How low can you go? Testing suspension of disbelief…

(c) Iain A Wanless
(c) Iain A Wanless

“Suspension of disbelief” was a term first coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, but the concept is as old as narrative itself. Every time we read a book, watch a movie, attend a play, or even play a game we’re suspending our disbelief in order to enjoy it; we allow ourselves to believe that this fictional world and these fictional characters are real. But it’s vital for writers and creators to appreciate that this is not an infinite resource they can exploit.

After all, there are a whole range of occurrences that damage our suspension of disbelief, that chip away at our willingness to stay committed to the narrative. Some of the more common problems that we run across are inconsistenciescoincidences, and  poor character choices.

Inconsistencies are, essentially, flaws or gaps in logic that are noticed while experiencing the narrative and which make us ask ourselves ‘but wait, that doesn’t make sense…’. Now, the problem with that is that in that instant we become consciously aware again that this is just a story and we’re jolted out of the immersive state we were in. Inconsistencies can turn up in the logic of the story world itself, in the actions of the characters or entities in the narrative, or in the plot. And, the bigger the inconsistency, the more likely it is that we’re going to have our willing suspension of disbelief damaged.

One of my favourite logic gaps appears in the movie Independence Day (1996) in which – at the end of the movie – the alien mothership’s shield is brought down by a computer virus (having the aliens defeated by any other kind would have been far too War of the Worlds, after all!) that has been snuck aboard by a plucky Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. And just how was this virus delivered? By connecting an Apple Powerbook to an entirely alien operating system, of course. Now, this being an era when it was often hard enough to get a Mac and a PC to talk to each other, it seems something of an inconsistency for this to have worked (although, admittedly, Independence Day was not in any way short on inconsistencies!).

Coincidences can be defined as ‘a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent casual connection‘. In real life, we see coincidences all the time but in narrative coincidences can be damaging to our suspension of disbelief as we find ourselves asking ‘ah come on, what are the odds of that happening?‘. In real life, things often happens against the odds – people win the lottery, are struck by lightning, and are even killed by meteorites (ok, so that last one looks not to be true) – but in narrative we want there to be more causality on show. In narrative, we need to see that actions have consequences.

A particular type of coincidence, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God from the machine’) occurs when – seemingly when all hope is lost – our characters are saved in the nick of time by something that is entirely out of their control. A fabulous example of this occurs in Jurassic Park (1993) in which are main characters are facing certain doom (having been surrounded by a pack of hungry velociraptors) only to be rescued by the actions of a relatively benign, and remarkably stealthy, Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Finally, poor character choices occur when characters in the narrative make irrational decisions that tend to be necessary for the plot but which cause us to question why on earth the character would make such a stupid decision. The obvious example of this, and one which has been something of a trope within horror fiction, is the classic ‘there’s something weird going on outside this dark cabin in the woods, let’s go outside and investigate’.

Now, the degree to which our suspension of disbelief is affected varies based upon a number of factors; for example, different genres mean that we automatically set ourselves different levels of suspension of disbelief. When we watch a comedy film, we are quite happy to set the bar low and put up with inconsistencies and coincidences – indeed, such aspects can be a vital component of the comedy. When we watch a thriller however, we tend to set the bar a little higher; we expect that the movie will (generally) make sense. It’s also important to point out that while a particular genre may mean we arrive ready to suspend our disbelief to a large extent (for example, to believe in a world in which magic exists and wizards live secretly alongside us muggles), that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be damaged by inconsistencies, coincidences, and poor character choices.

I recently watched The 5th Wave, which inspired me to write this article. Now, from this point on there are some spoilers to that movie so if you don’t want to know anymore than you can stop right here and know that my conclusion to all of this is that we, as writers and creators, should try harder to eliminate these flaws and create more immersive experiences. But, if you’re prepared to live with a few spoilers, and read a fuller conclusion, then read on…

So, The 5th Wave posits a world in which an alien spacecraft arrives in Earth orbit and proceeds, through a series of attacks, to decimate humanity. Firstly, it sends out an electromagnetic pulse that destroys all electronics, then it creates powerful earthquakes that create tidal waves that destroy coastal cities and communities, and it follows this destruction with a genetically modified avian flu that obliterates a huge percentage of the survivors. So far, so good (or bad, if you’re a human).

But the next part of the movie really ramps up the inconsistencies as the aliens (who have the ability to look human) decide to disguise themselves as the US Army, scoop up all the remaining children, and train them to go out and eliminate the last remnants of humanity (although they trick them into believing they are being trained to fight aliens). Now, this – to me – seemed an awful lot of trouble for an alien race to go to; after all, this is an alien race significantly ahead of us in technology as it has been shown to possess interplanetary travel, the ability to create human/alien hybrids, the ability to create natural disasters. Why, in such a situation, go to such extreme lengths? Surely it would be easy enough to use hunter/killer drones to wipe out the last remnants of the human race? Why train children, armed with human technology, when you could be sending out super strength alien/human hybrids (that we’ve already seen exist) armed with destructive weaponry way beyond our ken?

Of course, this would have rather changed the whole course of the film but I know that if one of my students  came to me with this idea I would have insisted that they think it through a little more. I’d have told them to ask why more often and come back with something more cohesive that made sense.

Now, The 5th Wave is a movie on general release and is drawn from a very successful series of novels so the question you might be asking – and the question I sometimes ask myself when I’m hard on my student’s ideas or the ideas of others that I work with – is, “is it worth it?” People spend their money on movies like Independence Day and The 5th Wave, maybe I shouldn’t worry about trying to eliminate these problems? But this seems to be a lazy solution, a kind of logical fallacy; just because other people are doing it badly and getting away with it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim your own bar high. I push my students and those I work with to aim for that higher bar, and that is nothing compared to level of self criticism and analysis that I subject my own work to. But I like to think that working hard to eliminate these problems results in narratives that we are happy to indulge in a willing suspension of disbelief for; maybe we can’t eliminate every single inconsistency, coincidence, or poor character choice but we can do our best to set that bar high.


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