Suspension of disbelief

Die Hard

One vital element needed to enjoy any piece of storytelling – whether in a book, a play or a film – is the ability to suspend disbelief.

This does not mean every event portrayed should be strictly realistic, complying with all laws of physics and with characters acting and responding in entirely realistic ways. Striving after realism for realism’s sake is nearly always a trap.

The late great director David Lean said that films ought to be feel like dreams, even when dealing with historic subject matter (such as TE Lawrence’s military exploits in North Africa). Just because Lean was dealing with events that really took place did not mean he could not lavish the subject with all the cinematic embellishment at his command. A Lawrence of Arabia steeped in gritty realism would be a dull beast indeed, but it does strictly adheres to its own internal logic, with all the majesty, poetry and occasional satire inherent in Robert Bold’s superb, spare screenplay.

Internal logic is the key. Any story in any genre must stick to its own internal logic, not violating the laws of its own universe. Suspension of disbelief is easy when watching Star Wars, because the rules of a galaxy far, far away are rigidly obeyed. Complaining that the space battles don’t obey the laws of physics (audible explosions in space and so on) would be churlish idiocy. Frankly I pity anyone who can’t enjoy the film for that reason.

The question for writers is how far can credibility be stretched before it breaks? Truth is often stranger than fiction, which is why films like Lawrence of Arabia are able to get away with quite a bit that would feel unbelievable if the film were not based on fact. Other good examples of this principle include Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling, Touching the Void and 127 Hours. If it wasn’t true, we wouldn’t believe it.

Conversely, an action film has a very difficult balancing act. Stretch credibility too far and suspension of disbelief vanishes, along with any emotional investment in the characters.

Consider the original Die Hard. What makes that film an action classic is the way the audience senses the John McClane character could go under at any minute. Bruce Willis was not a huge star when he made the film and did not have the action movie baggage he now has, which meant audiences did not view him as another Schwarzenegger. McClane is trapped inside a high-rise building playing cat and mouse with extremely tough and well organised terrorist thieves. This incidentally is something he does in bare feet throughout (at one wince-inducing point, over broken glass). The many thrilling action scenes take place just on the right side of suspension of disbelief (for me – the one brief exception being when he falls down the lift shaft and manages to grab onto a ventilation shaft by his fingertips).

Compare that with the sixth Fast and Furious movie. That has spectacular stunts, unquestionably. But they are so ludicrous (and CGI enhanced) that it is simply impossible to buy into anything that happens, much less care about any of the characters. This is particularly true in the finale, as a plane is chased on a runway at great length. Whilst watching the film, someone actually calculated that considering the running time of the sequence and average speeds of the vehicles involved, that runway would have been about twenty four miles long! If that is what you’re thinking about when watching a film like this, then suspension of disbelief has well and truly gone out of the window.

Another problem that can ruin suspension of disbelief is when a scenario inappropriate to the genre is introduced into the story. For instance, during the second series of the otherwise excellent sports drama Friday Night Lights, a wildly misjudged stalker subplot is introduced. Not only does said subplot feel as if it has been crowbarred in from film noir, the persons involved behave in a manner that is completely out of character. All subsequent anguish and emotional complications fail to hit home, because the scenario is so utterly ludicrous.

I have used films and television to illustrate my point here, but the principle applies across all storytelling mediums. Although it can be difficult to pull off, suspension of disbelief is vital to telling a good story. The last thing any writer wants to hear is that the reader/viewer, say, didn’t think the love story was plausible, or that the action scenes were so ridiculous that emotional involvement was lost.

I’ve had that said of my own writing a few times, prior to rewrites of course. As Robert McKee says, never add vanity to folly by exhibiting your failures.

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