On Willful Suspension of Disbelief

Black Panther
I just saw Black Panther, and it got me thinking about willful suspension of disbelief. I’ve got no problem with Vibranium, or a hidden African nation that is superior to western nations in all ways. I don’t have a problem with clothing that defies the laws of physics. This is Marvel’s Comic Universe, I’ll suspend my disbelief for these. But there was one thing in this film that tweaked me, pushed me out of the film for just a moment.

One lesson that we writers have to learn is how to present a story in a way that doesn’t eject our reader from the story. This means that everything we create has to have a patina of truthfulness, logic, or science without trying so hard that it fails. Frankly, readers go into a book, viewers go into a movie, knowing that amazing things are going to happen.

They want to believe.

We all accept that the communicators on Star Trek work because, well, it’s so damned far in the future, surely they can make that work. Warp drive? Sure, why not. There’s not much of a story without it.

But a reader, or viewer, can be thrown out of a story when we push their acceptance too far.

One example I can think of where a movie has thrown me out of my willful suspension of disbelief is Prometheus. The android, David, rapes a female crew member, impregnating her with an alien embryo. When she tries to abort it, an alien is born - a deadly creature that can kill them all. The woman escapes the sickbay and runs for help.

Then what happens?

This whole narrative thread gets interrupted by the revelation that there’s a stowaway on the ship. Yes, he’s someone important, but his sudden appearance in no way supersedes the fucking killer alien and rapey robot. Yet everyone just forgets those two, even the victim.

What the actual F?

I don’t care about all the other reasons that Prometheus was a mess, that plot turn all by itself ruins that movie to me.

Another example, from TV this time. There was a cool little show that everyone was talking about called Jericho a few years ago. It had that same buzz that Lost had (Lost! Talk about losing the audience, but I didn't really watch it, so back to Jericho). One of the first season episodes ended with everyone in town looking to the sky as a whole bunch of nuclear missiles launched from silos hidden around their farmlands.

It was a stunning end to the episode, a true cliffhanger. What the hell was going to happen next?

The very next episode started with that shot, then faded to text that said, "Three Weeks Later..." And we fade into the town, normal, except that all electronics are dead due to an EMP. I never watched again.

How do you avoid such events?

First, what does your audience expect?
If the people react or act opposite to how we would or how we’ve been led to expect them to, then you’ve lost your reader or viewer.

Second, readers will forgive what they don’t know.
I often see writers asking each other, “How do I explain this unknown technology so that my readers will get it?” More often than not, I think the best answer is you don’t. As Exhibit One, I’d like to introduce John Scalzi’s Red Shirts. For the plot to work, the crew needs to travel in time to the past. How do they do this? Scalzi never tells us. It all happens off page. They're here, then they're there.

Third, readers will jump all over the stuff they DO know.
Watching Black Panther, I didn’t need an explanation for Vibranium beyond “it’s an asteroid that hit Africa centuries ago.” A secret country called Wakanda? Cool, can I visit?

cessnaBUT, a Cessna flying from South Korea to the middle of Africa? What? Are you nuts?

I can think of three ways that’s wrong.

  • First, there aren’t a lot of private aircraft in the country, never mind a Cessna graveyard.
  • Second, and related, air space is tightly controlled (as the country is still technically in a state of war with North Korea and you really don’t need some idiot causing a nuclear holocaust).
  • Third - where could he fly to? China in the east is toooo far away for a Cessna. North Korea in the north? One of the many air forces on the Korean peninsula would shoot it down at the border. Into the empty ocean in the south? Sure, if you want to drown. Crossing the Sea of Japan to the east, he might make it to Fukuoka. But that’s the exact wrong direction to go! So, then he’d have to head up the islands to Vladivostok, Russia, then follow the Trans Siberian Railway lines to Europe. Then he could fly down over Greece or Italy and across the Mediterranean to either Egypt or Libya. From there, Wakanda might not be too hard to fly to. So, what, maybe three weeks to fly that far? With a dead body on the plane?

Yes, I did love the movie, and I did get back into it quickly. But for a minute or so, I was teetering on lost, pulling back my willingness to believe. (My date didn’t notice any of this, which is another problem. You never know who will trip over what.)

Do you have any examples of a moment when a movie or book has lost you? Do you have any examples of working around that problem?