Superman and the willing suspension of disbelief.

A lot of writing falls apart when logic is applied. Comedians have fun with this. Family Guyexists on this idea.

Some people take this to the opposite extreme, and turn into Abed Nadir logic cops, who create stories that are joylessly plausible. Though this can happen, it’s much rarer.

If a movie is well structured, but no one likes it, it has failed. If it’s idiotic, but it makes people happy, it has succeeded. (1) When people bemoan Michael Bay movies as brain dead thrill rides, they miss this larger truth. (2)

Some people take this to mean, “you can get away with anything… it’s a movie.” That’s also not fully true. Movies are guided by a principal called the willing suspension of disbelief. Willing suspension of disbelief boils down to, “You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable.” (3) People are willing to go along with almost anything, so long as it makes narrative sense, allows for entertaining moments, and doesn’t insult their intelligence.

Some applicable guidelines for willing suspension of disbelief.

  1. The audience is on board with things that are awesome. People like seeing Superman fight giant monsters and lift cars. It’s more fun to see that than have a scientist explain the exceptions to square-cube law that made it possible or have an engineer explain that Lexcorp cars are specifically made to be lifted by the roof .
  2. If you’re writing fantasy, you want all the rules to be established by the end of act one. While many franchises have scenes where a character says, “Oh, I forgot, my powers include literal resurrection.” Superman has come back from the dead and the Christopher Reeves movie he literally turns back time to undo Lois’s death. This makes for unsatisfying climaxes, especially when he forgets his time powers in the sequel.
  3. The more mundane an action seems(4), the less leeway you get. Fans are okay with Superman’s crazy powers and even the resurrection stuff, but it drives everyone crazy that his glasses make him unrecognizable to his coworkers.
  4. Genre comes into play. If we’re watching the Superman musical , I’m fine with everyone singing. If I’m reading the comic and people start singing for no reason, I want a canonically appropriate justification (that magic imp whose name I can’t spell, a sci-fi ray, a dream sequence).
  5. You can get away with anything, but you eventually get locked into what TVTropes called the sliding scale of realistic versus fantastic. The more fantastic you make a story, the harder it is for the audience to accept or care about a realistically detailed scene. While the best fantasy stories have involving human moments, they’re sentimental in a different way than a sentimental scene in a gritty drama about dying from cancer is.


(1) That is not to say that the point of movies is solely to make people happy, but it’s hard to come up with any definition for entertainment that doesn’t involve making people feel something. As Disney said, “I’d rather entertain someone and hope they learned something, then educate them and hope they were entertained.”

(2) One could argue that they’d have made even more people happy with a slightly more rigorous approach to theme and story logic. This is a fair point, but a topic for another day.


(4) This has something to do with familiarity. Years ago, I read a great quote from an actor (Gere? Baldwin) about how people willingly suspend disbelief re: gunplay, but will nitpick every sex scene because everyone thinks they’re a sex expert. Does anyone know the quote I’m talking about?

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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