A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

PG notes that the title of the OP may include a typo, substituting “Belief” for “Disbelief”. That said, “A Willing Suspension of Belief” is an interesting concept to consider, but perhaps, the whole thing is too subtle for PG to understand. UPDATE: PG has been corrected. It is a willing suspension of Disbelief after all. Sometimes his fingers on the keyboard outpace the brain in his head.

From Daily Writing Tips:

The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer.

In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which the term seems to serve only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.

. . . .

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his two-volume autobiographical and critical work, Biographia Literaria (1817). The term originates in his discussion of the poetry collection he published with William Wordsworth in 1798.

The collection, called Lyrical Ballads, is credited with ushering in the Romantic era of English literature. The previous era, the Age of Enlightenment, elevated Reason and Skepticism above unquestioning belief. Religion, the supernatural, sentimentality, and excessive emotion were special targets of intellectual contempt.

Coleridge, with his penchant for high emotion and the supernatural, recognized that in order to draw an “enlightened” reader into his fantastic fictional world, he needed to employ a certain technique. His goal was to create a level of human interest and believability in his characters that would inspire his readers with a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

One of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I learned and loved in high school, but which doesn’t seem to be taught much anymore. Looking it up for this post, I found that it still gives me goosebumps.

Coleridge immediately places the reader in a recognizable situation. A man on his way to a wedding has his arm grabbed by a ragged old man who could be a beggar. The wedding guest, all dressed up for the occasion, is understandably annoyed and shakes him off, but the old man, a sailor, holds him with his “glittering eye” and launches into his eerie tale. Coleridge has hooked his readers and, by interweaving realistic physical descriptions with the supernatural elements, enables us to believe in the reality of the old man’s harrowing tale.

. . . .

Apparently, according to psychologists, when we give ourselves up to a narrative, we turn off the part of our brain that assesses reality in the ordinary way. We react to what we are seeing—on the screen or in our mind’s eye as if it were really happening. We are acting on “poetic faith.”

As long as the writer doesn’t introduce something jarring, something that would wake the brain’s critical thinking systems, readers can ignore the fact that what is happening to provoke our emotions is not really happening at all.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

5 thoughts on “A Willing Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. It is, indeed, a willing suspension of disbelief. You are asked not to look to hard at something in the headlights of what you know.

    You can’t go faster than light. So, on author, famous years ago, L. Sprague de Camp, would write in his Krishna series that people would climb aboard a space ship, which would continue to accelerate and then decelerate so that, years later, they would arrive without the passengers being old and gray. If they went home again, everyone they knew would be older by the time the travel took.

    Rather than live with Sprague’s these restrictions, we ask that you suspend boggling at the idea that you could get there without Einsteinian time dilation, much like someone sailing in a steamship from London to New York. They might not be able to explain how, but Handwavium is used, and poof, like magic, they are there. So, yes, willing suspension of your strong desire to call “bullshit.” Just sit back and enjoy the story the same way you do in retelling a Paul Bunyan story.

    • Well, sure. One of the defining aspects of the SciFi genre is that “handwavium”, that you “get one (preferably only one) impossibility for free”, and it’s typically faster-than-light travel or communication, or time travel, or something else we currently believe impossible. Then the rest of the story has to conform to “known reality” with its restrictions, to be respectable.

      For Fantasy, the rules are a lot looser: magic, impossible animals, telepathy, action at a distance, god-like powers, etc. Have as many as you want as long as you’re consistent about it.

      Horror does similar things with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and so forth.

      There’s a reason those genres all technically grouped together as “speculative fiction”. The whole meta-genre absolutely requires suspension of disbelief.

      But (and very importantly) that suspension is only for the speculative aspects of the story. If the people don’t behave like people, if water isn’t wet or fire doesn’t burn, then the reader instantly loses respect for the story. (And one of the big challenges in the genre is to make non-human characters both human enough to understand their motivations & limits to some degree as well as non-human enough to get that frisson of encountering the “strange”.)

  2. The thing with the willing suspension of disbelief is that your world and its handwavium have to be internally consistent and logical. People are more than willing to believe anything if it makes sense within its own sphere of existence.
    Hell, we believe enough insane and impossible things in the real world, it’s much easier to accept someone teleporting or traveling faster than light in a novel so long as the rules put in place for that impossible thing make consistent sense.
    The only thing that makes me call BS in a story is when the author capriciously changes the rules mid-book.

  3. Even with the “impossibilities” SF frowns on *known wrong” concepts like ghosts, perpetual motion, actual FTL, etc.

    Most of the common “impossibilities” are more in the vein of not-known-true and carry at least a nugget of plausibility. The fringes of physics are currently ambivalent about things like time travel, wormholes, higher dimension portals, paralel worlds, and most of the common handwaviums. And a few old concepts from the 50’s and 60’s have been proven viable and in a few cases engineering reality.

    Some authors are just lazy and don’t bother with proper worldbuilding while others are so spooked/restrained they refuse to deal with anything not annointed by the “current scientific consensus”. Both are often signs of limited imagination. The best SF comes from folks willing to do the work and push the borders of plausibility in service to the story.

    Its how the genre earned its title as “The literature of imagination” and how it brings its signature sense of wonder. Readers need to come with open minds, of course.

    “The monstrous homogenization of our world has now almost destroyed the map, any map, by making every place on it exactly like every other place, and leaving no blanks…. As in the Mandelbrot fractal set, the enormously large and the infinitesimally small are exactly the same, and the same leads always to the same again; there is no other; there is no escape, because there is nowhere else.

    In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense — to regain the knowledge — that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.

    The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.”


    LeGuin got tbat much right.

    The (far) future is the only hope left in today’s world.

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