Monday, January 16, 2012

Tuesday's Thoughts: Suspension of Disbelief

We all know what the literary term "suspension of disbelief" means, right? But did you know that the term as I wrote it lacks one important word? "Willing." Yes, that is the important word: it is not the suspension of disbelief, it is the willing suspension of disbelief.

Let's go back to the origin of that term. Most people, writers, screenwriters, playwriters alike, believe the term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, when he wrote his biographical sketches of his literary life. And who is Samual Taylor Coleridge?

Coleridge was born in 1772, died in 1834, and was perhaps one of the most influential poets and literary giants of all time. He and his good friend, William Wordsworth, found the Romantic Movement in England. Coleridge's greatest works are the "conversational poems,"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan."

When he wrote Biographia Literaria, which were sketches and opinions of his own literary life, he coined many literary words and phrases, among them the willing suspension of disbelief. Here is the statement in his work which, supposedly, originated that term:

"In this idea originated the plan of the "Lyrical Ballads," in which it was agreed that my endeavors be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, 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."

Frankly, I had to read that statement over several times to figure out what he was trying to say. I think what he was getting at was that as people read his work, or watched the plays during his time, they had to be able to believe what they were reading or watching, and in order to do this, they had to set aside their own knowledge and perception of what was real for the duration of the book or the play. And he termed this ability the willing suspension of disbelief.

The willing suspension of disbelief is one of the most important narrative functions in books, plays, movies, and TV. Without it, no story, no matter the format, would ever be successful. This suggests that every person of every age has the ability to suspend disbelief: that must be true, because don't we see it every day with our children? They read ( or are read to) fantasies and fairy tales, they read about puppies who talk and bunnies who dress up in human clothes. Yet they know their own puppy doesn't talk to them, and the bunnies who eat up Mom's early spring garden aren't dressed up. They believe because they want to believe. And so do we, as adults.

As writers, it doesn't matter if we write fantasies, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, contemporary stories, or what; it doesn't matter if we make up whole new worlds or create gigantic steel spiders bent on inhabiting our planet or merely write about today's teens undergoing the horrors of drug and physical/ sexual abuse, our stories have to have that elusive ingredient that makes the reader willing to suspend his/her disbelief in what is on that page, and accept for the moment that real life is as it is written. As to what that ingredient is, each and every writer must find it for himself/herself.

We have to create a compelling plot, strong, believable characters, realistic conflicts, dialogue that rings true for each character, and a climax and resolution that reflects all of the above and is consistent with the plot. It is only then that our readers are willing to suspend their disbelief in what they know is real, and what they know cannot possibly happen as they are reading it, and still hang in there to the end, hoping for a good read and plausible ending.

If we don't give all of this to them, in every story we write, they are not going to be willing to suspend their disbelief, and our writing careers will be over.

By the way, Coleridge is NOT the first person to use the phrase "suspension of disbelief." Aristotle, who lived between 384 and 322 BC, wrote a book called Poetics, in which he says:

The plot is an arrangement of events derived from an unbroken chain of cause and effect. The beginning, middle, and end must have causal connections comprising a holistic whole to ensure audiences do not suffer from a suspension of disbelief or become disengaged from the plot.

How's that for being around a long time?

Until next time,
That's a wrap.


  1. Very informative post, Mikki. Thanks!

  2. Yes, the reader has to be willing to let go of what they know is real and believe in the worlds we create. Everything has to be logical within those worlds, we can't jar them out of our created reality.