Suspension of Disbelief

master of disguise by hillary white

Suspension of disbelief is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literary works of fiction. It was put forth in English by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Cognitive estrangement in fiction involves using a person’s ignorance or lack of knowledge to promote suspension of disbelief.

The phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the onus was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. It might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. These fictional premises may also lend to the engagement of the mind and perhaps proposition of thoughts, ideas, art and theories.

Coleridge coined the phrase in his ‘Biographia Literaria,’ published in 1817, in the context of the creation and reading of poetry. Chapter XIV describes the preparations with Wordsworth for their revolutionary collaboration ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (1798), for which Coleridge had contributed the more romantic, Gothic pieces including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Poetry and fiction involving the supernatural had gone out of fashion to a large extent in the eighteenth century, in part due to the declining belief in witches and other supernatural agents among the educated classes, who embraced the rational approach to the world offered by the new science. Alexander Pope, notably, felt the need to explain and justify his use of elemental spirits in ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ one of the few English poems of the century that invoked the supernatural. Coleridge wished to revive the use of fantastic elements in poetry. The concept of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ explained how a modern, enlightened audience might continue to enjoy such types of story.

Coleridge recalled: ‘… It was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us …’

The notion of such an action by an audience was however recognized in antiquity, as seen particularly in the Roman theoretical concerns of Horace, who also lived in an age of increasing skepticism about the supernatural, in his ‘Ars Poetica.’ Suspension of disbelief is sometimes said to be an essential component of live theater, where it was recognized by Shakespeare, who refers to it in the Prologue to ‘Henry V’: ‘…make imaginary puissant […] ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings …turning accomplishment of many years into an hourglass.’

According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient for any kind of storytelling. With any film, the viewer has to ignore the reality that they are viewing a two-dimensional moving image on a screen and temporarily accept it as reality in order to be entertained. Black & White films provide an obvious early example that audiences are willing to suspend disbelief, no matter how ‘unreal’ the images appear, for the sake of entertainment. With the exception of color-blind people, no one viewing these films sees the real world without color, but they are still willing to suspend disbelief and accept the images in order to be entertained.

Most see the enjoyment of many B-grade science fiction films and television series such as the early series of ‘Doctor Who,’ where the audience willingly ignores low-budget ‘cheesy’ props and occasional plot holes, in order to engage fully with the story — which may be the more so for those additions to its inherent outrageousness. A counterpoint to ‘bad special effects’ would be the ‘gratuitous special effects’ which have become common in recent films. Special effects have become inexpensive enough that filmmakers will insert special effects laden scenes into a film which are not important to the storyline, creating a plot hole in the process. When this happens, the filmmakers’ quest to entertain with more and better special effects is thwarted, as the plot hole created breaks the suspension of disbelief. ‘Bad special effects’ which are integral to a story will be accepted by an audience willing to suspend disbelief, whereas good (even great) ‘gratuitous special effects’ will not.

Suspension of disbelief is also supposed to be essential for the enjoyment of many movies and TV shows involving complex stunts, special effects, and seemingly ‘unrealistic’ plots, characterizations, etc. The theory professes to explain why a subset of action movie fans are willing to accept the idea that the good guy can get away with shooting guns in public places (without getting in trouble with the local law-enforcement himself), or never running out of ammunition, or that cars will explode with a well-placed shot to the gas tank.

Suspension of disbelief is also needed when a character is not supposed to age over the course of a series (because of being a Vampire or be eternal/immortal because of some quirk/trait/power of the character) but the actor eventually does, or vice versa.

In the three CSI series, it is frequently implied that forensic test results are received immediately after said tests are performed; since in reality, it can take several months to get results back, it is inconvenient to the plots to show the necessary waiting period. To advance the plot, a suspension of disbelief is necessary, and viewers must accept that the waiting period has passed or that there is no waiting period to begin with.

One contemporary example of suspension of disbelief is the audience’s acceptance that Superman hides his identity from the world by simply donning a pair of glasses, conservative clothing, and acting in a ‘mild-mannered’ fashion. Not only is the disguise so thin as to be ridiculous, but also in the TV series, ‘Adventures of Superman,’ this absurdity was carried to an extreme. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen constantly suspected Clark Kent of being Superman, yet when obvious evidence was right in their faces — such as times when Clark was missing his glasses — they never saw the resemblance. Creators Noel Neill and Jack Larson said their standard answer when questioned about this was, ‘We wanted to keep our jobs!’

