Throwback Thursday: How to Help Your Audience Suspend Disbelief
First published 03/02/2019
Before I begin, let me ask you a question: what is the hardest thing to believe about Superman? Is it the fact he can fly, deflect bullets and shoot heat rays from eyes? Is it the fact he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than… you know? Or is it something else?
As you may be aware, if you’ve been following this blog regularly, I’m cooking up an original superhero story, which I plan to publish in regular instalments here on Penstricken. Now all writing has its challenges, but if there is one thing that I’ve found difficult to get right with this particular story, it is the willing suspension of disbelief.
‘The willing suspension of disbelief?’ I hear you cry. ‘What the heck is that?’
I’m glad you asked. Basically, whenever an audience sits down to read a book or watch a play, they make a subconscious decision to accept the truthfulness of what is happening despite knowing it to be a work of fiction. If the audience does not suspend their disbelief, they will never be able to enjoy the story, because they’ll spend the whole time pointing out all the obvious contrived and plain ridiculous elements that are required to make a good story. While it is ultimately something the audience can decide to do or not to do, you as the writer have a responsibility to write a story which makes it easy for the audience to suspend their disbelief.
Does this mean magic, goblins and (in my case) superheroes are out? Certainly not. People have been telling stories about magic, goblins and yes, even super-powered humans doing incredible things since ancient times. If the current trend in Marvel and DC films is anything to go by, humanity’s taste for the impossible has not dwindled much in the last few millennia. It’s also true that there are plenty of non-fantasy/speculative stories which can utterly fail to inspire the willing suspension of disbelief. The issue is not one of what is possible. The issue is of what is likely.
The hardest thing to believe about Superman isn’t the fact he comes from another planet, nor is it the fact he has incredible powers. Those things are perfectly acceptable within the rules of the Superman universe. The most ridiculous thing about Superman* is the fact that Lois Lane (and everyone else) is actually fooled by a pair of glasses. I started wearing glasses for the first time back in 2014, and when I went into work the next day my colleagues didn’t all demand to see my ID badge, nor did my boss phone me up and ask me why I wasn’t at work. They knew it was me. That’s because glasses really don’t obscure a face that well.
But as much as everybody loves you there is one question that keeps coming up: “How dumb was she?” Here, I’ll show you what I mean. Look (puts glasses on). I’m Clark Kent (glasses off). No, I’m Superman (glasses on). Mild-mannered reporter (glasses off). Superhero. Hello? Clark Kent is Superman. Well, that was worth the whole trip. To actually meet the most galactically stupid woman who ever lived.
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, s. 2 ep. 18 ‘Tempus Fugitive’Source: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=lois-and-clark-the-new-adventures-of-superman&episode=s02e18 (parentheses mine)
At this point, there is something very important to point out: in order to function, almost every story you ever write will feature a little unlikely element here or there. That’s okay, as long as you don’t push the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief too far. Think of these things like using selloptape to wrap a Christmas present. You need a little, but too much spoils the whole thing. The audience will put up with one very small ‘oh come on, that wouldn’t happen!’ moment provided it helps your story along and isn’t the beating heart of your story in and of itself. For instance, Superman wouldn’t work without the glasses ‘disguise’, but its not fundamental to who he is or what he does. It’s just a simple trick to allow him to lead a double life and it’s unobtrusive enough for the audience to forgive, assuming the audience wants to enjoy the story (a determined audience can and will find the joins in even the most perfect stories; don’t let them get you down).
Having said all of that, you still need to take care when you are constructing fantastic elements for your story too. You can’t just have a dragon pop up and save the day in the last few pages of your story when previously you had no dragons. You can make your fantasy world as ridiculous and as imaginative as you like (have you read The Colour of Magic?) but there are still a few important things to remember if you want the audience to fully suspend their disbelief. I’ll rattle through them quickly.
Every fantasy world has rules. These can be almost anything you want, but you can’t deviate from the rules of your fantasy world any more than you can deviate from the laws of physics in real life.
Consider your genre and your audience. You’ll get away with elves in a fantasy. You won’t get away with them so easily in a space opera. Your audience will almost certainly approach your story with certain expectations, so think long and hard before you deviate from them.
Foreshadow. Don’t introduce fantastic elements as and when they’re needed. If Superman only flew when he had a missile to catch but got the train everywhere else, we would find this sudden introduction in the story’s climax a little jarring (might even read like a deus ex machina). If he can fly, he can fly– so let him fly! Don’t have him climbing ladders to change light-bulbs. He can fly! He’s not going to forget he can fly!
Avoid making things too easy for your characters. Whether it’s a personal code of morality, a price for casting magic or some other Achilles heel, if all your hero has to do is snap his fingers and save the day with his powers, you’ll have created an anticlimax. Nothing in life is ever as easy as simply magicking your problems away, and no matter how much your audience might enjoy magic or reversing the polarity, a good story reflects this. Your hero has to face a challenge to overcome using their head, their heart and their hands. There’s a reason Superman always winds up a cage made of Kryptonite. The bit where he escapes the Kryptonite using nothing more than his wits, his natural human strength and his burning passion to save the day is always more satisfying than the bit immediately after where he catches and disarms the missile in midair and actually serves to make the final ‘magical’ rescue all the more exciting.
*Okay, there’s also the fact of his impeccable moral purity, but that’s a deeper issue of character writing that I’ll talk about some other time. In fact, I already have.
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