Posts Tagged ‘suspension of disbelief’

Fiction writers tell two types of lies. There are the more obvious ones, our stories, those big stories of a thousand words or more that readers (hopefully) come just because we wrote them to entertain them. And then there are the smaller lies that usually go unnoticed. The ones where we gloss over or totally ignore reality so our stories can continue in peace. Not big things, like the existence of shapeshifting clowns or the ability to turn a human woman into a plant creature with a magic book. I’m talking about the small stuff. Things so small, people usually don’t question them or their viability.

A common example: you ever see an action film and someone with a machine gun lets off hundreds of bullets at their enemies without pause? Maybe they’ll switch guns at some point, but each of those guns still seem to have millions of bullets inside their cartridges and can go shooting for several minutes at a time.

The reality is a lot more boring: a machine gun may shoot off bullets for stretches of four seconds at a time, after which you probably will have to reload the gun. Not to mention that if your machine gun actually did go for shooting sprees for the entire length of a fight scene, the barrel would probably explode into flames.

Another famous example are silencers. Don’t want your gun to be heard by nosy civilians? A silencer will turn that gunshot into a mouse fart! Not really. In reality, a gunshot is not easy to quiet. Even the best silencer will only turn a gun into a loud crack, which you can still hear from quite a distance.

And you know those scenes in cop and comedy movies where a cop gets tasered in the chest and then their body and limbs shake like mad? Okay, stun guns only work about sixty percent of the time at best, and you never want to aim for someone’s chest, because while they’re considered “less lethal” than guns, they can still cause some heart trouble if aimed at the chest. Most cops aim for someone’s back, and then if they’re lucky, the electric shock will paralyze the target. By lucky, I mean the lines hit home and most of the electricity penetrates further than the skin.

Action movies are huge offenders at this stuff. Still love most of the Terminator and Die Hard films, though.

And these are just a small list. Cop movies involving shoot outs and explosions rarely feature the staggering amount of paperwork those shoot outs and explosions require officers to fill out. Medical dramas going for crazy or risky procedures? Not without talking to the insurance company or finding a safer method first. Bulletproof vests? They don’t stop bullets, just catch them, and it’s still going to hurt like hell. Not to mention getting shot by a machine gun, even if you wear a vest, is probably going to leave you dead (sorry, Back to the Future fans).

I actually used one of these last night in the latest chapter of my novel-in-progress Toyland (for obvious reasons, I won’t spoil which one).* I had to do some quick research to make sure one of the above was being written right. And then when I realized there was no way to do that authentically, I was like, “Screw it. Who’s going to know? Even if they do, they’ll either forget or suspend their disbelief.” And then I wrote it how people would imagine the scene.

Why do writers do this? Simply because they can get away with it. The details are small, and even those in the know will usually just let it slide for the sake of enjoyment of the story. Rarely does it actually bug someone to the point they put the book down/stop the movie. Usually when they’re glossing over giant details do people in the know stop enjoying the story (happened to me with Criminal Minds after I found out what FBI profilers actually do on a daily basis).

So forget the little lies, and ignore the minor deviations from reality. You’ll enjoy the story more. Or you’ll stop watching Criminal Minds and move onto other shows. Either way, other people will still enjoy the story you’re telling.

Authors, what little lies in your stories have you told lately? Any you laugh about now?

*Speaking of which, Toyland‘s coming along well. I split some upcoming chapters in two for pacing, which means more chapters to write, but I’m still making progress. I may have to push the deadline back again, this time to the end of February, but it’s still going well. Also, the novel is over eighty-thousand words right now (for context, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is around seventy-seven thousand words). I have the feeling by the time I finish this book, it’s going to be close to one hundred thousand words. Not a whopper, but quite the literary feat.

I’ve been watching a lot of Supernatural on Netflix lately, and something in the most recent episode I watched got me thinking. It was stated at the beginning of the season that the main villain of the season, the demon Lilith, is breaking magical seals to raise the demon Lucifer out of Hell, and she needs to destroy sixty-six seals to do so. Based on that, I thought there were sixty-six seals in total, which seemed reasonable. According to the episode I watched yesterday though, there are over six-hundred possible seals, and Lilith needs to only destroy sixty-six to get Lucifer out of Hell.

Now I’ll admit that I’m still working my way through the season, so there may be more to these seals than what I know right now, but based on just the description I have above, that’s a pretty poor security system. You’re keeping the ultimate evil bound by six-hundred seals, but only sixty-six need to be destroyed to let him out? That’s like only needing an eleven percent passing score on a lie detector test to get access to Top Secret national security files. You’re just acting for trouble.

With that in mind, as well as my thoughts on the movie The Boy that I reviewed earlier this week,* I got to thinking. Sometimes creators do things in fiction that make absolutely no sense when the fans get to them. Obviously, there are things in fiction that are most likely impossible–the magic of Harry Potter, actual giant lizards like Godzilla, TARDISes and Time Lords (sadly)–but we forget that so we can enjoy the story. This is called suspension of belief, and it’s how we can enjoy these stories. However sometimes a creator–whether it’s a book, a movie, a comic, or a TV show–is just too hard for us to believe. When that happens, the story, and our enjoyment of the story, suffers horribly.

With that in mind, here are some things every storyteller can do to make it easier to tell a story without dong something that will make a reader/viewer say, “What the hell? That’s so stupid!”

