How to maintain suspension of disbelief

Truth is stranger than fiction because there are limits to the kind of stuff we’ll accept in fiction.

This comes down to “suspension of disbelief.” People will accept that Superman can fly, but it drives them crazy that his friends don’t recognize him when he puts on glasses.

If you aspire to a greater realism than a comic book from the 1930’s, you’ll need to account for suspension of disbelief. You need the audience to accept that your story is actually happening, on a more meta level, you need your audience to believe that you know what you’re doing.

COMPLIANCE is an example of the vagaries of suspension of disbelief. The movie is a beat-for-beat dramatization of a real event – a scam where a pervert convinced McDonalds managers to strip search employees. Even though the story is 100% true, people didn’t buy it. When I saw it at the WGA theater people walked out muttering “bullshit. The movie needed to do a better job of explaining why a reasonable person might do what the actual people did.

We can maintain the suspension of disbelief with a number of techniques.

EXAMPLE:

JENNY, a beautiful secretary, leaves the nightclub. She walks through a bad neighborhood, to her car. She hears a phone ring in a dark alley. Curious, she goes to investigate.

Except bullshit, no she doesn’t. Dark alleys are scary, this situation is scary, and it’s really hard to believe that a beautiful woman would willingly walk into such a comic book scenario. People have a nasty tendency to blame the victim, and here the writer is making it hard for an audience to sympathize with anything that might happen.

The writer might say, “Hey, this is based on a true story and if you knew my friend Jenny, you’d accept that.” This may be true, but I don’t know Jenny. To maintain suspension of disbelief, we’d have to use a little technique:

FIRST WE NEED TO CALL IT OUT:

It’s unusual for Jenny to behave like she does. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t do it, or couldn’t do it, but we need to acknowledge this as unusual, lest we look like idiots who can’t write human behavior.

  • A friend could mention this earlier, at the club. “Jenny, you’ve got to learn to think ahead.”
  • We could see Jenny with her psychologist – “Jenny, you have a negative pattern of self harm.”
  • Jenny could do this to herself. As she walks down the alley, she could say “Jesus, this is how every episode of SVU starts…”

Given that this unusual behavior exists, we should then JUSTIFY it.

We don’t have to. The third example is a case of “lampshade hanging,” we get a lot of mileage just by tacitly admitting to the audience that we know this is fucked up. But if we want to build more identification with the character, we’d have to ground her behavior in a relatable reason.

  • It could be that Jenny is too trusting. She grew up in Mayberry, so she doesn’t have a normal person’s sense of danger. That would inform every other aspect of her character.
  • It could be that Jenny believes that her Tae Bo class makes her a modern day Ninja. We’d probably want to see that put to the test – she’s either right or she’s wrong.
  • It could be that, owing to a horrible childhood, she might put herself in situations where she could get hurt.

IN CLOSING

The audience goes into a story with certain expectations of what human behavior is. Everyone’s a little different, but part of writing is gauging what people will accept. Calling it out and justifying become powerful tools for maintaining the psychological credibility of your work.

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