In order to begin today’s blogging adventure, I am forced to admit that yes, I do, in fact, watch Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, the subject of today’s blog really is not so much about the show itself, but rather what the show exemplifies: the “willing suspension of disbelief.”
This is a subject which has been hashed and rehashed since the phrase was first used by none other than my good Romantic buddy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “The Phrase Finder,” a delightful British website that explores the origins of various idioms, offered this succinct explanation:
This term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 with the publication of his Biographia literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions:
"In this idea originated the plan of the 'Lyrical Ballads'; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours [sic] should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."
The state is arguably an essential element when experiencing any drama or work of fiction. We may know very well that we are watching an actor or looking at marks on paper, but we wilfully [sic] accept them as real in order to fully experience what the artist is attempting to convey.
The expression has since been hijacked beyond poetry to any number of different applications, one of which, most notably, is the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre. In many respects, this makes a good deal of sense. If one is going to be reading about wizards, vampires, alternate realities, and various other things which do not exist or are simply impossible, one needs to overlook these absurdities and accept them as real. Ursula K. Leguin, in the introduction to her excellent novel The Left Hand of Darkness, humorously notes that when one reads a story, one temporarily becomes insane and believes in things that are not real.
This is why I think that the lean, green ninja team is such a good example of the willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, for crying out loud, it’s a show about teenage mutant ninja turtles! The title alone requires one to put reality aside. Of course, as fan of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, this is second nature to me. I am able to put the absolute ludicrousness of the show’s main premise and enjoy it a great deal.
At the same time, the threshold for the willing suspension of disbelief is highly individual. As with pain thresholds, each person has a certain level before they start screaming in agony. For example, my father, a lifetime reader of speculative fiction, absolutely cannot stand Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I asked him why, and his response was, “They make my brain hurt.” He is, of course, absolutely scandalized that his adult daughter watches and enjoys it. By the way, this only makes me enjoy it even more.
Perhaps it is the childishness of the show that turns my father off, but I think also that the premise itself strains his willingness to even try suspending disbelief. I can relate to this—for me, it’s the Twilight saga. The premise itself does not appeal to me, and therefore things that fans readily overlook drive me batty (vampire pun noted). In other words, Twilight makes my brain hurt.
This is something that all writers of fantasy need to keep in mind; sometimes the premise itself strains the imagination of the readers. Is your premise so strange that most people won’t be willing to give it a go? Given the wide variety of tastes in this world, you’ll never be able to win everyone, but a good premise should still appeal to quite a few people. However, even a good premise can tank if the execution is poor.
The biggest culprit for ending the suspension of disbelief is continuity errors. I don’t mean problems with the continuity of the plot line itself, though that is something undesirable as well. I mean continuity errors in the rules of the imaginary universe itself. For example, I am able to accept all of the silliness of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in all its goofy green glory, but one thing that drives me absolutely insane is the fact that there never seem to be any people in New York. If we are to take this universe that is set in reality but has supernatural elements like aliens, rat ninja masters, and talking turtles, we still expect it to follow the other rules of our “real” universe. One of these rules is that New York is absolutely packed with people, day and night. The idea that the streets are largely vacant at night is silly.
Note that it is this that strains my credulity, not, you know, the whole teenage mutant ninja turtles taught ninjutsu by a rat. It’s because I can suspend the disbelief in mutants; I can’t accept that in an otherwise “normal” universe, New York City magically seems empty anytime the turtles need it to be. I have an entire laundry list of things that bug me about that show—another of which is the whole “heroes in a half-shell” bit. They have an entire shell, people. I know you’re trying to be clever and cute and catchy, but the turtles have their whole shell!
The point is that continuity and consistency is crucial. If I’m supposed to believe that a=b and b=c, then I darn better well find out that a=c. If it doesn’t, it’s going to make me mad. In many cases, this will be a total deal breaker for the reader or the viewer. In the case of TMNT, I am willing to deal with my complaints because I like the show enough otherwise. I also accept that it is a kids’ show and kids have a much, much higher threshold than grown-ups.
Thus, while the topic of the willing suspension of disbelief has nearly been beaten to death, it is absolutely crucial that authors always keep it in the back of their minds. I like this thought that the website "TV Tropes" offers:
Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It's part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they…accept the reality of the story as presented and accepted that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord.
An author's work, in other words, does not have to be realistic, only believable and internally consistent…When the author pushes the audience too far, the work fails.
This is why consistency and continuity are so crucial to successful stories. Not all members of one’s audience are going to be that forgiving. Orson Scott Card reiterates again and again how vital rules are in speculative fiction.
Before you can tell a meaningful story, you have to hone and sharpen your understanding of the world, and that begins with the fundamental rules, the natural laws. Remember, because speculative fiction always differs from the knowable world, the reader is uncertain about what can and can’t happen in the story until the writer has spelled out the rules. And you, as a writer, can’t be certain of anything until you know the rules as well (36). [Emphasis original]
So, while “world creation sounds like a marvelous free-for-all” (Card 36), it is actually an affront to your audience to be inconsistent. Some might be generous enough to accept the “a wizard did it” argument, a phrase which originated in the popular TV show The Simpsons. A lot of people don’t, though. "TV Tropes" defines the expression thusly:
The standard all-encompassing explanation for any continuity errors noticed by hardcore fans of any given fantasy show: If it doesn't make sense, A Wizard Did It. […] However, using it to excuse major Plot Holes that the creators really should've caught beforehand will make people rightly angry.
Think about that for a moment. “Rightly angry.” Not “angry,” or “nit-picky,” but “rightly angry.” There is another phenomenon that can be insulting, known as “Bellasario’s Maxim.” It is: “Don’t examine this too closely.” According to TV Tropes it was
Said by producer Donald P. Bellisario on March 17, 1990 at an SF convention in response to a persistent fan with very specific questions about the way things worked on Bellisario's series Quantum Leap. An unashamed admission of handwaving details unnecessary to the enjoyment of a show, and an exhortation to not let the obsession with those details get in the way of the story. Implicit in the Maxim is a request to understand that the story is being told by a small production team that (due to the limitations of the medium) has to work quickly, with limited budget and tight deadlines, and has to dodge Executive Meddling, all while trying to turn out the best product it can.
Okay, maybe we all have the urge to ask our audience to overlook errors, but when we don’t, they still will be “rightly angry.” Granted, I also like Quantum Leap in spite of its absurdities.
The willing suspension of disbelief is something which all authors rely on, but one must be careful not to rely on it too much. Never ask more suspension from your readers than you yourself are willing to give—and even then it’s important to stop and think about the rules of your speculative world from every angle.
As Card so beautifully sums it up, “The rules you establish don’t limit you; they open up possibilities. Know the rules, and the rules will set you free” (45-46).
Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.
Martin, Gary. "Suspension of Disbelief.” Phrase Finder. 17 Mar. 2014. [http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/suspension-of-disbelief.html ].
TV Tropes Foundation, LLC. “A Wizard Did It.” TV Tropes. 16 Mar. 2014. [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AWizardDidIt].
---.“Bellasario’s Maxim.” TV Tropes. 16 Mar. 2014. [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BellisariosMaxim].
---. "Willing Suspension of Disbelief." TV Tropes. 16 Mar. 2014. [http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WillingSuspensionOfDisbelief].