Storytellers rely heavily on the suspension of disbelief in order to tell their stories and entertain. It’s not only about capturing that suspension in your readers or viewers at the beginning, but it’s also about maintaining that suspension with plausible detail and action so you don’t lose your readers or viewers.
To back up a bit: what exactly is “suspension of disbelief”? According to a Wikipedia article, this term originated with the poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor in the early 1800’s. He defined it as “the infusion of a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.” By maintaining that sense of human interest and semblance of truth throughout a story, a writer can maintain that suspension of disbelief. But that can be tricky. It only takes a moment, especially in a movie, for a viewer to lose her suspension of disbelief.
For example, I recently watched the movie Elysium on DVD. I enjoy dystopian future stories, and Matt Damon and Jodie Foster headlining the movie also appealed to me. Damon played Max, an inhabitant of earth which has clearly seen much better days and reminded me a little of the landscape in The Road, works on an assembly line. After suffering a terrible accident, he must somehow get to Elysium, the space station where all the wealthy elite and government officials live, in order to receive the medical treatment that will help him. Foster played the Secretary of Defense whose ambition knows no bounds. She schemes with the owner of the factory where Max was hurt to launch a coup and take over Elysium and earth in order to insure Elysium’s anti-immigration policy. The factory owner stores the needed information and computer code for the coup in his brain.
Max visits an old friend who can help him reach Elysium for a price. He wants Max to steal some data in the head of the factory owner. In order to be equipped to do that, Max’s friend turns Max over to a 3-man crew that then implants Max’s brain and body with an “exosuit” (didn’t quite catch what they called it). OK, at this point I became extremely uncomfortable. At no time was it established that anyone on this “crew” had any medical knowledge, knowledge of anatomy especially the brain, or was a doctor. And yet, they just went ahead and performed brain surgery on poor Max to put in the implants, and just punched the rest of the suit into his body like putting together lego blocks. This is exactly the moment when Neill Blomkamp, writer/director of this movie, totally, and I mean totally lost me. I could not sustain my suspension of disbelief. All he had to do to keep me was to establish that someone on that crew was a doctor, even a neurosurgeon would have been nice, and I would have been just fine. The rest of the movie was an uninteresting, boring, unsatisfying conglomeration of fights, chases, and gore. The violence was explicit and not at all entertaining.
Elysium is the kind of movie that benefits from another kind of suspension of disbelief, i.e. “cognitive estrangement” or the use of a person’s ignorance or lack of knowledge to sustain a suspension of disbelief. I’m certain that people with no knowledge of anatomy or medical procedures, or who don’t care, would not have been at all bothered by that sequence in the movie. This movie also reminded me of old fashioned comic book stories that described totally implausible super powers for their characters. Despite needing medical treatment urgently, Max survives a stabbing to his abdomen (about in the area of the large intestine and liver), countless fights including one particular fight that should have been the end of him and again, implausibly, it wasn’t, and manages to save the world, so to speak. Oh, yeah, right.
I’m glad, however, that I watched Elysium. It reminded me, as a writer, about how important it is to pay attention to sustaining that suspension of disbelief…..