Thursday, February 17, 2011

"The Willing Suspension"

That’s the unabridged version:

“The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.”

Emphasis on the “willing.”  At that moment, there is no gun to your head, with a scary-looking guy going,


It’s a willing suspensionYou want to disbelieve. That’s why you go to a movie or a play or you watch TV.  For a story, but a different story, not the story of your life, which you already know, and would generally not want to pay money to revisit, but are more likely distracting yourself to forget. 

Your own story?  That’s not going to a show.  That’s watching home movies.

You want a story more compelling than the mundane, “I need to go grocery shopping, and pick up a prescription at the pharmacy.”  You want to laugh more than life randomly allows you to laugh.  You want danger that you can watch, but not have to risk your life actually participating in.  You want soaring romance.  You want reality-busting fantasy, both the nightmarish and the playful.  You want to be scared and safe at the same time.  And other stuff as well.  All missing in life, but available in mass entertainment.

So you pay money – or, if it’s TV, you don’t – and you watch the show.  You know it’s a show, because it’s on a screen, or on the stage.  But when you watch it, if they did it right, you get caught up in the proceedings, and you forget.

You know it’s not real.  But, for the moment, you’re pretending it is.

That’s the willing suspension of disbelief.

What is not the willing suspension of disbelief is the example a commenter named Jeff recently provided, concerning a moment in Dexter where a glaring opportunity to advance the crime-solving process was conveniently overlooked.

This is not an example of asking the audience to suspend disbelief.  This is an example of asking them to suspend common sense. 

Which is a completely different animal.

Understand, the “suspension of disbelief” in a highly delicate arrangement.  Even in the most extreme version of the genre you’re working in, where you’re wayyyyyyyy out on a limb,  the writer must still adhere to some manner of logical and credible consistency.  Or the audience’ll go,

“Wait a minute!”

And immediately depart the train. 

I know.  There are movies, like the Pirates of the Caribbean oeuvre, that make no sense whatsoever.  But that series didn’t take some kind of whiplashing left turn; it never made sense from the beginning, or shortly thereafter.  I think the original outing almost made sense. 

In cases like these, you either get on board, or you don’t.  For the believers it’s, “This is nonsense, but the lead actor’s playing the whole movie as if he were drunk.  Hey, if he’s having fun with it, so will I.”

Generally, stories need to make sense, at least within their own context.  There’s a little girl trapped in a blazing inferno on the top of a tall building.  Fire fighters are struggling to rescue her.  Beams are falling all around.  The girl is screaming.  The enveloping flames are licking at her heels.  The situation looks hopeless.

Suddenly, a huge pelican swoops in out of nowhere, scoops up the girl in his oversized mouth, and flies her to safety.

And the audience goes,



“We can suspend disbelief, but there is a limit.”

An egregious storytelling mistake will actually destroy your suspension of disbelief, obliterating the spell, and plunking you back into reality, a reality that proclaims,

“This movie (play, TV show) is crap.”

Jeff inquires, about the Dexter plot hole,

“Does the writer…think the viewers won’t think about that – or does he just not care what the viewer might think?” 


Do you really think a writer wants to shatter the suspension of disbelief they so fundamentally need to retain the lifeline of engagement between their movie/play/TV show and the audience?

The answer to the second part of your question is,

He cares.

Now let’s examine some other possibilities for the mistake. 

One:  In the pressure and hectic pace of stoking the “Feed Me” furnace that is series television, the writer may have simply messed up. 

Two:  The writer may have noticed the problem, thought, “I’ll go back to that later” and, in the heat of battle, may have simply forgotten to. 

Or Three:  The writer could have convinced themselves that the questionable moment will race by so quickly, nobody (except some “cross the ‘t’, dot the ‘i’ stickler like Jeff) will ever notice.

The latter case is what legendary director Alfred Hitchcock labeled “Ice Box (read:  refrigerator) Logic.”  You enjoyed the movie, your disbelief willingly suspended through the whole thing, you return home, you open the refrigerator to procure a snack, and then suddenly…

You slap yourself on the forehead, the head slap saying,

“Hold on.  How did he get into the apartment, if he didn’t have a key?”

Good question.  Now totally irrelevant.  Why?  Because it doesn’t matter anymore.  They got your money, and you enjoyed the movie.  Post facto realizations?  They don’t mean a thing. 

It’s ovah.

Jeff opens his comment by asking,

“How hard is it for you (or any TV writer) to suspend disbelief?”

I can’t answer for other writers.  Is it hard for me to suspend my disbelief?


But I’ll expand on that another time.

Thank you Jeff for providing me a question that will fill up two postings.

And if I stretch it,

Maybe three.


YEKIMI said...

Can't remember which show it was, one of those crime shows, but the FBI agents are looking for a gun and they're in someone's house looking around the kitchen and one of them says "Hey, this looks like a freshly painted wall" and proceeds to find a gun hidden behind it whereupon the FBI agent grabs it barehanded, looks it over, twists it this way and that and then hands it to his partner who does the same who then hands it back to the first guy who proceeds to jam it in his waistband or pants pockets or somewhere on his person. Having worked in law enforcement for a bit I about blew a gasket thinking "Nice way to contaminate evidence!" I don't know of any officer, let alone FBI agent that would do such a thing, if they did they'd be out selling hot dogs on a street corner in real life. I never again watched the show after that because I KNOW an FBI agent wouldn't be such a dunderhead. All I could think of that if they had a "technical adviser" he must have been off sick the day they shot that episode.

Mac said...

Damn you - now I have to lose the Rescue-Pelican.
Very interesting post. I'm wrestling with a pilot right now and I'm constantly finding plot-holes which means going back and unpicking a load of work each time. I suppose when I stop doing that, it's ready to go. And if it ever gets made, I'm sure the viewer(s) will find some that I've missed.
Dexter (and many other shows) have a team of very smart people going through scripts before they get to the screen. Logic flaws aren't down to stupidity or laziness, just part of the process.

Rory Wohl said...

I've ranted in a similar vein on my own blog, so it's nice to get a corroborating opinion from a professional.

I can't tell you the number of times lately that a show (or a book trilogy which features a lead character who's last name rhymes with Halander) had me hooked right up until the proverbial rescue-pelican showed up. Then, they lose me as a viewer/reader (ok, I admit it, I read all three of the Millennium novels, but I stopped watching Leverage 'cause I couldn't suspend any more).

I know the writers care, but I'm not sure they care as much as they once did.

Patrons sitting next to me in a movie theater be warned. I'll be the guy constantly muttering "that's not possible" under my breath.

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Even in the most extreme version of the genre you’re working in, where you’re wayyyyyyyy out on a limb, the writer must still adhere to some manner of logical and credible consistency.