Some find it strange that while some audience members took issue with the flimsiness of Superman’s disguise, they didn’t take issue with the idea of the existence of a superbeing whose only weakness was kryptonite. One arguing from the theory of suspension of disbelief would contend that while Superman’s abilities and vulnerabilities are the foundational premises the audience accepted as their part of the initial deal; they did not accept a persistent inability for otherwise normal characters to recognize a close colleague solely because of minor changes in clothing.

Another major example of suspended disbelief was ‘The Flintstones’ cartoon series. The characters have televisions, cars, telephones, and various appliances that would be powered by electricity in modern society, but since the show was set in ‘prehistoric’ times – electricity could not have been mastered, and especially not used. The ‘prehistoric’ characters were even shown to celebrate Christmas and travel into the future.

Gary Larson discussed the question with regard to his comic strip, ‘The Far Side’; he noted that readers wrote him to complain that a male mosquito referred to his ‘job’ sucking blood when it is in fact the females that drain blood, but that the same readers accepted that the mosquitoes (in ‘fact’) live in houses, wear clothes, and speak English.

Comic book universes such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics typically feature set groups of prominent characters who do not age visibly and also become embroiled in many epic adventures over the course of their perpetual careers. Most true epic stories involve one defining event and permanent growth or change for characters along with a definite beginning, middle, and end to their stories. Such closure realistically leaves no room for characters to have further adventures, even if they are still alive at the end of the story. Conversely, comic book characters usually return to their status quo upon the conclusion of each story arc.

Video games are also said to require suspension of disbelief. Often realism is compromised even in games that set out to be realistic, either intentionally to not overly complicate game mechanics or due to technical limitations. Some games based on Spider-Man have the comic hero swinging around a city with his webs sticking to nothing but the sky. Other video games feature instant death upon falling into water instead of giving the player a chance to swim out before drowning. In an opposite turn, some games show falling into water from great height is completely safe when in reality the surface tension would be lethal.

Another example where suspended disbelief is said to be necessary is kayfabe professional wrestling. The characters (that is, the professional wrestlers) somehow manage to keep their violent exchanges to the confines of the wrestling arena. They do not follow each other home, assault each other between TV episodes, or bring guns to the ring and shoot each other if they are losing a match, etc.

A further example is that of the use of sound in films, games and TV. Music is present in most movies, shows and games, for the purpose of enhancing the viewer’s experience. In reality, no music would play without a source, such as a radio or people playing instruments. In most films that incorporate an outer-space setting, such as ‘Star Wars,’ engine and gunfire sounds caused by spacecraft can be heard despite the fact that sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space. Such sound effects are often vital for creating the atmosphere of a scene, such as space battles.

Many instances where suspension of disbelief is required are not due to elements which transcend laws of science of physics. They may be purely psychological elements based on history, culture, and human nature. For example. In many children’s adventure tales, adults are often invariably depicted as less competent in order to provide an opportunity for the underage main characters to accomplish heroic deeds.

The movie Spaceballs also has a classic reference where the actors literally address the audience during the beginnings of the movie as the plot is explained. Making a joke of ‘suspension disbelief’ by suggesting the entire plot line in the beginnings of the movie and then turning to the camera directly and saying ‘Everybody get that?’ and in effect suggesting the audience is ‘along for the ride now’ and will accept anything that occurs in the movie from here on-in. There is also a reference made in ‘Austin Powers Two’ in relation to time travel where the dynamics are quickly criticized and worked out to be impossible to occur as Austin may engage his future self, the issue is solved simply through suspension disbelief via the audience being directly addressed and told to just accept the fact that this is fantasy and not at all in reality.

These examples can be seen as breaking the fourth wall, in the sense that the film blatantly admits to the viewer that it is a work of fiction where the narrative principle of suspension of disbelief is used (by the writer) and required (by the viewer). Of course, at first such an action creates disbelief rather than suspending it, but paradoxically it may actually inspire the viewer to immerse themself in the narrative premise of the story.

