Suspension of disbelief refers to the willingness of a reader or viewer to accept 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 illusion. However, suspension of disbelief is a do ut des: the audience agrees to provisionally suspend their judgment in exchange for the promise of entertainment.
Inconsistencies or plot holes that violate the initial premises, established canon, or common sense, are often viewed as breaking this agreement. For particularly loyal fans, these 'dealbreakers' are usually accompanied by a sense of betrayal.
The term 'Suspension of disbelief' was coined by the romanticist Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (1817):
- "(...) 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."
It is not uncommon to cite the full phrase "willing suspension of disbelief", but the arguably redundant "willing" is more often omitted, at least on the Web.
All fiction requires suspension of disbelief because by definition the story isn't true. For example, to enjoy Romeo and Juliet, the audience has to set aside the fact that there never were Montagues and Capulets who lived in Verona, there was no ancient feud, no starcrossed lovers doomed to a tragic fate. Furthermore, even if there had been, these people would not have talked in English iambic pentameter. But by ignoring all that, the audience can experience a moving story expressed in some of the finest poetry in English literature.
Audiences of fiction must also ignore behavior patterns and abilities in characters that deviate significantly from normal behavior. A prominent example is the speech patterns of fictional characters, which are much more articulate and don't normally feature the pauses and hesitations of everyday speech.
Another example is the unusual reliability of first person narrators. In many stories, the reader or viewer is presented with an account of the story from the viewpoint of one person. However, the typical first-person narrative style tends to imply a hyperawareness of the narrator's surroundings that is nearly superhuman, and an eidetic memory for the exact words they and other people used in conversation.
Examples in literature
Suspension of disbelief is an essential component of live theatre, where it was certainly recognised 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."
The audience accepts limitations in the story being presented, sacrificing realism, and occasionally logic and believability for the sake of enjoyment. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay On Fairy-Stories, choosing instead the paradigm of subcreation.
See also dramatic convention.
Examples in modern forms of entertainment
Template:Disputed 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 essential for the enjoyment of many movies and TV shows involving complex stunts and special effects. It's why many action movie fans are willing to accept the idea that the good guy can get away with shooting guns in public places or that cars will explode with a well-placed shot to the gas tank. It's also why many Dukes of Hazzard fans will accept the idea that a Dodge Charger can be jumped great distances with little to no damage to the car. Movies employing large amounts of CGI effects require a suspension of disbelief, as they are capable of portraying situations which clearly deviate from the laws of physics.
One of the most-well known examples of suspension of disbelief is the acceptance that the iconic superhero, Superman, hides his identity from the world by simply donning a pair of glasses, wearing conservative clothing, and acting in a "mild mannered" fashion, which contrasts with the large and in-charge personality of Superman. Not only is the disguise so thin as to be ridiculous, but the fact that the alter ego of Superman, Clark Kent, writes numerous stories about "The Man of Steel," and that his girlfriend, and later wife, is a constant source of Superman stories as well, which often involves her own rescue from the brink of death (which often involves her staring him in the face for several seconds), requires a high level of suspension of disbelief to accept that such circumstances could be a reality, where so few people discover Superman's secret identity. In the TV series, The Adventures of Superman, this absurdity was carried to an extreme. Lois and Jimmy were constantly suspecting Clark 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!") In his book Superman: Serial to Cereal, author Gary Grossman pointed out the paradox that an audience was willing to accept the notion that a man could fly through the air, in defiance of all known laws of physics, and yet question the relatively mundane fact that his friends seemed too stupid to observe the obvious. This is because flying, along with the rest of Superman's abilities, is a foundational premise regarding the character, which the audience accepted as part of the deal at the beginning. On the other hand, the audience did not sign on for obtuseness bordering on mental deficiency by a half-dozen main characters and therefore this violates the original deal.
