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TV Tropes Monday: Willing Suspension of Disbelief


Tweet of the Day: Writing Excuses 6.14: Suspension of Disbelief

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The Willing Suspension of Disbelief, the mother of all tropes. The Echidna to all the tropes out there and the main reason they exists. But what is the willing suspension of disbelief?

Suspension of disbelief or “willing suspension of disbelief” is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literary works of fiction. It was put forth in English by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, and horror genres.

The wikipedia entry goes on to say that, ” often used to imply that the onus was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it” but to me it is not that easy. This trope rests on two supporting pillars: the willingness of the audience to accept the “facts” of the story as given and the the writers efforts in creating as solid a foundation for those “facts” as possible. Since this concept lies at the heart of fiction (especially speculative fiction) naming or even numbering all the ways a writer could build or crack said foundation would take way too many electrons for anyone to read. Instead I’ll list a few tricks of the trade that should help you pull it off:

  • Know Your Premise/Genre: The first step in establishing the suspension of disbelief. Fantasy demands magic, horror gruesome murders and so on. Readers are willing to accept the staples of said genre with ease (it’s what they like after all) but also judge a work by the pre-established limits of the given genre.
  • Magic A is Magic A: Consistency in the way the fantastic elements are presented within the story. They may break the rules (of physics, human behavior, etc.) but they retain an internal logic throughout.
  • All That He Knows: What do characters know and how do they act on that information depending on their socioeconomic backgrounds, established quirks and the like.
  • The Transitional Scene: A scene, somewhere in Act I, that guides the reader from the familiar to the fantastic.
  • Acceptable Breaks From Reality: Sometimes Reality is Unrealistic or too much detail gets in the way. If the audience is willing to “go with it” you as the writer should let them.

I’m sure you could add a few dozen more to the list.

Good luck!

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