Willing Suspension of Disbelief
Today’s topic is something that I think about often, sometimes without even realizing that I’m doing so. And I’d be willing to bet that you do, too.
I studied Theatre Arts for several years in high school and college, and one of the most important lessons I walked away with has to do with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called the “willing suspension of disbelief”. Simply put, it’s a sort of implicit contract between an entertainer and the audience, where both sides agree to treat the proceedings as if they are really happening.
This idea applies to many mediums: plays, books, movies, TV… anything that is fictional. On a cerebral level, the audience knows that what they’re watching or reading is a fictional performance—but it heightens their enjoyment of it to pretend that it’s actually happening. Take an illusionist, for example: does anyone in the audience truly believe that Penn & Teller can make objects vanish or appear from thin air? But isn’t it fun to watch and think, “Wow, that really did look real! What if it was real?”
Similarly, a good movie won’t have you thinking about what it actually is: a bunch of guys pointing cameras at a bunch of other guys while they pretend to do stuff. Hopefully, you’re not thinking about Anthony Hopkins clocking out at the end of the day, going home, feeding his dog, and opening his mail. Because he’s not a normal guy like you, he’s the character in the movie. And that makes the movie more real. If you start overthinking it, you lose your focus on the movie, and your enjoyment of it suffers.
Have you ever been watching a TV show, and the characters are eating a meal? Watch closely. In one shot, there will be a sandwich with one bite taken out of it. Then, seconds later, it’s almost gone. Someone’s water glass will be almost empty… then in the next shot, it’s almost full. The actors are taking these microscopic bites, because they’re not really eating dinner, and they don’t want to have their mouth full because their line is coming up next. In fact, they spend most of their time buttering the same roll for three minutes straight. (And in the next shot, the same roll has no butter on it.)
This is because of continuity, which can be a serious enemy to the suspension of disbelief. When they shot that scene, the director did about ten different takes while they tried to get the delivery down cold and the cameras lined up and let’s fix that lighting and get everything just right… and the whole time, the actors are pretending to eat dinner for about four hours. Then in editing, they go through and pull together the best takes for the scene, and some of them were early on when the water glasses were full, some at the end when almost empty.
The problem is that when you watch the scene and notice these fluctuating sandwiches and drinks, it pulls you out of the show because you’re thinking about the production instead. Your disbelief is alive and well! Of course, many people never notice these things, but if you do, you have to work a little harder to get back into the story, right?
You might point out that I referred to the suspension of disbelief as a “contract”, meaning that both sides have a mutual responsibility to make this idea work. And you’d be right… “Who notices stuff like that?” you might ask. “You shouldn’t obsess over small things; just go with the flow and don’t think about it too much.” Okay, point taken—why watch a movie or read a book if you’re going to nitpick it to death? But that should be somebody’s job on the creative side: a continuity expert who watches out for these things and streamlines the experience.
I believe that it’s the responsibility of entertainers to help facilitate the audience’s suspension of disbelief. I remember reading a novel with an excellent story, but it was full of errors: single words or entire lines that were italicized for no reason; quotation marks that opened and never closed; your and you’re interchanged; and so on. I loved the plot, but these stylistic mistakes kept pulling me out of the story and making me think about the production shortcomings of the book I was holding. I believe it was either self-published or done by a very small indie house, and just didn’t get the edit that it deserved, which was a real shame.
Authors, don’t skip the editing process! A good copyeditor could have cleaned up the errors in this book and polished it to perfection. Instead of my eye constantly picking out mistakes in the prose, I would have enjoyed the story so much more. In the words of a writer friend of mine, “you almost want to make them forget that there are words.” That’s the goal: for the audience to be so deeply immersed in the story you’re telling that they forget life itself. True escapism is when you don’t even realize that you’re holding a book or watching a screen. And isn’t that the feeling we’re after?