6 Secrets to Suspension of Disbelief

Posted by : E.v.R. | On : September 14, 2007

There is a group of movies for me that excel so well in their suspension of disbelief that they deserve their own category. It starts with 1987’s Angel Heart, from the novel by William Hjortsberg and screenplay by Alan Parker.

Harry Angel is a private investigator hired by a creepy business man named Louis Cyphre to track down a singer named Johnny Favorite, who owes Cyphre a debt. Without giving the story away, there are plenty of twists and turns, and none of the characters are what they seem.

What I love about this brand of storytelling is the way in which it plays with your mind. If the writer were sitting on the couch next to you, they might cackle with glee as you squirm in your seat at every plot twist and realization.

What would we call this oh-so-special category?

Suspense would probably be the short name for it, but when it comes to writing tricks, a more apt name for this category is Suspension… of Disbelief. This small group of movies excels in exploiting suspension of disbelief through a recognizable set of storytelling tools that, as far as engrossing and immersing the audience, seem to work every single time — if done properly.

Most of us know suspension of disbelief just as the term implies – you suspend your disbelief for the sake of the storytelling. Wikipedia defines the suspension of disbelief as a tacit agreement between the audience and the creator, for the audience to suspend judgment in exchange for entertainment.

An agreement, I like that! It’s as if the audience is shaking hands with the creator. “I won’t give you a hard time about your creation, as long as it’s fun.”

Of course, every agreement has conditions and suspension of disbelief is no different;

“inconsistencies or plot holes that violate the initial premisees, established canon, continuity, or common sense, are often viewed as breaking this agreement.”

Wow, breach of contract clause? Sounds almost like a legal agreement, doesn’t it?

But here’s the catch, and after you’ve thought about it I hope you and I can agree. Every story has plot holes! Every story has violation of the premise upon which the story is founded! Every story has continuity errors, violations of common sense, and things which might break the agreement to suspend disbelief.

So then why do some movies get away with fantastically unrealistic plots and character motivations, while some more down to earth movies are criticized for their shortcomings?

Analyzing a few of the memorable movies in this category, you may start to see a pattern, as in 1998’s Fallen, written by Nicholas Kazan.

Detective John Hobbes sits in at the execution of serial killer Edgar Reese. Soon after, the killings start up again and they are eerily similar to the killings by Reese. But Reese is dead! Or is he? What person or thing is repsonsible?

Legends, Myths, & Unique Mythologies

Where each of these movies succeed is that part of the premise is based on either a real myth or legend, or a unique mythology created specifically for the story — The Blair Witch is an excellent example of this. Unique mythology plays a big role in whether a storyverse (story + universe) works or not. The audience is much more willing to suspend their disbelief if part of the story is told through myths that exist in the worlds inhabited by the characters.

Why? The same reason you’re not checking under the bed two weeks after watching a horror movie. Because you know it’s just a story. This is the clever bit about unique mythology. The characters in your story don’t check under the bed after hearing about the legend of your serial killer because to them it’s, “Just a story!”

Thus through your characters disbelief, the audience is willing to add an extra layer of suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief times two! Double the suspension, double the fun!

The Number 23 is yet another example in the use of even more tools a writer can use to engross the audience through suspension of disbelief.

Walter Sparrow’s wife gives him a thrilling book for his birthday. The problem? Walter quickly becomes obsessed with a character in the story named Fingerling and begins to see similarities between fiction and his own reality. Is he crazy, or is there really a connection?

If you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to find out for yourself! The Number 23 is an excellent example in three of our secrets to suspension of disbelief. They are…

Frame Stories

A frame story is a story within your story. It is sometimes told by a narrator or one of the main characters, but it doesn’t have to be. In The Number 23 the frame story is a novel that Walter Sparrow reads. Pan’s Labyrinth features a rather fantastical frame story, which is the one that Ofelia uncovers from the book the fawn gives her. The frame story makes up an undeniable part of the movie’s appeal.

Why does a frame story help suspend disbelief? For the same reasons myths or legends do, and again — for the reason you’re not checking the closets two weeks after a monster movie. “It’s just a story.” When someone says, “Sit down, and let me tell you a little tale,” you immediately recognize that what you’re about to hear is fiction and so you adjust your attitude accordingly.

If the characters in a story are willing to put aside criticisms and a little bit of their logic so that they can enjoy a tale, then so should you. But what you may not realize as you experience the tale is that the story you’re currently engrossed in is being partly told through a story within the story. You will be extra willing to forgive any snafus because “It’s just a story… within a story!”

In a way, legends about a particular character or thing are just a form of frame story, but they don’t have to be a fully formed story. They can simply be references scattered throughout that the audience picks up on. If the characters keep referring to an event that happened before the story, then the audience will mentally flag that and come to realize it as something significant — if it isn’t buried in subtlety.

Fictional Fictional Characters

Frame stories are even better if there is an iconic character that your heroes identify with, or a larger-than-life villain — characters who live in a hyper reality from that of your heroes and are capable of extraordinary acts. Fingerling from The Number 23 is one example. Atreyu in The Neverending Story is another fic-fic character. Almost all the characters in A Princess Bride are fic-fic characters since the entire movie is a story being told by a grandfather to the grandchild played by actor Fred Savage.

A story without characters would be a dull story indeed, and the same is true for the stories within your stories. So give your fictional fiction, a fictional fictional character.

Unreliable Narrators or Characters

When a narrator says, “Let me tell you a story,” there is the off chance that the character could be lying! Even if the character is not so dramatic as to lie, they could be misinformed, or biased in some way in how they tell the story. This can be used to great effect in the form of a plot twist. When it is not an actual narrator, it can be a character in the story who is missing crucial information, and that information is surprising and dramatic when it is revealed to the audience, as in The Sixth Sense.

In TV shows, where one among many dramatic threads can spread across several seasons, the information the characters have is incomplete on a smaller scale but ‘turned out’ in more regular doses. In a show like 24 or Battlestar Galactica, characters you thought had good intentions turn out to be lying, cheating, stealing, in league with the villains, or simply living in their own skewed interpretation of reality.

There is one more secret to suspension of disbelief that we’re going to tell you. For some writers it may not seem as important a tool as the others, but small doses of it here and there go a long way towards endearing your entertainment franchise in the hearts and minds of your fans.

Fictional Culture, Parodies & Satire

Every good storyverse has its share of fictional culture, parodies, and satire. Consider The Itchy & Scratchy Show from The Simpsons. Or Scientology-like cults in shows like The 4400, or separatist terrorists in Battlestar Galactica. The real world is filled with interesting niches of human society. What are yours? They can be parodies, but they don’t have to be. They can be genuine, straight-faced commentary on the nature of human relationships or the politics of our world.

Fiction inside your fiction can make for a great way to engage the reader on the cheap. Even if the primary thrust of your narrative does not depend on ‘fic-fic,’ your storyverse might be improved using the six secrets to suspension of disbelief.

But wait! What about the sixth secret? I’m going to leave that for you to figure out and share in the comments of this article if you are inspired to do so. Some secrets must be kept, or they wouldn’t be secrets, now would they? Thus proving that I too can sometimes be an unreliable narrator!

Comments (3)

  1. Stace said on 14-09-2007

    This is a very meaty post with good insights useful about suspense in any genre. I am definitely going to chew this one over a while.

    I thik I know what the sixth secret is, but since I’m the first commenter, I’m going to hold off answering. But then, maybe that’s the answer right there…

  2. E.v.R. said on 17-09-2007

    Thanks Stace. I haven’t had the time for more frequent posts, so I decided to make up for it with more meat.

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