Realism and Suspension of Disbelief

I mentioned in the last post that I was going to be writing a bit more about how suspension of disbelief tends towards realism. I have about six thoughts on this and I’m going to try and put most of them down in some coherent manner.

It’s something I come across a lot, where people who want to give instructions on how to improve suspension of disbelief often give mostly advice on how to come across as more realistic (avoiding glaring physics errors and so forth). It’s a common complaint that a lot of the standard fantasy tropes from 80s epic fantasy (such as the horses that seem to be able to gallop all day without rest or feeding, and untrained teenagers wielding swords more than half their size for unrealistic amounts of time) throw the readers out of the story.

This is true – it’s one of the things that will definitely throw people out of the story. I’m one of those people – because I can be a snob like that.

But the reason, I think, that it throws people out of the story is not because physics is particularly important to readers. Some of them, obviously, will care more about physics than others, but usually there’s an unspoken rule going into a lot of stories that physics will be suspended for the purpose of the story. Two things I’d like to clarify about this – first that I’m using ‘physics’ here as an example, but this can all also apply to any of the ‘basic common sense things’ – also including biology, anatomy, animal behaviour, any of the things that work illogically in stories for the sake of the plot and/or because of genre tropes. The second is that here is where I would usually put in a disclaimer that it’s mostly genre fiction that I’m talking about, but honestly for this one there are a lot of genre fiction (for want of a better word) genres that are more likely to obey rules of reality and physics than a lot of literary fiction, which likes to use its supernatural elements to make symbolic points. So this one definitely isn’t just about genre fiction.

Back to my original point: the reason that, say, a horse that remains saddled overnight and somehow manages to get a restful night’s sleep is rejected by the reader isn’t because the book has created an expectation of strict adherence to reality’s rules – after all, these are books that also often include magic, flying people, immortal beings and all the tropes of epic sword fights that seem to perpetuate, but don’t seem to get quite the same bad rap as some other tropes do. As the people who make me twitch say, “Why are you worrying about the horses in a story with magical unicorns?”

The problem is not, here that there is a deviation from primary world reality (or, the reality that exists in the world of the reader, rather than the world of the book), but the fact that there are certain breaks from reality that the author has promised us: We are going into the book with the knowledge that magic is going to happen, or that there are unicorns going to be present, and provided that nothing happens to cause us to question that reality, suspension of disbelief is upheld.

So this brings us to the question of what exactly breaks suspension of disbelief? If it’s not breaks from reality, then what is it?

Provided you’re the sort of person who likes to consume media that requires suspension of disbelief (and there are people who don’t like that, and obviously this answer is going to be different for them), suspension of disbelief is upheld by consistency. The reader doesn’t mind being expected to belief in the unicorn, because they were informed that unicorns would be present. Provided that the author doesn’t contradict themselves on what unicorns can and cannot do, and how they behave as animals (or characters, depending on your unicorns), the reader will maintain suspension of disbelief and everything will be fine. But the instant the writer changes the rules – suddenly introduces an unforeshadowed ability, or an element of unicorn society that contradicts what we know of unicorns and what they’ve done before, then we lose suspension of disbelief, and the story is the worse for it.

We reject the horse, then, because the story has promised us horses that work as they do in our reality. They look the same, they behave the same, they are used for the same tasks. Then, the writer contradicts what we know of real life horses, and it’s as if they suddenly and without foreshadowing revealed that horses can fly in this world in the last three quarters of the novel. The horse does something different to what we know of horses, and that is what breaks suspension of disbelief.

Here is the problem: There are stories that run on, to borrow a phrase from Brandon Sanderson, a system of wonder – that is, they run on the idea that magic is not understandable and cannot be understood, and will not work according to normal rules of physics. This is somewhat like the Lord of the Rings system. How powerful is Gandalf? What does he have spells for? Nobody knows until he uses them as they’re needed in the plot. Recently, there’s been a much greater trend towards what TV Tropes terms “Magic A is Magic A” systems, where magic works in certain ways for certain reasons (that the reader is privy to), and always works in those ways for those reasons. But that doesn’t mean that Wonder systems aren’t viable, or don’t make for good stories. It just means they’re out of fashion at the moment. But suspension of disbelief rules would apply much differently for those – and I’m not sure exactly what those parameters would be. I’d like to test it out someday. I’m raised on Magic A is Magic A fiction, so that tends to be what my mind tends to run towards. But of course, there’s always multiple ways to do things, and just because I don’t know the parameters for doing it the other way doesn’t mean that there aren’t any or it isn’t worth figuring out.

