If you’ve never heard the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief” before – it describes the exact point where you accept something fantastical or unrealistic as just an ‘ordinary’ part of the story or comic that you’re reading (or the TV show that you’re watching).
It’s the point where you go from thinking “magic isn’t real… and this story is silly” to thinking “Why didn’t Harry Potter just use the Expelliarmus spell right there?“.
It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Harry Potter (I read the last three “Harry Potter” novels over the space of about four days in 2007), so this probably isn’t the best example to use.
So, I’ll talk about a more recent example of when it happened to me and see if there’s anything about storytelling that we can learn from it.
A couple of months ago, I started watching a classic 1990s sci-fi show called “Babylon 5” for the very first time. It had been going cheap on DVD and I’d bought the first two seasons last autumn and had only just got round to watching it.
My reaction to the very first episode was something along the lines of “So, this is what ‘Star Trek’ looks like to people who aren’t fans of it!”.
The alien costumes looked silly, the dialogue sounded stilted, the mythology of the show seemed slightly absurd and the early-1990s CGI effects made Playstation One games look realistic by comparison. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at the show or cringe at it.
But, I remembered one of the rules I have about TV shows – namely, “Don’t judge a show by it’s first episode“. So, in an effort to justify buying two seasons of this show to myself – I forced myself to watch the second episode.
Needless to say, something shifted within me as I watched episode two and – by the end of it – I found that I was enjoying the show as much as I had enjoyed other sci-fi shows. The characters seemed a little bit more interesting, some of the set designs reminded me of “Blade Runner” and I was even very slightly curious about the mythology of the show.
So, what changed? A few things did.
Firstly, the second episode had a much more interesting story than the first episode did. Whilst the first episode contained a rather melodramatic and formulaic story about interstellar peace negotiations, the second episode was a horror-based episode about an alien who vicariously enjoys the experience of other people’s deaths via telepathy before he steals their souls.
It was dramatic, it was genuinely creepy and I was curious to see how it would end. All of my previous criticisms of the show faded into the background because I was interested in the story that was being told.
So, if you want your audience to suspend their disbelief, then make sure that you’re telling an interesting enough story to distract them from the “unrealistic” parts of your story.
Secondly, I got to know the characters a little bit better. Even though my first impressions of the “Babylon 5” characters weren’t that good, they started to grow on me once I’d spent more than forty-five minutes in their company.
Having interesting and compelling characters is another way to make sure that your audience “suspends their disbelief”.
Ideally, your characters should make a good impression and be interesting from the first moment that your audience encounters them. But, even if it takes a while for your audience to get to know them – they should still be interesting. After all, if your readers don’t care about the characters, then they’re much more likely to notice everything else in your story.
Finally, if you want your audience to “suspend their disbelief”, then everything has to make sense in context.
What I mean by this is that you can include all sorts of “unrealistic” and “fantastical” stuff in your story, but it has to follow it’s own set of ‘rules’. And this, I think, is where some stories fail when it comes to making their audience “suspend their disbelief” – they either don’t make the rules very clear or they end up changing them too often (which just leaves the audience feeling slightly confused).
Of course, this was another reason why I liked the second episode of “Babylon 5” more than the first one. When I saw the first episode of the show, I had no clue whatsoever about the “rules” of the fictional universe that it was set in. So, anything strange or unrealistic stood out a lot more until the show explained it.
But, by the time I’d started watching the second episode, I had a vague grasp of what was and what wasn’t part of the show’s mythology – so I could stop analysing everything and just enjoy the story.
Establishing the “rules” of your story is something of an awkward process and there are a lot of different ways to do it (eg: through dialogue, through just showing your audience things etc…), but it is something that you must do if you want your audience to “suspend their disbelief”.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