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Suspension of Disbelief

Everyone has the experience at some time.  You’ve read a book or seen a movie that you absolutely loved, and you want to tell the world about your new obsession.  You might even know someone that you’d love to share this new world with.  So you start telling them about the intricate details of the plot and characters and after rambling on and on … and then you see their eyes slowly glaze over. What went wrong?  Often it’s that you had suspended your disbelief in something that sounds too absurd to tell easily.  It makes sense to you, but the retelling leaves you sounding a bit crazy.

This doesn’t just happen with fiction.  A  disconnected world requires a lot of suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is a term invented by Samuel Taylor Colleridge in the 1700s to describe the active role of the reader in fantasy. He realized that fantasy has a unique connection between reader and writer in that the reader has to have some strong interest in bringing a story of fantasy to life.  This is done is through a “human interest and a semblance of truth,” or a bond between reader and writer.

Sci-Fi and fantasy both require this connection.  It’s usually primarily done with an “everyman” character, like Doctor Who’s companion, who exists mainly to ask the dumb questions and give us someone to relate to – they also do a lot of plot exposition.  When combined with a sense that there is a real truth about how humans behave or the universe operates the readers or viewers can be dragged into worlds they never imagined before.

Less obvious is how important this concept is in our supposedly “real” world.  Any entertainer has a persona that their fans have to somehow identify with – if for no other reason than they want to be just like them.  What is it like to be glamorous and powerful and live the good life?  That image has to be carefully crafted to be just far enough apart to suggest there is a burden that any artist supposedly carries, but not so far away that the fans can’t relate to them.

Politics is another area where people are increasingly asked to suspend their disbelief.  The same techniques used to craft a good fantasy can be used to create a political movement that, in the simple telling, may not make a lot of sense.  Increasingly the tribal nature of politics is centered around a mysterious “They” who want to either tell you what you have to do or want destroy civilization as we know it, depending on which side you are on.  Getting people to that point requires a story that includes identifiable characters and some kind of core truth running amok.

Most talk show hosts play the role of the everyman themselves.  They develop the identity with their viewers by asking the questions that people have on their minds while carefully making themselves seem just like anyone else to the extent they can.  Rush Limbaugh is basically a barroom BSer who starts with a simple truth and expounds it into a fantasy slowly, taking his audience into a world that makes sense to them but has actually drifted pretty far from reality when viewed from afar.

How can people get away with this?  The answer is that audiences often don’t know enough about the arcane details of a situation to view government or entertainment as anything but a distant world.  These have to be absorbed the way we relate to fantasy – through characters that bridge the gaps and make a personal connection that allows any reasonable disbelief in how bizarre it is to be set aside.

The concept of suspension of disbelief is very powerful when used by an ethical and skilled writer to highlight basic truths about human nature and human connections.  It’s very dangerous when used by people who cultivate a following that drifts apart from the mainstream and into its own stark vision of what reality must be like.

How do we handle it?  Developing the skills necessary to tell a story are probably the best way to get us past this.  If nothing else, it will make it a lot easier to tell your friends about the kewl new book or show that you absolutely love and they will too – without the eye-glazing effect, that is.

Once you have that skill down the process of suspending disbelief becomes pretty obvious even as you happily drift into it yourself.  But once you know what’s going on, it’s a lot harder for someone to lead you astray into a cult of celebrity worship or a political movement that actually makes no sense.  That’s how storytelling is an increasingly important skill to have in these strange daze.

11 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. I’m not going to suspend any disbelief. BS is still BS, no matter how it’s shown. A good movie is one thing but people need to learn to separate fantasy from fact.

  2. I agree with Jim. You are right that the same techniques are being in politics which are used in movies. But I can tell the difference between the two.

    I think most people can as well. Perhaps they do not know they are being led down a path when they get into some movement or whatever. But I think they know better at least at first.

  3. I liked your last two posts maybe you oughta write a thoughtful book (not a collection of essays). Anyways I too suffer from this mostly cuz I like foreign movies. Really looking forward to Vallahalla and Lourdes if they ever manage to come here.

  4. Jim, Janine, I agree that people should be able to tell the difference, but I fear the lines between fantasy and reality are getting awfully blurry.

    Dan, I’d love to write a book on this. I have a novel to get out first – a big experiment that is more than just telling a story for the internet. After that I promise I’ll think about what to say for non-fiction.

    This is a continuation of my “systemic connections” piece from last year. There’s a whole philosophy at work here, a way of seeing the world. I’m still fascinated by how people are connected to people, ideas, and this wacky thing called “civilization”.

  5. On a related note, I recommend an old essay from Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In it, he explores conspiratorial, paranoid movements including McCarthyism, Anti-Catholicism, Anti-Masons and many more.

    One of his key observations is that whoever the “enemy” is, he becomes an “amoral superman” absolutely without moral inhibition and capable of anything – characters that require a suspension of rationality to believe in. Hofstadter also notes that often the paranoid everyman adopts the very traits of the amoral enemy he/she describes.

  6. Pingback: Character Development « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare

  7. Pingback: A New Way of Writing, A New Way of Exploring Truth — Secrets of the City — Minneapolis + St. Paul

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