About Suspension of Disbelief

For a Fantasy or science fiction there needs to be some sort of suspension of disbelief for the story to work. This occurs with other genres as well. Sometimes this is intentional by the author as they try to set up some grandiose situation. Mysteries and Science Fiction stories often try to reconcile with the audience by explaining why something seemed unbelievable. Other stories including fantasy base their entire premise on something being unbelievable.

The Situation
Let’s pretend the scenario is someone ends up traveling through time. They land there not knowing where they are, only know that it isn’t where they were previously.

How Different Genres Handle It
Let’s start with the most obvious genre this would pertain to, Science Fiction. Our time traveling agent arrives in the future, because the machine works. We go forward exploring what is going on in the new time period. The story isn’t about the fact that they actually time traveled, but what the new time has in store. We suspend our belief with the initial jump. It is explained away by whatever machine the time traveler uses. It is advanced technology, so we assume it is acceptable. Our disbelief is now quelled and while we may still have questions, we can move forward. Doctor Who is a great example of the Science Fiction suspension of disbelief. The Doctor is an alien, we accept that he comes to Earth. We also accept that he can travel through both space and time with the TARDIS. The stories in Doctor Who, are often about the people and the science fiction elements help us propel through the story. We accept those elements so we can enjoy the story.

A mystery will handle a time traveler very differently. Instead of the story being about a different time, the story would likely be about why the time traveler is there at all. They would be searching for an answer trying to explain their presence there. In a way, we allow our disbelief to continue so we can solve it and resolve our disbelief. Essentially, it is a journey to stabilize us in reality again.

A magical realism story may entirely ignore that the time traveler even jumped through time. To the people in that world, time traveling may not be an outrageous idea. This is partially because the actual story lies elsewhere. Placing importance on the time traveling aspect would detract from the story. As a result, we need to suspend our disbelief of how the people are reacting to time traveling. We know it would be an extraordinary situation, but we can’t treat it as such. A good magical realism, would downplay the time travel greatly so it wouldn’t be brought to mind, except when necessary.

Then there are Fantasy stories. In those stories, there stands a good chance that the way the time traveler will never be fully understood. Instead, we may get a reason that causes us to extend our disbelief even further. A Fantasy by it’s nature wants us to suspend our disbelief and just go with the story at hand. I hate to bring up Sleepy Hollow yet again, but it’s a good example. In the pilot, Ichabod wakes up in 2013, after dying in 1775 (ish). We are never given a solid explanation like a science fiction would, we aren’t searching for an answer like a mystery, and we certainly aren’t just pretending it didn’t happen. Instead, it is ignored for a bit and then given a supernatural explanation involving witches. Instead of gaining any sort of answer, realistic or not, we are posed with more questions. But the questions are posed in a way that we are simply supposed to believe.

How to Make Suspension of Disbelief Work
Ground your story. It really is that simple. If you have elements of a story that are outlandish, hard to believe, or difficult for people to wrap their heads around, you need to ground your story. By that I mean for each unstable element you need a stable element, preferably two. If the audience can relate to the story in some way and feel grounded, the audience will be more willing to suspend their disbelief. If everything thing in your story is unbelievable, it becomes harder for an audience to believe anything. I think establishing the characters as believable is the most important. Characters need to do what makes sense to their personality.

How willing are you to suspend your disbelief?

4 thoughts on “About Suspension of Disbelief

  1. As you say, it depends a lot on the genre. If it’s supposedly a realistic story, I’m a lot more critical and a lot less willing to suspend disbelief. And it also depends on how corny the thing is. I tried reading the first Outlander book. The time travel didn’t bother me. But little annoying things began to pile up, and by the time the Loch Ness monster appeared, I was done. That was just too big a breach of reality (pun intended) for me to swallow.

    • There is a fine line each genre establishes. Once it is crossed there is no going back, even if a rational explanation can be provided. In which cases, I think a way to combat crossing the line is dole out some of the rationalization before the event.

  2. Yeah, I’m dealing with that right now. I’m writing a historical set in ancient Babylon so am researching that period big time and using what I find to keep it real. Problem is I’ve also found some indicators that there was a kind of huge sea serpent that apparently roamed the ocean and I’d love to include it. Just not sure readers won’t say, ‘hey that’s not historically accurate!’

  3. Pingback: About September 2013 Roundup | So, I pondered...

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