9/13/13 – SUSPENDING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the expression “willing suspension of disbelief.” Suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing. It allows us to enjoy and accept premises in our reading that we might never believe otherwise. As originally conceived, it was the author’s job to inject enough impression of truth into an unrealistic tale that a reader could suspend judgment of the improbability of the story. But over time the responsibility has shifted from how well an author creates a fictional world to how willing a reader is to lose herself in it. In short, the onus falls on readers to believe.
In general, readers are good at that. Parallel universes, ghosts, an alien or two – no problem. If the dog talks or the nice couple next door happens to be immortal, well, we’re okay with that, too. Paradoxically, the wider the gap between fiction and our normal touchpoints, the easier it is to suspend disbelief. It’s when fictional plots lose their fantastical elements and feel closer to “real life” that it often becomes harder to accept a character reaction or unforeseen plot twist.
Yet even this leap is becoming easier. In a world full of instant communication and constant media input, our definition of everyday believability is broadening. It’s harder to say “that could never happen” in fiction when so many potentially implausible stories reach us through our various news feeds.
Can you tell which of the plot pairs below is fact and which is fiction? (Answers below)
1. Identical twin sisters celebrate their 75th birthday on the 100th birthday of their father. The elderly twins are given twin babies to raise.
Identical twin sisters meet identical twin brothers at a Twin Day festival in Twinsburg, Ohio and marry in a double wedding. One couple has identical twin children.
2. The rightful heir to the British throne is the son of a forklift driver in Australia.
The rightful heir to the British throne is a girl who grew up in Ohio.
3. A horse owned by a young boy is sold to the military during war time. Under enemy fire, the horse repeatedly delivers ammo to the front lines and is awarded several medals, including two Purple Hearts and a Good Conduct medal.
A horse owned by a young boy is sold to the military during war time. Against all odds, the horse survives while dragging heavy artillery and carrying wounded soldiers from battle as his owner searches to bring him home.
It’s not hard to suspend disbelief when more and more, the news stories that reach us resemble the fiction we read.
Of course, this doesn’t let authors off the hook. Characters still need to be well-drawn and act in credible ways. Situations – however odd – must feel organic and uncontrived. A story needs to make sense on an emotional level if a reader is to invest in it. But we may be reaching a point where the fiction we read feels more believable than fact.
What happens to the suspension of disbelief in fiction when there’s no longer any disbelief to suspend? Does it become unnecessary? Obsolete? Or does it simply jump the tracks to nonfiction, where we roll our eyes at the implausibility of reality TV shows and ballerina dogs on Youtube while letting out an exasperated, “That’s really stupid. I don’t believe it.”
ANSWERS: 1. first: Wise Children, by Angela Carter; second: see Diane and Darlene Nettemeier
2. first: see Michael Abney-Hastings; second: Her Majesty, Grace Jones by Jane Langton
3. first: see Sergeant Reckless; second: War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo