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Suspension of disbelief

Suspension of disbelief or "willing suspension of disbelief" is an aesthetic theory intended to characterize people's relationships to art. It was coined by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. It refers to the willingness of a person to accept as true the premises of a work of fiction, even if they are fantastic or impossible. It also refers to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is a quid pro quo: the audience tacitly agrees to provisionally suspend their judgment in exchange for the promise of entertainment.

Origin

The characteristically vivid phrase and concept ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment’ was coined by the poet, literary critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, published in 1817, in the context of the creation and reading of poetry. The notion of such an action by an audience was however recognised in antiquity, as seen particularly in the Roman theoretical concerns of Horace in his Ars Poetica.

Chapter XIV describes the preparations with Wordsworth for their revolutionary collaboration Lyrical Ballads (first edition 1798), for which Coleridge had contributed the more romantic, Gothic pieces including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge recalled:

”... it was agreed, that my endeavours 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. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us ...”

Examples in literature

Suspension of disbelief is sometimes said to be an essential component of live theatre, where it was recognized by Shakespeare, who refers to it in the Prologue to Henry V:

"[...] make imaginary puissance [...] 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings [...] turning th'accomplishment of many years into an hourglass."

However, not all authors believe that suspension of the disbelief characterizes the audience's relationship to their works. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", choosing instead the paradigm of subcreation based on internal consistency of reality.

See also dramatic convention.

Examples in modern forms of entertainment

According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient in the enjoyment of many B-grade science fiction films and television series such as the early series of Doctor Who, where the audience willingly ignores low-budget "cheesy" props and occasional plot holes, in order to fully engage with the enjoyable story — which may be the more so for those additions to its inherent outrageousness.

Suspension of disbelief is also supposed to be essential for the enjoyment of many movies and TV shows involving complex stunts, special effects, and seemingly "unrealistic" plots, characterizations, etc. The theory professes to explain why action movie fans are willing to accept the idea that the good guy can get away with shooting guns in public places, or never running out of ammunition, or that cars will explode with a well-placed shot to the gas tank.

Suspension of disbelief is also needed when a character is not supposed to age over the course of a series but the actor eventually does (e.g. "Angel", "Highlander").

On the three CSI series, it is frequently implied that forensic test results are received immediately after said tests are performed; since in reality, it can take several months to get results back, it is inconvenient to the plots to show the necessary waiting period. To advance the plot, a suspension of disbelief is necessary, and viewers must accept that the waiting period has passed.

Animations and comics

One contemporary example of suspension of disbelief is the audience's acceptance that Superman hides his identity from the world by simply donning a pair of glasses, conservative clothing, and acting in a "mild-mannered" fashion. Not only is the disguise so thin as to be ridiculous, but also in the TV series, Adventures of Superman, this absurdity was carried to an extreme. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen constantly suspected Clark Kent of being Superman, yet when obvious evidence was right in their faces — such as times when Clark was missing his glasses — they never saw the resemblance. (Noel Neill and Jack Larson, in DVD commentary, said their standard answer when questioned about this was, "We wanted to keep our jobs!")

Some find it strange that while some audience members took issue with the flimsiness of Superman's disguise, they didn't take issue with the idea of the existence of a superbeing whose only weakness was kryptonite. One arguing from the theory of suspension of disbelief would contend that while Superman's abilities and vulnerabilities are the foundational premises the audience accepted as their part of the initial deal; they did not accept a persistent inability for otherwise normal characters to recognize a close colleague solely because of changes in clothing.

Another major example of suspended disbelief was The Flintstones cartoon series. The characters have televisions, cars, telephones, and various appliances that would be powered by electricity in modern society; since the show was set in "prehistoric" times, electricity could not have been mastered, and especially not used. The "prehistoric" characters were even shown to celebrate Christmas and travel into the future. In addition, they co-existed with dinosaurs, which were extinct millions of years before the emergence of humans.

Gary Larson discussed the question with regard to his comic strip, The Far Side; he noted that readers wrote him to complain that a male mosquito referred to his "job" sucking blood when it is in fact the females that drain blood, but that the same readers accepted that the mosquitoes (in "fact") live in houses, wear clothes, and speak English.

