this point that I roll my eyes, sigh, and set the book aside as my suspension cable snaps. I admit that a lot of this may be because I am an attorney, and the utter silliness of the kangaroo court imagined by Dannay and Lee and then convened in Shinn Corners has a particular personal grate to it. But there are problems here regardless of the reader’s background, and those problems (I believe) are sufficient that any reader, when asked to suspend disbelief, predictably would reply oh, come now

       For the “kangaroo trial” that is at the heart of The Glass Village to work the reader must accept the novel’s premise that the small town of Shinn Corners is so geographically remote from the rest of the world that, over a course of days, no higher authority could or would enter the town to rescue a prisoner threatened by an enraged town bent on mob vigilantism, and further that no higher judicial or legal authority would intervene to stop a trial so strangely assembled that jurors also serve, at times, as witnesses during the proceeding. Indeed, the story requires us to believe that governmental authorities outside of Shinn Corners in fact agree to step back and leave the town to its own devices in order to forestall mob violence. The attempts to explain away this citadel isolation of Shinn Corners -- largely that the town has become a mob that threatens any outside authority that attempts to intrude -- is simply not credible.  When would this ever occur in such a setting?
   
       What police force, what State government, would back down in such a situation? In effect, Dannay and Lee ask us, the readers, to buy into a thinly concocted premise, since that premise is necessary in order for elements of the story to work. But the leap of faith, at least for me, is too great. All I can do is roll my eyes. The premise fails the “semblance of truth” requirement for suspending disbelief. 

       Sadly, this flaw in the mystery spoils the whole endeavor for some, myself included. And it needn’t have. All the plot needed was a better “semblance.” Queen did this well, for example, in The Siamese Twin Mystery, where the setting is necessarily isolated from the rest of the world by a forest fire. That provides enough of a semblance of truth for us to suspend disbelief and proceed with the novel. So, too, in And on the Eighth Day it is not difficult to accept the premise that the town of Quenan is geographically (and historically) isolated from the rest of the world for a reason, again, necessary to the story. 

       Could Queen have provided a better “semblance of truth” in The Glass Village? Well, clearly. Stephen King did so in his miniseries Storm of the Century, in which a town, located on a remote island off of the Maine coast, is isolated from the mainland by a believable storm. And there are models for Glass Village-like seclusion in the real world -- towns located on islands off the coast of England, for example, that are inaccessible for months during winter, or Smith and Tangiers Islands located in our own Chesapeake Bay. Constructing such a locale, and then using it as the setting for The Glass Village could have provided that “semblance of truth” and thereby saved countless rolling eyes. 

     Many, including my friend, Queen scholar and emeritus law professor Francis Nevins, profess to have been able to move past this credibility stumbling block in The Glass Village without grumblings, and have praised the rest of the work as a very superior mystery. And I recognize their point -- the character development and cluing are fine; the narrative otherwise sparkles. But for me, that is still a pretty significant “otherwise.” Some things I can take on faith. But for a mystery to work, I need a reasoned basis to stay on board the ship.

       Ahh well. After all of these years I have finally completed The Glass Village. Eyes well exercised from rolling, it is time to move on. 

17 February 2014

To Suspend or Not To Suspend?

by Fran Rizer

                    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
Terrorist

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!