If anyone has thoughts, ideas – let me know in the comments. I’d love to spark discussion on this topic.

2 thoughts on “Realism and Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Greetings!

    I’m not used to having to click on the the ‘The Thoughts’ and ‘The Stories’ for the latest updates, so I missed the last blog post ( I think that’s just something I have to get used to – not necessarily a criticism of your redesign, mind you ).

    As such, I’ll just provide my comment on that in this comment ( in addition to my comments on this one, which will follow it ).

    So, regarding the last post – specifically about the Romance Genre. What annoys me about the contemporary perspective on Romance is that it *must* contain those elements you described; two people face obstacles, fall in love and there’s a happy ending. The happy ending is in the definition. Which means any story whose focus is on a romantic relationship between characters but *doesn’t* have a happy ending ( Romeo and Juliet comes to mind ) technically isn’t classified as a Romance story by contemporary convention. Which is so limiting. Imagine if the Horror Genre was defined by an unpleasant ending – imagine what works of horror, like Dracula, you’d be missing out on all because you demanded a very specific ending.

    On the other hand, I also understand that most contemporary readers of Romance aren’t me and are, as I understanding it, specifically looking for engrossing characters and familiar plots ( the many subgenres of Romance notwithstanding ).

    Sorry, but that’s just an annoyance of mine that I had to get off my chest.

    Regarding this post, I’m more on the other side of the fence; I really don’t mind if things are somewhat inconsistent ( the biggest influences on my own writing are the Surreal Horror genre – where things not making sense adds mystery rather than frustration ), however, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t also be annoyed by horses deciding they can suddenly fly without any meaningful explanation or prior implication. I’m just more likely not to care too much if, for instance, they don’t go to the full length of portraying the reality of traveling by horse-back in The Lord of the Rings because I’m more likely to ask “How would this minutiae improve the point of the story?” That is say, will this actually provide some meaningful thematically or character-related resonance, or would it just result in padding because it’s not really all that import to what the story is trying to convey?

    I guess I’m just more forgiving of dropping or ignoring reality if no real case can be made for how important it is to the point of the story ( and I am assuming the story in question has a point ). Having said all that, I do believe internal consistency is generally important, but not always. Even stories which dramatically break from the inner workings of reality are acceptable if those breaks provide an intrigue or twisting of reality that enhance the narrative ( if you haven’t read it yet, google “The Enigma of the Amigara Fault” – it’s a twisted, insane story which, technically speaking, has as many breaks from reality as there are pages. But it’s a good example of what I’m talking about ).

    Inconsistency isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as long as it’s used, like any other technique, with intent ( that is, that you’re actually using it to enhance the narrative, and not using it as a post-facto justification for writing a story that you didn’t put enough effort into ).

    Sorry, I digressed so far that I forgot you were talking about suspension of disbelief. I honestly think that has a lot more to do with emotional attachment to the plot via the characters; that is, with well-written characters who react consistently to weird things in a world, the audience will ( if they connect with the characters ) end up accepting what the characters accept. It’s why, for instance, Discworld can be so damn weird, but so beloved ( and I say that as someone who only knows about Discworld by reputation – its characters are that strong that even I’m familiar with its depiction of death ).

    • You’re very right, and you’ve brought up something that I didn’t mention at all – I do think Surreal genres are exempt from these rules, because they’re working on a different set of base expectations. I still think that it’s important for those genres to set a baseline ‘normal’ from which they can then deviate (even if that’s ‘hey nothing works how you expect it’ then suddenly ‘hey, nothing works how you expect but in a different way this time’), as that’s important for controlling reader experience. But yes, you’re right – there are a lot of genres where inconsistency is expected and welcomed.

      And yes, there’s a bit of wiggle room on this one – there are inconsistencies that you’ll get away with because the readers are enjoying the story and don’t care, some you’ll get away with because the readers don’t notice, and some you’ll get away with because it creates mystery and intrigue (though often, unless as mentioned above, you’re going for surreal, the reader will be expecting you to later make the inconsistency consistent again with an explanation or justification, and they can feel cheated if that doesn’t happen).

      But you are correct – I was mainly thinking about realistic, non-surreal stories which are inconsistent because of oversight or lack of forethought, and there are a lot more reasons to write inconsistently than just those.

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