Suspending disbelief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic British poet, is credited with first coining the term “suspension of disbelief.” In speaking of his own writing concerning supernatural or romantic notions, he noted:

…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.”

But how? How do you get the reader to feel this really could happen without interrupting the fictive dream of the story or the poem?

In movies, whether thriller/suspense or action or drama or even romantic comedy, one way to allow for suspension of disbelief seems to be sticking the myriad details, even the ones that aren’t essential to the plot or character development. If you get those details right and have enough of them, the reader is more likely to stay along for the plot twist, the surreal reveal, the unbelievable choice.

I’ve been annoyed by (and therefore thrown out of) movies when I hear an actor butcher an accent I’m familiar with, play trombone with movements that bear no relation to how that instrument produces music, swing a bat when they clearly never played baseball, bake a towering cake without greasing the pan. So — stick the details.

Below are some things I’ve researched online, bought books to understand, asked knowledgeable friends about, or tried to closely observe in the interest of sticking the details. I know they expose my own ignorance.

  • Do raccoons hibernate in the winter?
  • What do marines call the bathroom? What do sailors call it?
  • How long after a trial does sentencing occur? What are typical sentences for this crime, for that one?
  • What are some names of low-budget porn films?
  • What song or movie was popular in this year or that one? Was this movie even released by this date?
  • How do you say weak/fragile/sick in Spanish?
  • How does a cop move into detective ranks? The FBI? Is a cop employed by the county or the city or some other entity? What’s the difference between sheriff and deputy and police officer?
  • How long can a small child survive without food? Without water? If exposed to cold but not freezing temperatures?
  • What are the routes from Juarez to the U.S. for immigrants? What methods do people use for crossing?
  • What are some names of black southern ministers? What are some hymns and altar calls common in both black and white Protestant churches?
  • What is the distance and geography between this town and that one?
  • Does Alabama have this particular grocery store? Specifically, does this town, and what stores came before this particular grocery store?
  • How would you kill someone who is in ICU? Are there certain meds nurses have access to that wouldn’t necessarily show up in an autopsy and that also are easy to obtain?
  • What are some of the behaviors of bisexual men who are work in traditionally male-dominated professions?

Of course, there are also the endless searches for words, phrases, turns of speech, for meaning, alternative meaning, synonyms. Writing itself is an act of learning, expanding, second-guessing your own assumptions.

I remember attending a reading once and hearing a story about an otherwise good mother who leapt from a bus window when something terrible happened on the bus (men with guns, a fight of some sort — I don’t remember exactly, but the threat of danger was imminent). A friend of mine said, “A mother would never abandon her baby like that.”

I say bullshit.

I have a low tolerance for “a mother would never” or “men don’t think that way” or “people from that place or that background don’t believe” sort of feedback. What that feedback is really trying to say is, “I don’t believe this character would do/say this thing at this time.” It’s our job as writers to make them believe it could happen, that characters, like people, behave in all sorts of surprising ways, believe all sorts of contrary things. We must make their actions and choices plausible in the context of the story, as individuals who are not necessarily wholly representative of their class/gender/ethnicity/vocation.

Even when we do this well, there will be objections of the sort my friends voiced, objections rooted deep in a reader’s understanding of the way the world works.

How do go from “all men think this way” to “some men think these things” to “Mr. Jackson, unlike another many other men you may know, thinks this one particular thing, and that is part of who he is as a man and a human, and that’s perfectly normal for Mr. Jackson”?

How do we get readers to suspend not just disbelief, but also their own biases, tendencies, prejudices, assumptions?

If that answer were easy, so would writing be. So would life, I guess.








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