Video games

Video games are also said to require suspension of disbelief. Often realism is compromised even in games that set out to be realistic, either intentionally to not overly complicate game mechanics or due to technical limitations. Some games based on Spider-Man have the comic hero swinging around a city with his webs sticking to nothing but the sky. Another example is of Solid Snake's performance of near impossible acrobatic stunts in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes remake as opposed to his more down-to-earth style of combat in the original Metal Gear Solid. There are other examples of breaking the fourth wall in the Metal Gear series which require a suspension of disbelief, notably in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In particular, the postmodern narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in the latter part of the game requires a suspension of disbelief in the common occurrence of bizarre supernatural phenomena and unconventional plot twists in an otherwise realistic setting.

Other video games feature instant death upon falling into water instead of giving the player a chance to swim out before drowning (see Grand Theft Auto Vice City and Assassin's Creed, among many others). Also, in many video games (particularly RPGs), a character will say the same phrase over and over indefinitely when repeatedly talked to. Some video games begin with a tutorial in which the player is taught how to play. These are often woven into the story, for example a character in the game might say to the player, "Press the triangle button to jump! Walk up to a crystal to save your game! Don't forget to use the 'select' button to change your weapons!" and so forth. In the fictional context of the game world, such sequences make no sense — the character is being told to push a button which (from his perspective) does not exist, in order to perform normal activities such as jumping and running. In a few games, the NPCs who tell the character how to act in game terms often profess that they really don't know what they mean by it (Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening). According to proponents of the theory, it is up to the player to reconcile this problem by suspending his or her disbelief.

Other examples

Another example where suspended disbelief is said to be necessary is kayfabe professional wrestling. The characters (that is, the professional wrestlers) somehow manage to keep their violent exchanges to the confines of the wrestling arena. They do not follow each other home, assault each other between TV episodes, or bring guns to the ring and shoot each other if they are losing a match, etc.

A further example can be found in Star Wars and other films which include a space setting, where sounds caused by spacecraft (e.g. engines, gunfire) can be heard despite the scenes being viewed from within space itself (sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space). Such sound effects are often vital for creating the atmosphere of a scene, such as space battles (the series Firefly is one of the few shows to actually observe silence in space, although its continuation movie, Serenity, returned to using sound effects in space battles, although this took place within a planet's atmosphere and therefore sound would occur.). Other shows, such as the re-imagined series of Battlestar Galactica uses more ambient sound to create an impression of empty space.

Another example would be the character Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It is obvious across both shows that David Boreanaz gets older, even though it is firmly established that vampires don't age. To enjoy the two series, one must suspend their disbelief and accept that Angel is the same age in every episode.

Many instances where suspension of disbelief is required are not due to elements which transcend laws of science of physics. They may be purely psychological elements based on history, culture, and human nature. For example. In many children's adventure tales, adults are often invariably depicted as less competent in order for the underage main characters to accomplish heroic deeds. Also, many characters are placed in settings which would normally pose difficulty for a person of their race or color. The same is done for many female characters who are placed as heroines in male dominated settings. It is always the intention that the incongruity be left unnoticed by the other characters unlike reality where racial or gender issues would not be ignored.

Actual use in film

In the 1994 film Ed Wood, the main character, Ed Wood, played by Johnny Depp, uses the term in the dialogue. He is on the set of Grave Robbers from Outer Space, which was eventually released as Plan 9 from Outer Space. He is arguing with one of the producers who asks, "How 'bout that the policemen arrive in the daylight, but now it's suddenly night?" to which Ed replies "What do you know? Haven't you ever heard of 'suspension of disbelief'?"

The term is also used in the film Basic Instinct when the character Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone, explains to the detectives while riding to the police station in the back of the police car that she usually applies the application in her fictional stories. Gus Moran, the detective friend of Nick Curran, then responds "suspension of disbelief! I like that!"