Video games often require suspension of disbelief. Often, realism is compromised even in games set out to be realistic either intentionally to not overcomplicate game mechanics or due to technical limitations. For example, gunshot wounds are rarely disabling, and a character will instantly recover from the brink of death simply by picking up several first aid kits. Some games based on Spider-Man have the comic hero swinging around a city with his webs sticking to nothing but the sky. Another frequent occurrence in games is instant death upon falling into water (instead of giving the player a chance to swim out before drowning). Also, in many video games, a character will often say the same phrase over and over indefinitely when repeatedly talked to. Another example in video games is the so-called Head-Up Display, which displays information such as the amount of ammunition carried by the protagonist. Some games try to minimise the use of a HUD or try to disguise or eliminate the HUD in order to enhance the suspension of disbelief, for example, in Metroid Prime and its sequel, the camera view is from the perspective of the inside of Samus Aran's helmet, and the HUD is displayed on the inside of the visor. In recent times, most video games begin with a tutorial in which the player is taught how to play. These are often woven into the story, so a character in the game might say to the hero, "Press the triangle button to jump! Walk up to a crystal to save your game!" and so forth. In the fictional context of the game world, such sequences make no sense-the hero 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. It's up to the player to reconcile this problem by suspending his or her disbelief. This was touched upon in the video game The Bard's Tale, in which, during the tutorial scene, the Bard directly asked the character what button he referred to, and called him crazy.
Role-playing games ask the players to use suspension of disbelief when deciding what actions their characters should take. For example, if the players know their gamemaster has a history of putting booby traps on the more obvious solutions to obstacles they encounter, a player may have his character press the button labeled "Press me" even though he knows something bad will probably happen, because it's what the character would do. Using player knowledge to which the character would not have access - in this case the history of the gamemaster - is called metagaming, and is generally frowned upon.
There are varying degrees to how much suspension of disbelief someone will accept. Fans of the science fiction series Star Trek accept the premises that starships can travel at warp speed and that aliens such as Vulcans exist, but when a given premise is inconsistent with previously written canon or violates known real-world science (such as the plot device where injection with a creature's DNA turns someone into a similar creature), fans are usually not pleased. The question seems to be whether the implausibility is felt to be intentional or an oversight.
As the Star Trek fictionalized universe grew, each spin-off adding new dimensions, the plot holes multiplied, fueled by bigger production budgets and new technology. In 1996 Rick Berman, who took over the franchise after Gene Roddenberry's death, confronted the issue head-on in Episode 5:6 of Deep Space Nine, "Trials and Tribble-ations". The Deep Space Nine crew travel back in time and visit the Enterprise of the original series to document the events of "The Trouble with Tribbles". When Michael Dorn (Worf) is asked to explain the marked differences between his appearance and Michael Petaki's (Korax) he replies with a straight face to the camera (and a wink to the fans), "We do not discuss it with outsiders".
Matt Groening has also "lectured" to his television audience about the importance of maintaining suspension of disbelief. As the achievements of "common man" Homer Simpson (with barely a 6th grade education) grew, so did the disparity between them and his CV. In the episode Homer's Enemy the character of Frank Grimes attempts to reveal Homer's true sloth and incompetence, representing a rare incursion of "reality": society's behavioral norms, work ethic and standards for professional conduct, into the Groening fictionalized universe. Frank's grisly fate gently reminds us, "My world, my rules".
Gary Larson discussed the question with regard to a cartoon panel in his comic strip, The Far Side; he noted that readers wrote to him to complain that a male mosquito referred to his "job" sucking blood when it is in fact the females that drain blood, but they accepted that the mosquitoes live in houses, wear clothes, and speak English.
Another area of popular entertainment where suspension of disbelief is frequently essential to its enjoyment is professional wrestling. For a fuller discussion of this concept in the wrestling context, see kayfabe.
A related concept is a character's self-awareness. The example of this is where the character addresses the audience directly (breaking the fourth wall) or otherwise engages with a glance or look or does or says something to show that the character realises that he is a character in a work of fiction. This action obviously challenges the audience's suspension of disbelief. This can also manifest itself in the concept of meta-reference, where fictional characters (without necessarily addressing the audience) hint of their awareness of being fictional.
- Suspension of judgment
- Deus ex machina