On the willing suspension of disbelief

I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. I watch a lot of fantasy and science fiction movies and tv shows. And I listen to mostly science fiction and fantasy podcasts (with a darker, horror bent).

And I’m telling you that so you know I am very willing to suspend my disbelief.

You want to throw someone out of an airlock and pick them up alive in 30 seconds, I’m with you. I’m not tied to hard or soft science fiction; I love  both. Want magic and elves and faeries and Dream to be real characters interacting with everyday people? Sweet. I’m very well versed in the lore and am looking forward to seeing what you do with the conventions. I’m even willing to go with changes to the rules that have been set up over the history of writing, if you’re doing something interesting (I’d put up with sparkly vampires as long as you can kill them with a wooden stake and don’t break your own rules to tell a stalker story).

But what I’m finding is that I don’t like to discover what genre you’re in half way through your work. If your work is  a short story, then I can go with the whole thing and find out at the end, but that’s because you aren’t a significant time commitment.  And I generally pick up books in the science fiction/fantasy section, which gives you more time too. But if you’re a movie or a tv show, I better have the same idea you do in the  first 15 minutes or the first episode.

And as I come across more stories, I find that I need to have a better idea of what kind of science fiction or fantasy you are. There are different rules, and I need to know what to falls under the contract of willing suspension of disbelief in your story.

I realized this last night when I was watching the finale of Lost. I watched the first couple of seasons, but then left the show, as the lack of answers was too frustrating. But since I knew everyone would be talking about the finale, I made an effort to see it. I caught most of the recap, and felt prepared enough to watch the end without being too confused over all the new characters and plot developments.

And I as I watched the final episode, I kept thinking of the fifth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (you read that right) where the brackets all start closing and the variables become constants. And it dawned on me that Lost was not primarily science fiction, like I’d initially thought, but it was fantasy.

I’d never thought Lost was hard science fiction, because really what actual scientific explanation could there be for an island that doesn’t exist on the maps with all the satellites in orbit and Google maps . But the idea of the magnetic field, and the company that worked on the island seemed to fit into soft science fiction. And I can go with that. That’s more like Eureka, and while there’s some scientific basis, it’s really mostly made up. Like hard science fiction and fantasy had a kid.

But even that convention set doesn’t make sense when there is a wheel that moves the island through time. That moves Lost into fantasy. It’s like Harry Potter finding out that he’s magical and is headed off to school in this whole hidden world. Islands on Earth don’t jump through time, unless you’re in a story that is mostly fantasy.

And I think that’s what Lost is; a mostly fantasy story set in a world very like our own, but where the afterlife is a process.

I can suspend my disbelief for that. And I might go back and catch the seasons I missed so I can follow the characters. But my new understanding of the show won’t stop me from being annoyed with the first two seasons. I don’t regret leaving the show when I did, because I didn’t know at the beginning that I was signing up for a fantasy/slightly-science-fiction show.

I will continue to be annoyed with the first two seasons because they broke the contract. I, as your reader/listener/viewer, need to know at the outset what beliefs to willingly suspend. I won’t know how to relate to your story at the beginning if you as the creator/author don’t let me know. And if you start by cluing me in to suspend one set of disbeliefs when you really need me to use a different set, expect me to be at least slightly annoyed.

I don’t need a list, but I need at least clear hints. If the title of your work is Goblin Market, I’m going to be looking for goblins. And when they show up, I’ll go with you that goblins exist and they can create a market. And I’ll pay attention to the rules you as the creator/author set, and I’ll go along with whatever plays by those rules. And I’ll do all of this gladly because you let me know what beliefs I was going to have to lay aside from the very beginning.

This is where Lost fails for me. Sure there was a smoke monster. Sure there was a polar bear in the tropics. But then they introduced a research company, which offered a valid explanation for the bear, and I assume hallucinations as the valid answer for the smoke monster. I picked our world logic because that is what all the clues I had pointed to. Jacob and the Man in Black were introduced after I had stopped watching what I saw as an unexplained science fiction show. Had they appeared in the first two season, I would have known it was really a fantasy show. And then I would have been more willing to give the show a chance.

The conventions don’t have to act as barriers for a story. The story conventions work to guide reader/viewer/listener expectations. When I sit down to watch an anime and the first episode introduces the main character by having the bar shot to pieces without a single bullet hitting him as he’s drinking his tea, I know the show is going to be more on the fantasy side of the science fiction/fantasy. And I am content with some answers being, “Well, that’s just how it works in this world. Go with it.”

Because I am very willing to suspend disbelief in order to believe in your story. I want your story to succeed. I want to believe. But I can’t believe in your story if you can’t tell me what beliefs you’re going to need me to suspend. Please blend the genres and break the conventions and telling interesting stories, just know how to signal to me where you are, so I know how to follow you.

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3 thoughts on “On the willing suspension of disbelief”

  1. I had not watched a single episode of Lost until last night’s finale. I watched the two hour recap, then caught the finale because I knew I’d need to be able to talk about it for work.

    I want to watch the rest of the series now, but all the twists and turns are a little off-putting. I guess that’s what a lot of people liked about it though.

  2. I just finished watching the finale with my Mr… and I have to say I both loved and completely hated the finale. I thought emotionally, what they were trying to do with the characters, it really felt like it paid off. But intellectually? Yeah… you’re right. They set up certain things to apparently be science fictiony, and then totally ignored them in favor of the fantasy element. I’m all for playing with genre, but it seems more like they tried to do one and realized they couldn’t so half way through the switched to the other and completely disregarded everything they’d built up to until that point.

  3. I stopped watching because I missed episodes and got .. lost, so I stopped. I haven’t even seen the finale. I think if I get the time I will watch the series, just because it does intrigue me.

    This is an excellent post about giving the reader/viewer some basic groundwork to understand the story. Makes sense to me. Sometimes I read something and the suspension of disbelief never happens, its too out there, if you will. Or I cant follow it. Not good if you are me.

    You hit the nail on the head.

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