Criticism of the theory

As in the examples of Superman's powers and Gary Larson's cartoon, it is unclear that suspension of disbelief correctly describes an audience's perception of art. If the theory were to be true, the individual events of suspension would appear to be highly selective. (It would appear that one chooses to suspend disbelief for the ability to fly, but not to suspend it for myopic co-workers.)

Aesthetic philosophers generally reject claims that suspension of disbelief accurately characterizes the relationship between people and "fictions." Kendall Walton notes that, if viewers were to truly suspend disbelief at a horror movie and accept its images as true, they would have a true-to-life set of reactions. For instance, audience members would cry out, "Look behind you!" to an endangered on-screen character or call the police when they witnessed an on-screen murder.

However, many of these criticisms simply fail to notice that Coleridge's original statement came in a restrictive clause. The formulation "...that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith," of necessity implies that there are different sorts of suspension of disbelief and specifies that poetic faith is one instance of a larger class. One need not choose to believe that a character in a horror film is a real person in order, for example, to choose to believe that the character is looking at the building seen in the following reverse-shot. More often than not, both beliefs would be equally false.

Problems the theory presents

The theory would seem to create several other problems.

Self-reference: One problem the theory suggests is apparent in characters' self-awareness — when a character addresses the audience directly or otherwise realizes that he is a character in a work of fiction. This action would seem to challenge the audience's suspension of disbelief, which would according to the theory make the audience unable to enjoy the fiction. But in fact, self-referential moments do sometimes entertain audiences.

Canonical Worlds: Suspension of disbelief can also become problematic for long-running series and franchises with a well-known fictional world, wherein the geography, chronology and dramatis personae (and even natural laws!) are established and remain internally consistent across multiple episodes, and even multiple programs (for instance, in spinoffs). This is really another sense of Suspension of Disbelief, particularly common in Science Fiction and Gaming, where dedicated fans of the franchise immerse themselves in the fictional world to an exceptional degree. The definitive example of this is Star Trek.

When such franchises indulge in crossovers, where characters or events from one series appear, or are even just acknowledged to exist, in another, there is potential for mistakes, leading to inconsistencies in one or both fictional worlds. For instance, a character in one series might have previously referred to characters in another as being fictional, then have to interact with one of those characters in a crossover appearance. The phenomenon is not only seen in TV and film but also in Gaming, where it is known as canon-puncturing.

Inconsistencies or plot holes that violate the premises, plot-lines or chronology of the established canon can be viewed as breaking the tacit Suspension of Disbelief agreement. For particularly loyal fans, these lapses can be deeply resented.

For instance, in one episode of Step by Step, Cody acknowledges Full House as a fictional TV show. The character of Steve Urkel guest-starred in an episode of Full House as well as an episode of Step by Step. This creates a contradiction, since if Urkel was a real person in the Step by Step world — a world in which Full House was fiction — he wouldn't be able to get into the fictional Full House world.

An early episode of Mad About You featured Paul's old bachelor pad, which was now Kramer's (a character from Seinfeld) new apartment. This would mean Mad About You and Seinfeld ocurr in the same in-universe New York city. However, in a latter episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza and his fianceé are seen watching and episode of Mad About You.

Problems are also noticeable in Friends where celebrities such as Winona Ryder and Bruce Willis are mentioned by name and later appear playing characters other than themselves. It would seem that the characters in the shows would recognize the celebrities, therefore making suspension of disbelief impossible or at least illogical. In the movie "Ocean's Twelve", Julia Roberts' character is made-up to be mistaken for the real actress and even briefly interacts with "herself" in the following scene. This is done deliberately for comedic effect, but it can then be difficult for one to re-suspend disbelief while watching Roberts throughout the rest of the film.

Another circle of fiction was created by Matt Groening when Futurama appeared as a television show on The Simpsons and vice versa.

In the classic show "The Odd Couple", there were episodes that used flashbacks to explain the evolution and escapades Felix and Oscar's friendship. In one such flashback, Oscar (who was in the military at the time) and Blanche get married. Felix was best man. No mention of Felix's wife Gloria is ever made. However, in another episode, reference to Felix and Gloria's marriage has a single Oscar in it. Since their marriages overlapped - both ending in divorce - there is an obvious contradiction about who got married first.

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