Some movies will make me shout “I don’t believe it! This is just too stupid.” out loud. In some ways, that’s a strange remark. Because, really, all movies are unrealistic, unless I’m watching a documentary. But some movies seem more unrealistic than others.
There are people who take soap operas too seriously, and those who swear the bible is 100% true, but most people know that fiction is… fiction.
Still, when we watch a movie like Dune, or a show like the Wheel of Time, we don’t sit around thinking ‘this is BS’. Well, most of us. Some people do, of course, and fantasy and scifi is not for them. But, even for down-to-earth shows like CSI, we know that things don’t really work in real life like they do in the show.
So, suspension of disbelief is the ability of the reader or watcher to overcome the fact that what they’re seeing is not possible. The term ‘suspension of disbelief’ was coined by Coleridge in 1817. You may know him from the fantasy poem ‘the Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. In essence, our minds suspend looking at the story world too closely. We don’t disbelieve what is happening, even if we know on some level that what’s happening is unbelievable.
How suspension of disbelief works
There are several wires in our brain that allow it do suspension of disbelief. Basically, one part of our brain knows we’re in our comfy living room or in a theater. We don’t have to intervene in events. We don’t have to run for cover to escape the monster, or fight the bad guy ourselves. On another level, our brain processes the story as if it were really happening to us. In fact, research shows that imagining certain things involves the actual areas of the brain that execute those things in reality. In other words, if you see the hero draw a gun, that activates parts of your brain associated with you drawing a gun. Only the ‘actually-do-it’ break in our brain is engaged.
That suspension doesn’t come for free, though. Books and movies are hypnotic, but only if they are done well. The wrong turns of phrases or unexpected scene cuts can jar you out of the dream. The crux of what writers and directors try to achieve: suspension of disbelief.
There are a number of tricks that can help achieve that.
Smoke, mirrors, and details
In scifi, and fantasy, we have to really work on making the world believable. A crime show can be set in a real place on Earth, but a scifi show could be set in a fictional future. To make that believable, it has to be rooted in things we know. We are willing to believe that humans will develop faster-than-light travel, because we’ve been developing ever more advanced modes of transportation for millennia.
On top of that core of realism, we need to add consistency, and details. A lot of the fakery we add to stories is really a form of magic. But like Brandon Sanderson said, it needs rules. A storyteller needs to set up those rules clearly, then stick to them. Break them, and you’ve got a deus ex machina. For example, you cannot have travel between stars take a month at one points in the story, then two days at another point, unless you explain that. Mistakes like that can knock a reader/view out of their suspension of disbelief.
Details are also important. Preferably details about your fictional world that don’t contradict what we know. If you have a mechanic living with your FTL drive and describe her meticulously tightening bolts and exchanging manifolds or faulty wiring, we’ll more easily believe the FTL drive, than if it’s a black box sitting in the middle of the bridge. And yes, that’s a Firefly shout-out.
Engaging characters also help to sell the world. You ever stop to wonder what kind of BS Sherlock Holmes is peddling? Or why a peaceful society without money has a military-style navy, like the Federation in Star Trek?
Probably not, because you were sucked in by Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance (or Robert Downey Junior’s). You could only cheer as Commander Data shouted ‘assimilate this!’ at the Borg — yeah, First Contact is one of my favorite movies.
Characters that we can identify with sell a story. We feel like we know them, and we’re so busy thinking about them and their problems that we don’t stop to consider all the bullshit happening around them. A good story sells the emotions characters are feeling, making us feel those emotions with them. And feeling those emotions is also what makes the story work, even as it blinds us to all the weird stuff we’re seeing.
Finally, pacing in stories is very important for suspension of disbelief. If the story goes too fast, readers or viewers will be overloaded, and the story has to gloss over details that help sell the world. If the story goes too slow, readers and viewers will have time to think, and they might start to see through the mystique.
It’s important to note that pacing is not ‘how many action scenes can I crank in there’. Pacing is how fast things happen in the story, but those things need not be car chases. A conversation between characters can be as exciting as a car chase — go see some Quentin Tarantino movies for reference. Two characters bonding over repairing a hyperdrive can be thrilling (Yes, that’s a Star Wars reference).
In short, pacing sells the world too. One of the reasons I have trouble with open-world video games is that they wreck pacing, meaning I have a harder time suspending my disbelief.
Crime shows and reality TV
Now you may think that crime shows and reality TV don’t need suspension of disbelief. Well, like I wrote above, they do need that.
They used to have Naked and Afraid re-running at the gym I frequented before Covid, and that requires some staunch suspension of disbelief. The show is about naked people dropped in a hostile environment and having to survive for days. Of course, they’re dropped in a hostile environment with a camera crew. And it wouldn’t surprise me if there were resorts and gas stations just off screen. All those reality shows are faked to some degree, and I actually find it harder to suspend my disbelief.
For crime shows, or dramas, or even comedies, it’s even harder. How many people commented on the cast of Friends constantly having time to hang out at a coffee shop, or in their homes. Did they not work? And a crime show set in New York has to get New York details right. And getting details about a real environment right is sometimes harder than getting them right for a fictional scifi setting. Because in a real-world setting, people actually live there, and they know what it looks like.
Suspension of Disbelief is an important mechanic in writing, and it’s also a complicated one. Unfortunately, if you know the mechanics, you will start seeing the smoke and mirrors more clearly. And that makes you jump up sooner and shout “I don’t believe it! This is just too stupid”
Sorry to ruin movies and books for you, but you’ll appreciate the true gems even more.