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Suspension of Disbelief

 

Disciplines > Storytelling > Storytelling articles > Suspension ofDDisbelief

Description | Example | Discussion | See also

 

Description

In normal life there are many things we do not believe, yet it is convenient for these things to be 'true' in stories. The author thus asks the reader or watcher to suspend this non-belief in things from magic to the constant avoidance of statistical probabilities.

Suspending disbelief means accepting all premises that the author presents for the duration of the story and trusting that it will all make sense in the end.

Example

Fantasy stories, such as Lord of the Rings, ask us to suspend our disbelief in magic and the existence of fantastic other creatures.

Heroes in many stories have an amazing ability to dodge and survive bullets. In fact by the time you hear the bang it's way too late.

Science fiction extends current science into realms that may never be possible, such as time travel.

Discussion

One of the great things about stories is their ability to lift us out of the humdrum of everyday life and into worlds of excitement and mystery. In such different realities we can safely escape and dream without actually experiencing the dangers if such things appeared in the real world.

A benefit for the audience of suspending disbelief is thus the ability to immerse in the story without taking a meta-position of judgement. They can then 'go with the flow' and enjoy the tale without having to step back every now and again to check that it makes proper sense.

In his study of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) showed that being able to let go of the sense of self has a paradoxical effect of creating a state of happiness that perhaps relates to the one-ness of the neonatal phase. In suspending disbelief in their stories, authors thus help their readers feel good.

To sustain this suspension, the skill of the author or movie director is to sustain an internal coherence and logic within the story. Thus if magic is permitted, it still operates within a consistent set of rules, albeit fictional.

A badly written story has problems such as continuity errors, breaking of scientific or social rules without explanation, or holes in the plot that are not explained or resolved.

See also

Assumption principle, Consistency principle, Suture

 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow:The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row

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