Willing Suspension of Disbelief? I think it's a bit more than that.

The Lakeland Poet and Infamous Eighteenth Century Junkie is credited with coining the term "suspension of disbelief" - usually rendered today as "willing suspension of disbelief". Fantasy authors and those who have studied theatre, film, poetry or literature will likely already be very familiar with the term.

I was talking to a new customer yesterday about the relationship between storyteller and listener, between author and reader, and the discussion led me to call into question the idea of "willing suspension."

Certainly, some curious cognitive effort is going on when we are presented with a fantastical story. Somehow we are quite happy to accept that Enterprise is hurtling through space at Warp factor 9 (despite Scotty's insistence that this canna be done), provided that the behaviour of the bridge crew is consistent with our understanding of the characters. Why do we accept the unreal along with the real? And why are we happy to accept the unreal as an equal part of the plot, the action, even of the active agents of the story, along with what we know to be real or possible?

It is said that we are willing to suspend our disbelief if the rest of the circumstances of the story are sufficiently convincing. Honestly, I don't think any such willing choice is being made.

Indeed, there are different ways in which we will accept the fantastical.

Throughout the world, there are fantastical stories told to children, and many of these have transcultural elements. The strongest of these is the idea of magic - that a person can manipulate reality directly through secret knowledge or a carefully trained will. But the elements of fairytales extend beyond the conceptual. Most cultures have their versions of dwarfs and giants, elves and fairies, trolls and goblins. And of course, Dragons.

When we encounter these fantastical creatures in stories, our reaction to them is as if they were real. This is because they are so strongly a part of our cultural heritage that they have a familiarity that places them in a special world: the world of the fairytale (and increasingly, the modern, Post Tolkien, Post Robert E Howard Heroic Fantasy) is a shared imaginative space. It has its rules and conventions, and storytellers who observe those rules and conventions can tell a story with no more effort to convince a reader to suspend his disbelief than they would if they were writing a history or a biography.

The conventions of fairytales also extend into the very structure of stories themselves. Take Pterry's famous observation that whenever the youngest of three sons sets out on a quest that has already claimed the lives of his two older brothers, it is almost impossible for him to fail. Most readers will accept this, and many will revolt at a story where narrative convention like this is contravened.

When, on the other hand, we encounter a fantasy that is completely new, we react differently. Admittedly, the completely new is rare. Star Trek itself derives not from science fiction but from boy's adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And most viewers probably understand as much about the technology of naval canon as they do about quantum torpedoes. It's actually quite difficult to come up with an example of a fantasy that forces the reader to confront a new type of story or new types of challenge.

Time travel was once a good example of this. But (to the British), Dr Who has the same status as Robin Hood - a folk hero - and therefore part of the imaginative space of the fairytale - and time travel is a cosy familiarity.

So if it isn't willing suspension of disbelief, what is it?

In thinking about the relationship between the storyteller and the listener, and how it feels to be both, the word that I found myself thinking was surrender. Far from an act of controlled and conscious will - "I choose to act as if those fantasy things are real because the rest of the story is good enough" the listener surrenders control of his reality into the hands of the storyteller. It is an act of trust that weighs heavily on the teller as you will know if you've ever done this live. If you get off to a good start, you soon start to feel the weight of expectation from your audience.

What the reader does is to willingly surrender control of his imagination to the author. To do this, he has to trust the author. Think of all those one star reviews you've had where the reviewer showed a feeling of disappointment often spilling over into betrayal. You failed to deliver on his expectations. To the reader it feels like a betrayal of trust. Think of all those five star reviews where the reader gushes about how you delivered on your promises.

And as a reader, think of how much easier it is to try the new book of a familiar writer than to try a writer that you do not know.

In calling it "willing suspension of disbelief", Coleridge (against, I suspect, his intent), placed the responsibility in the hands of the reader, in suggesting that the reader had to "choose to suspend", and that if he did not make this choice, then in some way the imaginative effort required to engage with the story would be missing.

I am calling it Willing Surrender of Imaginative Control; it is still an act by the reader, but it is an act of submission and trust, which places the responsibility firmly in the hands of the storyteller.


I don't really think that "disbelief" is an action, anyway. I don't think it can be "suspended". It suggests that we exist in a constant state of disbelief that we have to suspend in order to respond to fantasy. This is . . . odd.

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