  • Avoid the unnecessary or stupid twists. Back to The Boy again, which, if you haven’t read my review, singled out the twist that the boy Brahms was alive and a full adult as the movie’s biggest fault. I get that they were trying to distinguish the movie from others like it with a unique twist, but besides feeling kind of lame, the twist made the whole concept of the movie nonsensical (see my review for full details on that). If you plan to include a twist in your work, ask yourself a few questions before you use one, such as: is this twist necessary to make a good story? Is it predictable? Does it make the story seem silly or even make the events of the story make no sense? I’m convinced if the filmmakers of The Boy had asked these questions, they might have had a better movie on their hands.
  • What brought people to your work in the first place? I love bashing 2009’s Friday the 13th remake, because it is such a terrible film. In fact, the filmmakers even seemed to think that the movie was crap, or that they were unable to really make a great Friday the 13th film, so they packed in as much swearing, sex and nudity, drugs, alcohol, and raunchy or childish humor as possible. The result was a film that felt like it was trying to be one of those dirty teen camping trip comedies that had to remind itself every few minutes it was about a serial killer living on a lake.
    If you’re going to tell a certain type of story, keep in mind at every step what sort of story it is and don’t focus unnecessarily on elements that are only a small part of the story or even unnecessary. In the case of Friday the 13th, people watch those movies to see Jason go on a rampage. The sex and drugs and all that other stuff are just added bonuses as well as what causes Jason to target his victims, not why we pay nine dollars at the box office. And the fact that the filmmakers felt those elements were more important is why I’ll always enjoy bashing this piece of crap out of Michael Bay’s bum.
  • Could this happen in the real world? I have a lot of problems with the Hunger Games books.** One of my biggest problems is how the series ends: Katniss finds out President Coin ordered the bombing that killed her sister, so she kills Coin in revenge as Coin takes control of the nation. The new government of Panem hushes up Coin’s treachery to preserve the new order, so for all intents and purposes Katniss just assassinated the new President unprovoked. And Katniss…is portrayed as a girl gone mad with grief over the loss of her sister, she gets exiled to District 12 with weekly phone conferences with a shrink, and lives happily ever after?
    I don’t care if you’re the face of a movement, if a similar revolution occurred in America, and the face of that revolution killed the new leader, you bet that person would at least get locked up in a prison or psych ward so they couldn’t tell anyone what they’d done. Exile and getting to raise a family? Nothing bad happens to her? I don’t care if she has nightmares a lot and never tells us her kids’ names because she’s afraid of losing them, that still would never happen in real life!
    So when you’re telling your own story, ask yourself if a situation is so unbelievable, even in the wackiest of fiction, that people can’t suspend their disbelief anymore. If it is, you might want to consider tweaking it so that guys like me don’t go on a rant about it on the Internet.
  • If it needs a lengthy explanation for why it happens, you might want to rethink the why. This one comes from personal experience. When I was writing Reborn City, I had this really complicated reason as to why my protagonist Zahara Bakur had to join the Hydras. That, and another situation later in the book had really complicated reasons why those things had to happen. It wasn’t until later drafts that I realized how overly complicated those situations were and found simpler explanations for why Zahara had to join the Hydras or the other thing had to happen, explanations that were so simple but worked so perfectly I wondered why I tried to use the run-around logic that a smart reader could easily poke a hole in.
    So if you want a specific event in your story to happen for the sake of the story but the way you get it to happen is really overly-complicated, requires a lot of explanation, and from certain angles makes no sense, perhaps you should reconsider either the event or why it happens. It beats having two unnecessary pages of dialogue explaining why something needs to happen when a much simpler explanation is at hand, at any rate.
  • And finally, don’t forget what is obvious or necessary. This kind of fits into my third point, but I’m making it separate because I feel that’s the best way to present it. Anyway, in one of my fiction workshops in college, a classmate turned in a story that took place in a post-apocalyptic setting. It was a good first draft, but a major problem I had was that the protagonist apparently forgot his bow and arrow at home. I said to her, “This is a world where people dumb enough to leave their weapons at home while on a trip are likely to get killed a hundred different ways. No seasoned hunter like this guy forgets his source of food and protection.” In the same way, make sure that you avoid moves like that, where a character does something that makes no sense for someone in their position or the setting has some part of it that also makes little sense when you think about it. Trust me, it will improve the story if you avoid those problems.

In the end, the thing you want to tell is a good story. Avoiding anything that strains the credulity of your audience can be very difficult, but with trial and effort, you can get very good at it. This is also why I recommend having your stories looked at by editors or beta readers who won’t spare good advice because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings or risking your friendship. They can help you avoid these traps and improve the overall product of the story.

What tricks do you have for avoiding situations that strain the credulity of your audience?

What are some stories where they did something that really took you out of the story?

*By the way, it’s been nearly a week since I published that post, but an average of 36 people a day have been checking that post out since. I guess I’m not the only one who found that twist completely stupid.

**Especially the trilogy’s very backstory. A nation in the far-flung future had a massive civil war, and the Capitol decided that to stop future rebellions, the entire country should revolve politically, economically, and socially around an annual death game involving youth from the Districts? If Panem can genetically engineer scary monsters, they can synthesize a drug that takes out aggression and dump it into the Districts’ water supply. Problem solved, and all those seventeen-hundred and twenty people who died for the Capitol’s perverse pleasure instead grow up to be contributors to society. Yes, that is diabolical and I know I’d make a great dictator. My mother informed me of this fact when I pointed out this problem with the books.