Suspension of disbelief: the narrative pact between reader and writer

There suspension of disbelief is a concept that in narrative field indicates the ability of those who enjoy a story (a reader, a listener or a spectator) to put aside the normal logic of the world to immerse yourself in the story told. Simplifying, we could say that the suspension of disbelief is what makes even unrealistic stories still enjoyable and appreciable from the public.

A first theorization of this idea dates back to Aristotlewho argued that a certain degree of immersion in history it was necessary to reach the catharsis.

To speak first of suspension of disbeliefthat is, properly the suspension of disbelief, was instead the English poet in 1817 Samuel Coleridgewhich he also called this concept poetic faith, poetic faith. In fact, Coleridge hoped that fantastic and supernatural elements could find a new place in nineteenth-century poetry, largely excluded in eighteenth-century production inspired by classicism and rationality.

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The name of “suspension of disbelief” therefore indicates the act (partially conscious and partially unconscious) from suspend, during the reading, one’s own judgments on points or elements that are difficult to believe in everyday reality, so as to fully enjoy the story.

Let’s take an example of the most classic: even knowing that in reality they do not exist wizards, orcs, elves and other similar tropesa reader can however enjoy a fantasy narrative without feeling hindered by your own rationality. And not only that: the suspension of disbelief also allows you to be able to identify with the characters, despite their experience of life made of woods and nature, of magic and conflicts with other species is different from their own.

Coleridge’s idea, in fact, was that the infusion of human characteristics and a likeness of truth within a story would allow the reader to suspend disbelief. Returning to our example of a fantasy story: in these stories, although the characters do not always have human features, they have desires, dreams, passions similar to ours, and the functioning of society (based for example on work, or on the creation of families), it is not substantially dissimilar from the real one.

Although it is easy to see how this principle applies to so-called genre stories (fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, etc.) this is also established within realistic stories: we think of all the times when we accept to believe in strange coincidences, such as the unlikely meeting of two characters in moments together, or certain shifts from one place to another that would be too fast in everyday reality .

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Furthermore, if on the one hand theadherence to a gender now defined on the one hand can reinforce the suspension of disbelief (it is now assumed that in a superhero story some characters discover that they have particular powers, as well as that in a romantic story those who have to declare themselves can arrive at the airport just before the departure of those they love), on the other it can limit it in case elements outside the genre are included. That’s why stories that mix multiple genres are rarer: believe in a plot that mixes the western canon and that science fiction it might be difficult, although not impossible.

From a certain point of view then one can consider the suspension of disbelief as an underlying pact between the reader and the writer. If on the one hand the reader will leave aside the claims of being faced with a world in which the environment and functioning of life is identical to the real one, on the other hand the writer undertakes to create a story that is in any case endowed with a internal consistencyalthough in some elements it transcends reality.

In fact, almost everyone has had times when while reading a book, watching a movie or a TV series, but using a video game, a breaking point has been reached, in which you feel you can no longer “believe” in the story. To trigger it may have been, for example, the return to life of a character in a not very credible way, or perhaps the inclusion of a further fantastic element that clashes with others: this breaking point represents precisely the to fail the suspension of disbelief.

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To understand how in the writing stage you could risk breaking the system of internal coherence, it can help to know that the principle of suspension of disbelief is sometimes paraphrased in these terms: the public can accept the impossible (dragons, aliens, time travel …), but not the improbable (lightning striking the enemy just before his final victory, or a character who suddenly manages to solve the monetary problem that tormented him by finding a winning lottery ticket).

There breaking the suspension of disbelief it can happen frequently, also because it depends on the sensitivities of individual people, and in fact there are categorizations aimed at identifying the different types. One of these is the deus ex machinaand that is a sudden element not mentioned previously that comes to the rescue of the protagonist, just like a lightning bolt that suddenly strikes the antagonist.

Another type of breaking the suspension of disbelief is called jargon jumping the sharkliterally “jump the shark“. This expression is named after an episode of Happy Daysin which Fonzie (to whom the series had attributed several times in the past capacity at the limit of the possible) manages to jump over a shark while practicing water skiing, an event that was considered not very credible by some of the spectators.

The problem in the “jump of the shark” was not in fact the insertion of an incredible element in a series of realistic inspiration, because characteristic of the character were precisely his extraordinary abilities. This leap instead represented a perception of disruption of internal coherence who saw these abilities relegated to specific fields, such as making technological objects work almost by magic.

Finally, it should be remembered that of the kinds of stories that, by their nature, we can say that do not require suspension of disbelief, or that require a very solid one: these are the stories inspired by the nonsensein which elements that have nothing in common with each other are mixed together, and in which paradoxes and apparent illogicality represent precisely that system of coherence (in this case very difficult to break) on which the pact is based with the reader.

The best known example of this narrative genre in the literary field is certainly Alice in Wonderlandin which the story crosses worlds and realities with always different logics, without the reader ever feeling betrayed by the great inventiveness of Lewis Carroll.

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Suspension of disbelief: the narrative pact between reader and writer