Why I Don’t Believe in Willful Suspension of Disbelief

We’re told, almost certainly apocryphally, that one of the earliest movies was of a train heading directly toward the camera, and that audiences who saw it ran for their lives. We’re told that a truly great piece of fiction makes the reader forget they’re reading a book (or seeing a movie, etc.) and immerses them entirely in the secondary world of the story.

I’ve never bought it. Oh, I’ve read plenty of immersive stories in my time, but every single time the thought in my head was not “this is real! If the characters die, I will too!” My typical thought is more along the lines of “oh, this is really good! How can I pull off this same effect in my own work?”

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I know how the sausage gets made. Maybe my insider knowledge of how stories are put together keeps me from enjoying them in the intended manner. I don’t think so, though. I think pretty much every consumer of culture knows the basics of how entertainment is made. The water cooler talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode is often as much about the difference between practical and CG effects as it is “can you believe character X did that to character Y?”

Then there are the commenters. In one of my books I suggested that a given handgun could hold thirteen bullets (you get a prize if you can guess which book this was. The prize is that you briefly made me feel like I exist). I got an email from a reader who told me he had enjoyed the book up to that point, but really, since said gun could actually hold fourteen bullets, he could no longer appreciate my work and would not be purchasing any of my future books. I actually took this seriously and mentioned, in the second volume of the series, that the gun could hold fourteen rounds.

I then got an angry email from a reader saying that if I didn’t know the gun could only hold thirteen bullets, I wasn’t fit to be writing about vampires.

I mention this story because I think it shows that we, as media savvy entertainment consumers, have stopped willfully suspending our disbelief–if we ever did. Just as some people can watch a movie and check their texts at the same time (horrible people), when we read a book we’re never completely lost in the imagined world. We’re always–always–comparing the story to what we know, to what we’ve read before. We run to wikipedia or at least the dictionary if we find concepts or even just words that are unfamiliar in our texts. We discuss our stories endlessly–Chris Hardwick has made a career out of dissecting TV shows the very second they’ve finished airing. I don’t think disbelief enters into the equation at any point.

Instead I think we are actively participating in cultural transmission. Rather than passively submerging ourselves in words and images, we are all, in our heads, remixing them continuously into nuanced interpretations, hot takes, and snarky scorn. We don’t just absorb texts, we study them, mining for ideas for our own work, or at the very least for sick burns we can share with co-workers.

As media becomes more and more integrated into our psychological landscape we become more adept at using it, rather than being manipulated by it (current politics notwithstanding). We always experience texts at a remove, now. But I don’t know if this is purely an artifact of the twenty-first century. I’ve always been interested in mythology, and one of the first questions you end up asking when you read Bullfinch is whether the Greeks really believed that the sun was a chariot with Apollo at the reins. The answer of course is that some people did, while others simply used the story to organize their lives–just as many people today seem unable to understand the news or the actions of their friends without framing them in terms of scenes from Harry Potter. I think this may be something intrinsic in the way we tell stories.

Think of a stage magician’s show. We are told that the magician will saw a woman in half. We watch it happen. Yet only a very small part of our lizard brains actually thinks it’s real. The vast majority of our consciousness is instead devoted to trying to figure out how the trick is done. We engage with the act on multiple levels at once, almost all of them on a metatextual level–we are outside the thing we perceive, aware of factors beyond what the magician wants us to see. The same can be said for every book we read, every television show we watch. Really interesting art often plays with our expectations and our preconceptions. Think of unreliable narrators, antiheroes and stories that break the fourth wall.

When Coleridge coined the term “willful suspension of disbelief” in 1817, he was specifically talking about genre stuff (what he would call “fantastical tales”) being leavened with verisimilitude and human pathos to make it more palatable. His idea was that readers would scoff at fantasy stories unless they were given enough realism to have something to hang onto. I’m not sure if this was true even at the time; I’m certain it isn’t, now.

What’s the takeaway here, for writers? Be conscious, always, of the fact that your reader isn’t reading your work in a vacuum. She has access to endless secondary sources. She can call you on your bullshit, or she can get in a discussion group with hundreds of other people about the details of your fiction. Don’t let that paralyze you, though. Instead, play with it. Withhold details or intentionally provide false information–which you correct later, for dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid of direct address or other techniques which might damage the illusion of secondary reality. But always remember, when you write, you are not alone. You are not screaming your truth into a void. You are contributing one long twitter thread in the culture conversation that began before you were born and will long outlive you.

Was that helpful? Or are you already rolling your eyes, thinking about how I overwrote that last sentence, and how much of this article I got wrong?