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Suspension of Disbelief: How Far Should We Take It?

Many of today’s most popular stories require some suspension of disbelief to be enjoyed, and yet there are some who believe there is a line that suspension of disbelief shouldn’t cross. I’m not sure where that line is, but I have found my suspension "breaking" and disrupting the story sometimes. This is especially true for children’s and YA novels. For example, I love A Little Princess but as an adult, I find myself questioning, "Isn’t Sara’s rescue extremely contrived? Am I, a modern reader, supposed to believe this to any extent?" Same for Harry Potter–the adult side of me continually says, "Deep cover or not, how did Severus Snape ever manage to keep his job? Has Hogwarts never heard of ethical hiring practices or HR?" Same for Narnia–"You’re telling me these four children maintained what is essentially a double life for years, and then just died/disappeared at the end of The Last Battle, and no one said a word?"

Of course, many of these books, and adult books too, are fantasies and can play by looser rules in terms of disbelief suspension. But even in those cases, questions remain. Even today’s children are reluctant to suspend disbelief because they know more than ever about how the world around them operates. My big question is, has the amount of information and analysis we’re privy to in the modern world made us too cynical to enjoy a story that demands we suspend disbelief? Have we suspended it too much or too little? How can an author do suspension of disbelief well? Discuss.

  • The concept of suspended belief I think also needs to be considered from the intended audience, for example the children's literature you outlined I think only needs to meet the suspended belief of its age group. However, I would also add that both Tolkien and Lewis had a lot to say about the importance of accepting the genre as part of suspending disbelief - as in that by accepting it is a fantasy genre means that real life concerns should be overlooked. Yet I too agree that I struggle with this at times, yet less often in literature where I am more likely to allow an author "literary license," but rather in film I struggle with this when I feel they are stretching beyond the "realistic." I think too with the visual we are so aware of what visually something looks like in real life, or should fit the parameters of, that it is harder to suspend disbelief. Added to this is most people's understanding of costuming, make-up and CGI. In regards to the second point it is worth acknowledging that different genres have different levels of suspension, and then target audience may influence this. However, at the end of the day I think most of the time it is good writing and an amazing narrative that carries you through. – SaraiMW 4 years ago
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  • Suspension of disbelief is also a core theatrical convention that implies a level of cognitive dissonance from the audience; they know there are lighting rigs and stage doors and one space within which the action occurs, but leave this knowledge at the door. Conversely, actors imagine a "fourth wall" between themselves and the audience who subsequently become flies on the wall. That is true of realism. Other non-realistic styles of drama shatter this convention and want the constructed elements to be made as overt as possible to achieve the desired audience effect. In this way, suspension of disbelief may be seen to be a function of specific genres. Didactic, "Brechtian" theatre does this well through direct audience address, placards, non-linear narratives and costume changes on stage. Such conventions work to enhance the experience of the story and can also apply to novels. In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House, the convention of a linear narrative is shattered. The audience embrace this as fundamental in conveying the disenfranchised, mentally ill central character. Can audiences of movies and readers of literature rather embrace the "gaps" in suspension of disbelief? – danielleraffaele 4 years ago
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