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Why Do We Suspend Disbelief For Stories?

Are we stupid and illogical if we enjoy stories that aren’t real? Think about it for a minute. Any time we engage in a story, whether a movie or a book, we’re letting our logic walls down. Fiction, by its […]
| Feb 16, 2016 | 3 comments |

SpockAre we stupid and illogical if we enjoy stories that aren’t real?

Think about it for a minute. Any time we engage in a story, whether a movie or a book, we’re letting our logic walls down. Fiction, by its very definition, is untrue. Events made up and born out of the imaginative mind of a person. This is especially true when it comes to speculative fiction.

In order for fiction to exist, we have to be willing to let go of our logical side and dream the impossible. *cue Spock rolling over in his grave*

The topic of suspending disbelief came up in a discussion about a blog post I wrote yesterday in relation to time travel. One commenter pointed out,

“Time travel in fiction is an endless, twisted black hole of plot problems. This is true, unequivocally. And that’s why it’s not a question of “Why do they allow this problem to stay when they could fix it?” There is no “fix” that would satisfy every possible permutation of time travel possibilities.”

This brings to light an interesting fact about fiction. Every aspect of a story at some level, even though it can be so subtle we don’t notice it, requires us to suspend our disbelief that this “can’t happen” for the sake of the story.

  • Time travel as presented in TV shows such as Flash and Doctor Who is impossible
  • Hobbits don’t exist
  • Based on the limitations of current science, warp speed is unattainable
  • There is no magical land called Narnia

Granted, those are extreme examples, but I’m a spec-fic geek. What can I say? 😉

Because these “fantastical” elements have no grounds in reality, authors set guidelines to anchor us in a story, and then we expect them to stick to those rules unless they can reasonably justify breaking said rules.

Apart from anything that edges into the ridiculous realm (not that everyone agrees on where the line is), we happily place ourselves at the whims of the storytellers.

But why?

Are People Stupid, Forgiving, or Something Else?

real world signEverywhere we turn, we come across impossible elements, yet the majority of the time we accept them without a second thought. Why is that? Why doesn’t reason win out and rid the world of anything even hinting at a touch of the unbelievable?

It’s obvious that anyone of sound mind doesn’t actually think created worlds such as Middle-earth or Narnia exist, or that Captain American was an actual person. We’re not stupid. Yet we put aside the shackles of reality, of math equations and gravity, not because we believe the “lie” of fiction and not because we merely placate storytellers by forgiving the unrealistic nature of their concoctions.

The reason we so readily suspend disbelief is to allow ourselves the freedom to view the world from a new angle, to explore places kept off-limits by reality, to see beyond the scope of our confines and glimpse the wide horizons presented by imagination and “what if?”

We have an innate desire to break outside the box we know, to become a spaceship traveling to the unreachable stars.

According to Tolkien, as creatures made in God’s image, the ultimate Creator, we take on slight vestiges of that attribute, becoming sub-creators. Stories become a natural outflow of that nature as we grasp to understand things beyond what’s visible, tangible, logical.

Couple this with the words of C.S. Lewis,

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

We have a longing for something more, something glimpsed through the lens of story. It’s no surprise, then, that instead of merely being willing to suspend disbelief we actually desire it.

A Different Perspective

As Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Strange as it seems, through the unreality of stories, we come to a deeper, better, clearer understanding of the real world. This quote by Jessamyn West sums it up perfectly:

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

Bringing this full circle, the emphasis isn’t on the fanciful parts that stories demand we accept in order for them to operate properly. Rather, it’s on letting those stories become vehicles for showing us the truth. About the world. About others. About ourselves.

Stories may be unrealistic according to strict logic, but that doesn’t matter. We stop seeing the trees and instead focus on the forest. The details fade to the background, forgotten as we catch sight of the truth found beyond our logical reality.

After all, the greatest story ever, the one myth that actually came true, as Tolkien put it, is far from realistic. Why should our stories be any different?

How far are you willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to stories?

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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Leah Burchfiel
Leah Burchfiel

Tangent: Man, I should read some more Albert Camus, but he’s French, and all that ennui doesn’t make for leisurely reading.

R. J. Anderson

I think everyone suspends disbelief — or is willing to, anyway — in different ways, as well. My husband hates time travel stories; he thinks they’re a cheap excuse to avoid solving plot problems and a thing that authors do when they’ve run out of better ideas. I, on the other hand, am a Doctor Who fan so time travel is my jam (except when it’s used to solve plot problems in an “oh, we’ll just pop back five minutes” way, which makes me grumble because it’s lazy writing).

And, of course, certain things are more or less plausible depending on the reader/viewer’s personal areas of expertise and/or interest. I was talking to a friend this weekend for whom the latest Star Wars movie was ruined by what he saw as terrible science. I saw the terrible science as well, but I didn’t care because I don’t expect good science from Star Wars to begin with, and the movie was giving me everything that I really want out of a Star Wars movie plus some.