Suspension of disbelief has also been used within a mental health context by Frank DeFulgentis in his book ‘Flux.’ It is an attempt to describe the phenomenon of forgetting irrational thoughts associated with cases of OCD. In the book, the author suggests ‘suspending disbelief’ as opposed to forcing ourselves to forget; similar to how one would put a virus in quarantine. We can thereby allow ourselves to be absorbed in the activities around us until these irrationalities vanish on their own accord.

As in the examples of Superman’s powers and Gary Larson’s cartoon, it is unclear that suspension of disbelief correctly describes an audience’s perception of art. If the theory were to be true, the individual events of suspension would appear to be highly selective. It would appear that one chooses to suspend disbelief for the ability to fly, but not to suspend it for myopic co-workers.

Aesthetic philosophers generally reject claims that suspension of disbelief accurately characterizes the relationship between people and ‘fictions.’ Kendall Walton notes that, if viewers were to truly suspend disbelief at a horror movie and accept its images as true, they would have a true-to-life set of reactions. For instance, audience members would cry out, ‘Look behind you!’ to an endangered on-screen character or call the police when they witnessed an on-screen murder.

However, many of these criticisms simply fail to notice that Coleridge’s original statement came in a restrictive clause. The formulation ‘…that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith,’ of necessity implies that there are different sorts of suspension of disbelief and specifies that poetic faith is one instance of a larger class. One need not choose to believe that a character in a horror film is a real person in order, for example, to choose to believe that the character is looking at the building seen in the following reverse-shot. More often than not, both beliefs would be equally false.

Not all authors believe that suspension of the disbelief adequately characterizes the audience’s relationship to imaginative works of art. J. R. R. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ choosing instead the paradigm of secondary belief based on inner consistency of reality. Tolkien says that, in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world. By focusing on creating an internally consistent fictional world, the author makes secondary belief possible. Tolkien argues that suspension of disbelief is only necessary when the work has failed to create secondary belief. From that point the spell is broken, and the reader ceases to be immersed in the story and must make a conscious effort to suspend disbelief or else give up on it entirely.

One problem the theory suggests is apparent in characters’ self-awareness — when a character addresses the audience directly or otherwise realizes that he is a character in a work of fiction. This action would seem to challenge the audience’s suspension of disbelief, which would according to the theory make the audience unable to enjoy the fiction. But in fact, self-referential moments do sometimes entertain audiences.

Suspension of disbelief can also become problematic for long-running series and franchises with a well-known fictional world, wherein the geography, chronology and dramatis personae (and even natural laws) are established and remain internally consistent across multiple episodes, and even multiple programs (for instance, in spinoffs). This is really a very strong form of suspension of disbelief, particularly common in science fiction and gaming, where dedicated fans of the franchise immerse themselves in the fictional world to an exceptional degree.

When this happens, several problems can occur: When such franchises indulge in crossovers, where characters or events from one series appear, or are even just acknowledged to exist, in another, there is potential for mistakes, leading to inconsistencies in one or both fictional worlds. For instance, a character in one series might have previously referred to characters in another as being fictional, then have to interact with one of those characters in a crossover appearance. The phenomenon is not only seen in TV and film but also in Gaming, where it is known as canon-puncturing.

Inconsistencies or plot holes that violate the premises, plot-lines or chronology of the established canon can be viewed as breaking the so-called ‘Suspension of Disbelief Agreement.’ For particularly loyal fans, these lapses can be deeply resented.

The novels of Bret Easton Ellis toy with disrupting a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. For example, in ‘Glamorama’ (1998), the character Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale in the then-forthcoming film ‘American Psycho’) appears, as does the actor Christian Bale and a character who is repeatedly described as looking identical to him. Later, this character Russell imitates Christian Bale perfectly in order to escape a difficult encounter, leaving narrator Victor Ward wondering whether he had in fact been Bale.

In many long running adventure series, the main characters progress in age, rank, status and prestige, yet continue to perform activities that are more suitable to younger, lower ranking characters of lesser importance. This trend is seen in many space opera franchises, especially those in which the characters are part of a quasi-military organization. Frequently, the main characters, despite achieving legendary status and promotions to higher ranks of leadership and responsibility, often find excuses to become embroiled in exciting adventures. This is in sharp contrast to reality where senior officers are supposed to remain behind the front lines out of danger and act as instructors, administrators, strategists and issue orders to lower ranking personnel.

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