The Art of the Suspension of Disbelief

Updated: Jan 19

Recently I’ve been somewhat curious as to the reason why us as human beings love fictional stories so much. Why is it that we get so attached to fictional characters? After all, it’s all imaginative, none of this is real so why do we get so emotional over it?


Well, what I’ve discovered among many other things is that (when it comes to fiction) the brain has a hard time telling the difference between truth and fictional. Essentially, for a lot of us when immersion in the story reaches a certain point, on a subconscious level, we start to believe that all of this is actually real. No matter how ridiculous or far from reality the story is.

This is called your Suspension of Disbelief, or your willingness to believe fictional events as long as your brain never starts doubting the current events.

Now, the first question that came to my mind when I realized this is how far stories can go before you break? And how far can stories go before they break this Suspension of Disbelief? This idea or mind set is something very common among writers and you’ll see many who are starting doing everything possible so that suspension is never broken. It’s also something that many overthink.



When you’re writing stories, sometimes certain details don’t match up or don’t make sense. For writers, this is awful, it gives you a sense of dread, that you’ll break your reader’s Suspension of Disbelief and hence make a mediocre story. Plot holes like these are often made fun of by critics in many films and books. And in order to not risk being the joke, many resort to overexplaining, or trying to patch things up unnecessarily, or straight up not writing.


I’ve seen people grow so obsessed with inconsistencies like these in their stories that they end up completely blocked. Unnecessarily changing details to justify plot holes. Something that just distracts from the story. And this is of course a problem. Because Suspension of Disbelief isn’t something that breaks so easily. In fact, it’s almost pointless to worry about it because most of the time, it doesn't make a difference.


In fact, many of the greatest films in history have some of these inconsistencies that supposedly ruin your Suspension of Disbelief and theoretically make for mediocre stories. Yet they don’t affect the movie in anyway and most people didn’t even notice them until they were pointed out.


Rosebud

Let’s start with the very first Star Wars movie. One of the main and most important plot points is of course The Death Star, a giant moon sized weapon that can destroy planets. And as many of us know, its weakness is one specific point in the center that if shot in a specific point in a specific way causes the entire thing to blow up. Now let me ask you this: how does this make sense?


How is it that a force as big and powerful as The Empire built a massive weapon of destruction with such a grave oversight? How is it that shooting this specific part cause the entire thing to blow up? Even if it was the core or something, it’s extremely unlikely that it would have caused an explosion big enough that it destroys a weapon the size of a moon. And even if it was something vital to the process of The Death Star, I feel like a force as big as the Empire would figure something out before some rebel ruins everything.

And yes, I do know that they made an entire movie to explain this plot hole. But that doesn't count, I'm talking about the massive problem that was present in the original film and for the longest time went unexplained.


In fact, it’s such a massive plot oversight that they even made fun of it in the Phineas and Ferb Star Wars special.


Huh, you’re right Ferb, one proton torpedo in that small exhaust port and the whole thing goes blamo!


It’s like it’s got a self-destruct button. What kind of idiot would design that?


You’d think a mistake as big as this one would cause your Suspension of Disbelief to immediately break, but weirdly enough, it doesn’t. People still watch Star Wars to this day, and they just don’t think about it. A mistake that some writers might ponder over for months is something that’s just blatantly present in one of the greatest films of all time.



And it’s not just Star Wars, let’s take another example, Citizen Kane. What is often considered to be the greatest movie ever made also has one of the biggest plot holes in fiction. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a movie about the newspaper industry and the life of one of the tyrants of the business, Charles Foster Kane. The movie follows a set of reporters investigating the meaning of the word Rosebud. That being Foster Kane’s last word.


However, there’s just one minor nonimportant problem, when Citizen Kane dies in the beginning of the film, there was nobody in the fucking room. He died alone and literally said his last words to no one. So, how do people know that what he said was Rosebud?


The entire catalyst of the film is a massive plot hole. Yet people still rave about it to this day as the greatest movie ever made.


You might look at these inconsistencies and point out that they do exist, and that people do point them out. But when people watch these movies, their Suspension of Disbelief is not broken. They are just as immersed in the film as they were before. So, if plot holes like these don’t necessarily break Suspension of Disbelief, what does?


The Dead Speak?!

In my brief research for this post, I found a few comments online from audiences that claim to know all the ways that Suspension of Disbelief can be broken. Among them include the aforementioned plot holes, plot convenience, and breaking of established rules.


I already established that plot holes don’t necessarily break Suspension of Disbelief. Just because something is inconsistent doesn’t mean it brings you back to reality. But of course, people will still argue that this isn’t always the case.


So, I started to dig deeper, trying to find all of the biggest plot holes in fiction. And weirdly enough, not a lot of great examples popped up. It was mostly ones that I already mentioned like Star Wars, and others like The Dark Knight Rises. But none of these are big enough that they take you out of the story. They're just minor details.


Though, there is one example that almost perfectly represents a plot hole that ruins the whole film. In Star Wars Episode IX (which as I have mentioned before is a dumpster fire of a film) one of the main things that make absolutely no sense is the fact that main antagonist of the previous movies Palpatine comes back for seemingly no reason. Not even the opening credits know how to explain this. The only real explanation we get is: THE DEAD SPEAK?! As if this was a clickbait YouTube video.


