Consensual Suspension of Disbelief

Yesterday I read an interesting post called Fiction: How far are you willing to suspend disbelief? on The Rambling Jour.

While I was composing my comment, a thought occurred to me that struck me initially as somewhat absurd, however, the more I reflect upon it, the more sense it makes.

Writing fiction is like BDSM.

Weird, huh?  But, please, indulge me for a moment.

When we write fiction, we are engaging in a relationship with our audience that is based on lying to them. We tell our readers things that aren’t true, and they agree to pretend to believe them, for pleasure.  That’s a Power Exchange relationship.

Once I started thinking of it in those terms, I realized that willing suspension of disbelief isn’t something that an author should take for granted–it is a negotiated and consensual exchange between the author and the reader.

There is no “of course” in consensual power exchange.  What I mean by that is that the relationship begins with a baseline of equality, and any deviation from that baseline must be negotiated.   If you and I agree to let me put you over my knee and spank you, for example, that doesn’t mean that I get to tickle you, too.  It doesn’t matter that I might think that tickling is “milder” than spanking, the point is that spanking was negotiated, tickling was not.

The example that was given in the post that sparked this line of thought was the series The Walking Dead. Heather Hambel Curley mentioned that her husband objected to a scene in a recent episode that involved firearms, and wondered why he was able to accept zombies, but not inaccuracies in the portrayal of firearms.

It’s simple.  Zombies were negotiated.  Magic guns were not.

There is no “of course” in suspension of disbelief, either.  If I write a book about alien intelligences infiltrating Earth and taking over human bodies, and you agree to accept that, it doesn’t mean that I can automatically assume that you will also accept my characters managing to cram 30 million dollars in cash into a single briefcase.  (Something that I recently researched.  Cash takes up a lot more room than I imagined.)

So how do we, as authors, negotiate with our readers?  We can’t just sit down with our readers in a coffee shop with a checklist. Instead we have to weave our negotiation process into the text, which is a subtle process.  I can’t tell you how to do it, but I have some thoughts on the process.

Start Slow:  In SM101 Jay Wiseman writes that the goal of a first scene is to leave both parties thinking about the next time.  Don’t pull out all the big guns right away.  In The Walking Dead, the first episode is quite slow.  We are introduced to the concept of the world being overrun with reanimated corpses, we see a lot of the devastation, but the first ones we see are a small child and a woman with no legs.  The producers give us plenty of time to get used to the idea in theory before hitting us with the swarm.

One Thing At A Time: The series Supernatural introduces a huge range of creatures–ghosts, demons, angels, leviathans, and more walk-on nastiness than I can count.  However, if you watch the series from the beginning you’ll see each type of creature gets introduced in its own episode, generally as the only monster in that episode.  It’s only once we have had a chance to process the capabilities and vulnerabilities of a particular monster that it is used in combinations with the monsters that we already know.

Never Negotiate During A Scene: I am using “scene” in the BDSM sense, not in the literary sense.  What I mean is that an action sequence is not the place to introduce new fabulous elements.  It is astonishing how many times this rule is violated.  The climactic battle is being waged, the heroes are on the ropes and then, just when things look hopeless, the Mystic Thingamabob can suddenly shoot fireballs, which it could never do before. That’s not a twist, it’s a cheat.  It’s the surest way to get me to safeword and put down the book or walk out of the movie.  Don’t ask your readers to agree to new terms when their adrenaline is high, it’s unfair and leaves them feeling used.

Question Your Own Preconceptions: This goes back to there being no “of course”.  It is easy, when writing in a particular genre, to begin with a “genre baseline”.  I personally believe that it’s a mistake.  In Science Fiction, for example, it is common for authors to posit the existence of  faster than light travel.  However, just because it’s a standard trope doesn’t mean that you can just assume it and move on.  The Guild Highliners in Frank Herbert’s Dune operate by very different rules than the collapsar jumps in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.  Don’t assume that when you write “warp drive” that your readers will be imagining the same sort of warp drive that you are imagining.  Take time time to spell it out.  Is this reinventing the wheel?  Maybe a little, but it’s a lot easier to clarify things in the beginning than try to correct your readers misconceptions later on.

Everything That Is Not Include Is Excluded: For example, the “magic guns” of The Walking Dead.  Anything that deviates from objective reality requires an explanation. This means that even those of us who work with the fantastic have to do research.  As a locksmith, I frequently run into stories that ignore physics as it pertains to locks. Don’t assume that your readers won’t know how something works in the real world, because some of us might.  Yes, we can twist and mold reality to our will in our stories, but we have to start with knowing what we are changing and be willing to provide our readers with a rationale.  Unless you have a working knowledge of how a bank vault is constructed, don’t try to sell me on the idea that someone could be locked inside it and not be able to escape.  I’m going to be wondering what happened to the emergency release inside the vault, and you’d best have an answer for me.

All of this sounds like a lot of work, and it is.  It doesn’t have to involve pages of exposition, however, there are techniques for giving the reader the necessary information without data dumps–that’s part of the craft of writing.  The important principle, to my way of thinking, is to remember that suspension of disbelief isn’t something that the reader just hands over unconditionally, it’s something that you work to build with the reader, part of a relationship based on mutual respect and (it is to be hoped) mutual enjoyment.

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Publishing, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Consensual Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Green Embers says:

    Right on the money. Excellent post.

  2. KokkieH says:

    Bank vaults have emergency releases on the inside? That’s useful to know.

    You make a very good observation here. And thinking of your examples of guns and locks, it’s often something small that you don’t even consider crucial in terms of the story that can end up shattering the illusion.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Yeah, pretty much any walk-in vault is designed to be opened from the inside. The releases can be disabled, but that implies a safe mechanic who has time to work on it prior to it being used to confine someone. Heist movies get that wrong all the time.

      I’ve mentioned it in this blog before, but I’d like to say again that I am happy to read over any scenes that involve physical security and give notes. Sometimes small details can make all the difference.

      A lot of movies in particular seem to take the attitude that if we’ll believe XYZ then we’ll believe anything, and that’s an insulting attitude. We agreed to certain lapses in reality, but that doesn’t mean that we leave our minds at the door.

  3. Sue says:

    Never negotiate during a scene – there’s a name for this but can’t find it – and yes it’s cheating. Good points

  4. Awesome post, and great advice for fiction writers.

  5. Dr. Mauser says:

    You really caught my attention with this one. I was gonna joke if the Belief Suspension was going to use a harness, or be a full-blown inverted Shibari thing.

    In a recent anime review I wrote, “And at this point, they introduce one of the most improbable of characters, my disbelief had to be suspended by the neck until it stopped twitching.”

    The Magic guns point is one that is giving me issues in my stories, because I’m having to come up with only slightly improbable Mad Science. It’s easier to suspend disbelief in areas where it’s not actively engaged – fictional things. So yeah, of course you can’t see a Vampire in the mirror. Until you start asking, “Well, what about his clothes, or the stick he’s carrying, or if he’s sitting in a chair and pressing down the cushion? How far does the effect extend?” It defies known physics. Anybody can have a character say “We can’t turn on the Smith Drive in a Gravity Well” and nobody can question the physics of that. In the case of the Vampire, we know how light works, but the Smith Drive, totally made-up.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Shibari is not a bad analogy for building suspension of disbelief, actually. You have to start with a solid hardpoint that will hold the weight (the central conceit of the fantasy) you use multiple strands to spread the load (describing the fantastic elements from different perspectives at different times)… yeah, I could work that analogy into a post.

      Most important is building trust, of course. You have to make sure that any discomfort is intentional, and not because your audience is unsure if you know what you’re doing.

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