Suspension of Disbelief

Catching up on a number of comic books reminded me about a question I have regarding theories about the practical applications of “suspension of disbelief”, and being that we have a large number of professional and amatuer writers here in the forums, this is an excellent place to ask about your opinions.

Specfically, are there any theories on how certain illogical plot elements can be easily ignored for the sake of story by readers whereas others, even when smaller, jump out and demand attention?

I ask because I noticed how much an explanation given as to how The Flash could sense a bullet about to pierce his skull because the hyper-fast senses picked up on the air being pushed against the back of his head before it struck.

For some reason this just bugged the hell out of me, which is odd because I have no problem reading a comic books involving a guy who can run at the speed of light without destroying half the planet thanks to having been struck by lighting and a few choice chemicals, who fights along side a guy who can shrink to the subatomic scale without harm thanks to a piece of white drawf star he uses as a beltbuckle.

We also see similar complaints happen in the games forum, where certain aspects of games seem perfectly acceptable and others completely unbelieveable.

I’m wondering if there’s any particular reason why some things work and others don’t.

For me, it’s the overall consistency, the adherence to the fictional environment’s internal logic. It’s not a question of letting something slide based on my current understanding of the real world, but whether or not i can go along with something that makes sense within the context of the fantasy. The trick is blown if your bullshit is bullshit, more or less. It can be illogical as far as the real world goes, but not as far as your story goes.

With a magical world, you can get away with a lot simply because “Well, it’s magic”. The only problem there is being overwhelmed with so much stuff that instead of being engrossed by what’s possible, you throw your hands up in the air and go “Ok, look. What ISN’T possibe?”. Or with those superheroes you mention, there’s a lot of leeway because the premise is pretty fantastic to begin with. The trip up is when something is just too convenient. Superman being able to survive in space for a limited amount of time due to his powers reducing his need for oxygen and making him resilient to extreme temperatures? Sure, why not. It doesn’t matter how suddenly something like that is sprung on me. Sounds pretty super, and has some sort of limitation too. Superman coming back from the dead? Uh oh, BS.

Sense of contrivance?

The word that seemed bandied around is Verisimilitude.

Like Jon R. says, it has to somehow adhere to a certain internal logical consistency.

I’d disagree though on the point about presentation. A good presentation that often lessen the blow of an overly contrived plot device. The flash example sounds like a convenient plot device in which the main aim to let the flash survive a gunshot? How often would this hypersensitivity be mentioned before and after? If little, then yes, it would seem a plot device to explain a one-time event. If a lot, then the suspension of disbelief could have taken its time to settle in.

Perhaps then it is to do with degree.

His speed and his history has been pounded into the reader’s consciousness already. We accept those as neccessary tools to move forward and enjoy the story. His hypersensitivity doesn’t seem to add much to the overall story, and thus, could possibly jump out at us as such.

P.S. Comic superheroes always seem to come back from the dead. Case in point: X-men’s Jean Grey. But I suppose if you name the girl phoenix, she will continually rise from the ashes. I think the current count is 5?

Whatever happened to the “dead is dead” policy?

Internal consistency is very important. More important, the expectations for that consistency have to be set in place (via foreshadowing) before some strange event occurs.

In other words, when your bullshit meter goes off, it should be because “Wait, no one ever said shit about that before” not because “That’s impossible!”.

Think of a bad detective novel (I just finished readnig some very old Magnus Ridolph stories by Jack Vance, so I know of which I speak). So you have this whole contrived situation where, say, the Detective is trying to identify the killer in a closed room scenario.

Now, if clues are laid down ahead of time, then when the plot twist or discovery or whatever happens, no matter how implausible it can still work if the groundwork was consistent and laid in advance.

If, on the other hand, no clues are present, and the act feels random or the explanation is just some rationalization, THEN we have a problem. For example, if the mystery is solved because the detective mentions that he saw something on the way in and thus there’s no way the reader could have known this. That’s when bullshit meters go off.

In the case of the Flash, if there were a lot of examples where his hypersensitive sense and reflexes came into play prior to that situation, then all is well. But if there are other situations that happen – say, like he routinely gets punched, or hit by a car, or surprised, or whatever – that disallow the bullet avoidance theory, then the consistency is blown and the reader rolls his eyes and mutters “bullshit” under his breath.

I think Star Trek is pretty much the lord of the inconsistency universe.

This right here is the best summation of my feelings on this. Fantasy (or fantastical) fiction needs to have the feeling that there are limits, that some things simply can’t happen. Whenever a power or event seems too convenient, then you lose all sense of excitement.

So Superman is being held in a kryptonite block at the bottom of the ocean, is about to drown, and nobody in the world know where he is? Who cares? He’ll just come up with some lame ass power to get him out of this, and the story will continue. (Telepathy? Coming back from the dead? Being immune to kryptonite when there’s a lot of water? Whatever.)

I always thought the more interesting superheros were the ones with very limited powers. Green Archer, Hawkman, Aquaman, Batman. Sure, they were pansies. Superman could wipe the floor with the lot of 'em. But they had to actually deal with problems instead of just using a long forgotten superpower.

I’ve been having arguments with my girlfriend about this.

Star Trek for example – how do they solve problems? (Or how did they in Voyager, the last series I watched?) They invent brand new technobabble. In other episodes, brand new technobabble is used as the problem. In both cases, the technobabble has any effect or is mentioned again. So, suprise suprise, Star Trek contradicts itself in numerous ways. While this is to be expected given the umpteen zillion episodes of Star Trek produced, the writers don’t even seem to try anymore.