This. This is a plot hole that ruins the whole film, my immersion was ruined half the time because of this specific inconsistency. But this begs the question, what makes this Plot Hole such a big deal but The Death Star exploding nowhere near as much?


Similar results like this can be seen in all the other categories as well. In terms of breaking established rules, that one also brings up a few questions. Cause if breaking established rules breaks Suspension of Disbelief then what about something like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure? A story that breaks its own rules every other episode yet is still widely beloved. Convenience even plays a role in the story, with pretty much everything that happens just happening for the sake of it, with many coincidences being at play.


So, if none of these technical explanations break Suspension of Disbelief, what does?



For this, I really want to talk about one extremely specific example which is always the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of this topic. The example I want to talk about comes from the anime Rent-a-girlfriend. Bear with me for a moment.


The story is about a guy who is so lonely that he ends up paying for a rental girlfriend. Something that is sadly very much a real thing in Japan and the catalyst for this series. Anyway, all you really need to know for this post is that him and the girl get along at first but then there’s a bit of conflict that causes them to not want to talk to each other. But then, it just so happens that their grandmas are both in the same hospital and are friends. So now they have to stick together. And then after that, it also turns out that they go to the same college. These are already two pretty insane plot conveniences.


But that didn’t really break my Suspension, in fact, I didn’t really mind it. It seemed improbable but plausible. However, then at the end of the first episode we learn that not only do their grandmas know each other, not only do they go to the same college, but they also live next to each other. Are you shitting me?! How is it that it took them until now to realize that?! Why do they come to the realization at this specific moment?!


This completely and utterly broke my Suspension of Disbelief. But it wasn’t because it was hard to believe. It was because not only was it hard to believe, but it happened after two coincidences that already stretched my disbelief.


It feels like bullshit. It’s sloppy writing. And it more than takes me out of the story. But, in universe, the scene still makes complete sense. It's just as plausible as many of the other plot holes I've talked about. But why is that?



Now, if you’ve been paying attention to everything that I’ve been saying so far, you might have realized something at this point. The lack of logic.


I think a lot of us as writers - especially when we’re starting out – put too much focus into making our stories make sense. They need to be logical. There can’t be any plot holes or hard to believe moments because then our Suspension of Disbelief will be ruined.


But the thing is, logic makes no difference in stories, sloppy writing does. So many massive plot holes and conveniences go unnoticed in fiction because the writer does a good job of disguising it. Meanwhile, stories where plot holes ruin Suspension of Disbelief only do that because of lazy writing.


So, this begs the question, if logic matters so little in writing, why do we feel such an extreme need to have all our stories make sense?


The Whatever Device

There’s this generally small movie you might not have heard of called Thank You For Smoking. It’s about the cigarette industry and the morality of smoking. But that’s not what I want to talk about.


There’s one scene in the movie were the main characters is being pitched the idea of having a character in an upcoming Sony sci-fi movie smoke while in space to advertise cigarettes.


“Cigarettes in space?” The main character asks. “But wouldn’t they blow up in an all oxygen environment?”


The director responds:


“Probably. But that’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. Thank god we invented the whatever device.”



A few months ago, I was helping some friends out with writing a story since they were having a bit of blockage. Specifically, they needed these two characters to meet in order for the story to happen and didn’t know how to do that.


“Don’t they both go to college?” I asked.


“Yeah.”


“Well, there you go, they meet in college.”


But this answer wasn’t satisfactory since apparently the two characters study drastically different fields in and there aren’t really any universities that give degrees on both fields.


“Who the hell cares?” I answered. “They just meet in a college that gives both degrees.”


“But that makes no sense.”


Shit like this is what kills a lot of otherwise good writing.


So many of us worry unnecessarily about details like these in order for our story to be good. But what we don’t realize is that our brain isn’t very good at catching these sorts of details in the moment. Our Suspension of Disbelief doesn’t break so easily.


Even I in the past have criticized others for writing stories with faulty logic like this. It feels like something extremely obvious that all writers should do. And that mentality can be hard to get rid of when you start to take writing seriously.


It might seem like a good idea to get rid of any logical inconsistencies in the story before writing, but what this really causes is blockage. You feel like you need to know everything before you can truly start. Or else the story will be mediocre. You’ll be made fun of and ashamed for writing. You’ll be the next Tommy Wiseau. But by focusing so much on these problems we never write anything and end up like my friends a few months ago, stuck on one insignificant detail and never getting to business.


You might think that the problems you have can’t be solved with magic like I’m saying you can. Or that this is just lazy writing. And yeah, you’re somewhat right. But when you start writing, you’ll realize that these major inconsistencies aren’t that major at all and have completely logical and simple solutions. The answer might be staring you in the face right now and you just haven’t realized because you haven’t started writing. And if after this you still end up with characters that need to meet in some way, or smoking that needs to happen in space, remember that all of this can be solved with one line: thank god we invented the whatever device.




Thank you for reading all the way to the end of the post! If you liked what you read then make sure to subscribe to The Lechuga newsletter, follow the Instagram account @the_lechuga_adrian or follow the Twitter account @lechugadrian to get notified of new posts.

Are there any moments in fiction that ruined your Suspension of Disbelief? Let me know in the comments. And while you’re there, tell me what you thought of the post. Regardless of what you think, I’m already grateful that you read until the end.

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