After watching a television series about the life of St. Teresa de Jesus, my husband and I viewed the special bonus about the making of the film, in the early 1980s. One scene showed travelers, using conveyances common to the 16th century, moving toward several parked trucks. Another scene showed vehicles parked behind a village facade. An outtake showed St. Teresa speaking, with a contemporary woman standing in the corner. Still another demonstrated how the director coached an actor on his voice inflection on one phrase several times. I thought about how everyone involved was forced to suspend personal disbelief to convey a realistic portrayal of each scene to the viewing audience.
Likewise, as readers, sometimes we must suspend our disbelief to keep engaged in a story. For instance, is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet entirely believable? And unlike Hansel and Gretel, I’ve never found a gingerbread house in a forest.
But we suspend disbelief for one or more reasons, such as:
1.) We value what the author has to say.
2.) We love the writing.
3.) The plot is compelling.
4.) We care about the characters.
However, readers are willing to suspend only a certain amount of disbelief. They might go along with one irregularity or two, but the overarching story must make sense.
And the pretext of the story must hold together. For example, what caused the apocalypse? Why did the mother abandon her children? A sensible pretext helps round out characters and induce readers’ sympathy for them, plus engages them in your story.
Also, the story’s linchpin can’t happen because of a coincidence. A minor coincidence might move the plot along early on, but with the possible exception of comedy, a coincidence that brings everything together usually won’t feel satisfying to the reader.
Even in fantasy, a created world and race of aliens must make sense. Fantasy is a playground for disbelief, but it still must be coherent.
And finally, fiction must be even more plausible than real life. In reality, you may never know why a relationship crumbled, or the real reason someone died. But readers of a novel want to know all the reasons. They want to make sense of your story, and by extension, to make sense of the world.
Have you ever given up on a book when the plot ceased to make sense?
What is the best book you’ve read that asked you to suspend disbelief to enjoy the plot?
What will make you stay with an unrealistic story?
Well, of course, the Narnia series comes to mind. Every time we read those to our children, I believed in a world where animals could talk.
I think you’re right that readers want to make sense of the story. In real life there are so many things we’ll never understand this side of heaven. So in fiction we want answers.
My husband and I watched a show last week where a lady was shot and killed. The good guys took down the shooter at the end, but the heroes concluded they’d never know why the murder took place. What a disappointment.
Thanks for sharing.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Jackie, I think the writers of the show you watched broke the contract they made with their audience. I can relate. In the movie “Cold Comfort Farm” a woman kept saying, “I saw something nasty in the wood shed.” We never learned what it was. Though it wasn’t the crux of the story — and admittedly it was a weird story, in my opinion — I felt disappointed, too. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t want to know what was so nasty! 🙂
As a writer, I find that I can learn a lot by watching the bonus material on DVD’s, especially the commentaries. They can give a wealth of information on pacing and character development.
One key to success is, I think, internal consistency; Star Trek and Star Wars are scientifically goofy, but the writing makes consistent assumptions about their world and technology, and sometimes references them in a coherent way (“We’ve lost gravity on deck ten!”) so that you can accept, say, space not being portrayed as a zero-gee environment.
In the reality of a created world, the writer does have to be careful to avoid elements that can soon become dated, which can demand a difficult prescience. Some of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories have not worn well because our current technology has outstripped his fantasy…and this is fantasy from the 1980s, not the 1950s.
personally, I am pretty tolerant of inconsistencies in SF, but they will turn me off a contemporary or historical very, very quickly.
An example – recent books that involve the controlled-demolition-conspiracy-theory for the destruction of the WTC 1 and 2 towers on 9/11. It’s completely unsupportable from an engineering standpoint, and the hypothesis that covers the actual chain of events is robust.
Even if I like the characters, and the plot is fast-moving…I’ll drop it.
(An exception that perhaps proves the rule is found in Tom Clancy;s work. His command of technical detail was good, but certainly not flawless, but he kept things plausible.)
Interesting point about coincidence. However, As Christian writers, we know that often coincidence is actually divine intervention. So a Christian reader does not have to suspend disbelief to know that God often moves in mysterious ways. What was the old quote? Coincidence is just God choosing to remain anonymous?
Sandy Faye Mauck
I have been accused of being unbelievable in some parts of my WIP. It’s funny because one person calls me on one situation and it is actually the truth-historically. Another catches what sounds to be a modern phrase which goes back centuries. I try to secure every word historically and it amazes me that some things I am certain are “new” will go back to the 14th century.
I personally love Grace Livingston Hill and she had a lot of little unbelievable ditties in her books (especially with love at first sight) but I kept right on reading, happily till the end.