Ditto for characterization. Characters in Voyager were likely to pick up, with no warning, traits or emotions that they’d never had before if it was convenient for the episode. “Oh, did I mention that I was interested in the history of solar sailing? Well, I’ll saw the photon lightship across the Big Place Where The Warp Drive Doesn’t Because for Blahblahblah”.

As Anaxagoras says, if problems can be explained away without any sort of effort, who cares about the problems.

And movies like Signs – I can’t watch it without getting really annoyed at the “makes no sense” portrayal of the aliens. I don’t care if they’re just a metaphor or what have you, but the entire invasion plot only works if the invasion force is actually the crew of Golgafrinchan Ark B Ship.

And a farmer without a shotgun? Sheesh.

I still think one of the most egregious examples of this is the original Superman movie in which Superman suddenly reverses time after Lois is killed. Um…what? Not only is such a power completely unprecedented, but it makes zero sense that you could fly around the earth so fast it would reverse the flow of time, even if you are Superman. He’s really fast and really strong, but up until then nothing is shown that indicates he’s immune to natural law on that scale.

I don’t remember who came up with this metaphor first - it certainly wasn’t me - but “suspension of disbelief” is best described like this: My belief is suspended if, when I’m reading a fantasy novel, I don’t get the distinct feeling that the author is rolling dice to determine the next scene.

Vaporizer Review

Don’t read the Dragonlance Annotated Chronicles then…

We should have had this argument a few years ago, so that we could have linked to it every time we argued over suspension of disbelief in films and games. Seeing as how I still can’t figure on why it’s okay to have monsters hide in a closet that is inside of another closet or why Spiderman gets to have a new super power only one time in one film.

One day I’m going to make a film that, for the first half, is utterly realistic. Then, I’m going to have an elf walk through a scene in the middle. Then, the rest of the film will make absolutely no sense. In fact, simple laws of physics and relativity will be blatantly ignored. Because, hey, elves, you know?

Somehow that never really bugged me, I mean come on, he’s Superman, he’s super, there’s nothing he can’t do and that just proves it.

Well, you’ve come right to the crux of the problem with elves. Now if it were pixies, it would be much more believable.

So it would be like the fantasy version of 1985’s Explorers, except with elves instead of rubber aliens who learned to speak English from television?

Except for that whole Kryptonite problem. And his sensitivity to magic.

If anything, it was always the complaint that every year Superman gets more powerful (at one time, leaping a great building with a single bound was the extent of his flight abilities) is the strongest reason many comic fans avoid his titles.

At what point do you have to get downright silly to provide that sort of character with a challenge?

That’s one of the reason that it took me a long time to get into S:TAS.

Basically your plot each week is figuring out how to de-power supes so that he can actually be threatened by something.

That or drop his friends off the side of building so he can fly down and rescue them.

Except for that whole Kryptonite problem. And his sensitivity to magic.


Again, that just struck me as a necessary flaw to make him at least part way human. Maybe the new movie will address some of these problems. If you ask me though, when they killed Superman they should have left him dead. Doomsday was a wicked villain who deserved to have finally put supes down.

I think there’s no easy rule for when it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief.

My wife, frex, will become completely enthralled into what even she admits after-the-fact are incredibly stupid plots, to the point of running scared out of the room when we’re watching a movie.

My father is at the opposite extreme–he used to occasionally flick through my comics, and he picked up “Miracleman”, and just couldn’t get past the premise (for those that haven’t read it, “Miracleman” is essentially “Shazam.”)

Or, for an even further step in that direction, Harvey Pekar had a long-running argument with Art Spiegelman in “The Comics Journal” about the latter’s use of mice in “Maus”; Pekar felt that mice turned the story into a silly fantasy that no-one could really get into, and that Spiegelman should’ve used humans. (I could be misstating his argument–it was about 15 years ago–but it was something like that)


The problem is that to me it ends up making it even more obvious that he’s not human, as well as being a giant neon “I’m a tension-building plot-point” sign.

I mean, here you have a character so rediculously overpowered that the writers have to create a super-exotic weakness just to keep things interesting.

Of course, things were only made worse as time went on and things like red, pink, blue, white and gold kryptonite, though most of those eventually went away. Still the damage was done.

Then this could very be a character specific kind of question.

If your wife normally quite naive? Or easily led into believing things? If your dad normally a skeptic? Are they like mulder and scully?

I’m thinking it could also depends on the reader/gamer/audience, own store of knowledge and ability to think logically. You could probably get away with a lot of silly plot devices if your audience is kids only looking to have a good time. Whereas, adults and those with a certain level of education is gonna begin to question those inconsistencies that stick out to us. Ultimately it boils down to how we are familiar with interacting with the internal logic of the book. Given that we’ve already suspended some belief in order to enjoy the larger story, how much more we suppose to sacrifice if it doesn’t serve the larger story.

Apologies for the rambling sort of post.

I actually started off in college going for a degree in Physics, and still remember a fair amount of the subject even ten years later.

Yet the silly miniature sun fusion reactor in Spider-Man 2 didn’t bother me in the least. I had the knowledge that it was nothing more than a plot device with little real science behind it, yet all that was pretty easy to ignore.

Star Trek technobabble, on the other hand, drives me up a wall.