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Suspension of Disbelief: A Fictional Quandary

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor


ImageThere’s a constant tension within fiction between the real and the unreal, what the author wants us to believe and what we’re willing to believe.  After all, fiction is…well, fictional, and in order to read it and enjoy it we have to go along with the author for the ride, to accept it as truth within the world of the story.

And different stories require different levels of disbelief suspension.  For most people, it’s easier to buy into a book with a realistic premise.  If a book says that John Johnson went to the store, bought a carton of milk, and came home, that’s easy enough to accept because it might have happened (although it would make for a really boring story).  On the other hand, if a book says that John Johnson went to the store, bought a carton of milk, and was attacked by purple people-eaters on his way home, that’s going to be a lot harder for many people to accept because—unless you have some deep-seeded belief in purple people-eaters—it couldn’t happen.  So never is the delicate balance between the author’s tale and the readers’ willingness to believe more important than in science fiction and fantasy. As an avid reader of both genres, I’m willing to suspend my own disbelief quite a lot as I read—or for that matter, watch movies or television. (I’ve discovered through the years that a lot of people are not as willing to go along for the ride as I am.  I suspect that’s why many people stick to more realistic fiction—if they read fiction at all.)   But everyone has a threshold, a point after which they’re no longer willing to believe in an author’s story.

For me, almost nothing will bring me out of a story faster than internal inconsistency.  Often, this means the author has tried to change the rules in the middle of the story.  Take John Johnson and the purple people-eater example.  If the story establishes that purple people-eaters are universally lactose intolerant, and the purple people-eater that attacks John grabs his carton of milk and starts chugging away, it’ll leave me thinking, “WTF?  I thought they couldn’t drink milk.”  This was one of the things (among many) that drove me nuts about the conclusion of the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn.  In the first three books, we’re led to believe that vampires cannot have children.  Then, at the beginning of the final book, the human protagonist becomes pregnant with her vampire husband’s child.  So in all the centuries vampires had been running around, no one had managed to figure out that vampire males can sire children in human women?  I mean, I know most of them were content just to kill those women, but c’mon—vampires get horny, too!

I also find myself unable to suspend my disbelief when there’s no internal logic to the story.  The best example I can think of for this one wasn’t a book, but a movie.  A couple of years ago, I attended a preview screening of Synecdoche, New York—the first movie that Charlie Kaufman both wrote and directed.  The movie started out fairly realistically—a middle-aged playwright whose health is deteriorating is awarded a grant and decides to use the money to write and direct his autobiography.  But as the story progresses, it shifts from mostly realistic to totally surrealistic.  By the end, I found myself less interested in the story and more in the answer as to why the reality of the story had shifted so much.  Was the protagonist really dead the whole time?  Was the growing surrealism some sort of illness-related psychosis?  Was it all a dream?  It’s hard to accept an alternate version of reality when the rules are constantly changing and you have no idea why.

And then, finally, there are things that disrupt the suspension of disbelief that are just plain mistakes.  In The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, one of the minor characters in the book is at a party, and Clare (the titular wife) says he’s 11.  Too bad the party takes place in 2003—and earlier in the book, we’re told explicitly that the character is born in 1996.  At another point in the story, Henry—the time traveler—says that he might wake up in 1901.  Pages later, when he meets Clare for the first time, he says that the “range” of dates in which he has time traveled is about 50 years—and no matter how you measure those 50 years, 1901 wouldn’t have been included.  They’re not big mistakes, and they don’t affect the overall story.  The Time Traveler’s Wife is still one of my favorite books, but whenever I think about it, these seemingly minor errors just bug me.  In a book so inherently connected to the timeline, such chronological errors are inexcusable.

Unfortunately, there’s not much that we, as readers, can do about this.  So this article was partially just a rant, and partially a message to authors.  Just because you’re writing a story that falls into the science fiction or fantasy genre doesn’t mean you can get away with anything.  We’re doing you the favor of buying into something that is not only untrue, but could not be true.  So do us the favor of giving us a story we can believe in.

Selected Book Releases, April 26-May 2

April 26

The 9th Judgment by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

April 27

Burned by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin
by Hampton Sides

Solar by Ian McEwan

Return to Sender by Fern Michaels

The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler

Lover Mine by J.R. Ward

The Master Your Metabolism Cookbook by Jillian Michaels

Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Spiritual Partnership: The Journey to Authentic Power by Gary Zukav

The Poacher's Son
by Paul Doiron

Reckless by Andrew Gross

The Long Song: A Novel
by Andrea Levy

Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings

Deadliest Sea by Kalee Thompson

Paradise General:  Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq
by Dave Hnida

The God of the Hive by Laurie R. King

Miss You Most of All
by Elizabeth Bass

Ilustrado: A Novel by Miguel Syjuco

This Is Why You're Fat (and How to Get Thin Forever): Eat More, Cheat More, Lose More, and Keep the Weight Off by Jackie Warner

Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment
by Peter Buffett

A Thread So Thin by Marie Bostwick

Historical Tweets
by Alan Beard

Staying True by Jenny Sanford

The Last Time I Saw You
by Elizabeth Berg

The Other Wes Moore
by Wes Moore

April 28

Foxy: My Life in Three Acts by Pam Grier with Andrea Cagan

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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