Suspend disbelief? Unancounced ghost

Disbelief and Our Willingness to Suspend it

Coleridge author of Suspension of Disbelief It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he of Ancient Mariner fame, who coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief” in 1817 in his Biographia Literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions. He did so referring to his contribution, more than twenty years earlier, to  the Lyrical Ballads. Published in 1798, these are generally taken to mark the start of the romantic movement in English literature. William Wordsworth wrote most of them, of course.

Suspending Disbelief to Embrace Marvels

IAncient Mariner, Suspension of Disbeliefn fact, Coleridge only contributed four poems and The Ancient Mariner  was the big one. He and Wordsworth, he said, had agreed that Coleridge’s “endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic.” These “shadows of imagination” would be so powerful, and reflect human nature so truthfully, that the reader would “willingly suspend disbelief.”

His creepy fantasy has given us the image of an albatross hung around someone’s neck as a metaphor for guilt. Strange marvels and even a bit of magic underline the psychological truth of the Mariner’s tragedy.

Suspending Disbelief to Experience Empathy

Some genres of story demand a huge suspension of disbelief — alternative history, fantasy, science fiction, horror, the supernatural. Our common sense tells us “this is not possible” even as we stick with the story. And some people will reject it for that reason.

Suspending disbelief Tears in the RainConsider Blade Runner, the movie from Philip K. Dick’s seminal Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The replicant, Roy Batty, knowing that his programmed time is over, nevertheless saves the life of his pursuer. His dying monologue tells what it is to experience life, even when you are not human.

Rutger Hauer cut his script. In doing so, he turned it into the haunting elegy we remember, often called Tears in the Rain.

 

Suspending Disbelief to Share Moral Choice

Suspension of Disbelief moral choiceI am always chilled by the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo offers the ring to Galadriel. She has already considered it, desired it, and it tempts her appallingly. But she knows that it will make her terrible and beautiful and change her irretrievably.  “All shall love me and despair!”

The temptation only lasts a moment and then she laughs and says “I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the west and remain Galadriel.”  From the first time I read it, and ever since, I have shared that temptation, every single time.

It comes, of course, from the idea in Mark’s Gospel: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” She knows herself, does Galadriel!

Refusing to Suspend Disbelief

Some people, of course, cannot bring themselves to believe in elves or replicants, even for the purposes of a cracking story.  Others, like me,  who can, will still have their stumbling blocks.

Suspend disbelief? Unancounced ghostRecently, friends have grumbled to me about a popular novel, ostensibly a mystery, in which the concluding twist at the end is something paranormal.

I sympathise. You can’t introduce a ghost in the last 20 pages, any more than you can add a gun to the props and not use it. It’s cheating.

Of course, sometimes the writing doesn’t convince you. The author has produced a viable plot in theory, but they just haven’t given it enough welly and the common sense reader in you says, “I don’t think so!”

My own most extreme refusal to suspend disbelief was rather sad. I was very young and unpublished and had been working on a draft film script with a man I respected, admired and even loved. His name was Charles Beatty and he had worked with his then wife, Joan Grant, on Life as Carola, a rather nasty mediaeval Italian tale, and other stories. They were presented as novels. But in practice Grant regarded them more as memoirs of her own past lives. The whole point of the story was to convince you of that point. It felt like the worst sort of evangelism PR.

Charles had imbibed her philosophy of “far memory” and his own memoir, which was feeding our draft movie, was built on a similar premise. It drove me crazy. I gave up.

Recipe for Suspended Disbelief

I therefore conclude that, to persuade readers to buy into his or her story, no matter how fantastical, a writer must make it:

  • imaginatively exciting
  • psychologically truthful
  • a satisfying experience
  • free from sneaky advertising for the author’s own particular hobbyhorse

Buffy, Her Librarian, Fellow Feeling and a Little Love

Buffy's Librarian 20th AnniversaryOn the 20th anniversary of Buffy, I want to celebrate the character who really got to me from the series — Buffy’s Librarian.

I’ve been tripping over fans’ favourite moments, measured academic evaluations, quotations, issues, the sheer energy of the fantasy, in the most unlikely places. Continue reading

Female servants: overworked and underpaid?

female servant in Regency costume

A Regency housemaid

Most female servants had a pretty tough life over the centuries. They worked long hours at backbreaking menial tasks, they weren’t paid very much and they had little or no time off.

What’s more, they were often at the mercy of predatory men — employers or other servants. And if they fell pregnant as a result? It was their own fault, their own wickedness — of course! — and they would often end up in the gutter. Continue reading

Footmen: the Curse of Manly Calves in Silk Stockings

Male servants conveyed the right image

In the Georgian and Regency periods, higher social standing was demonstrated by having more and more male servants, like footmen. If they wore livery, so much the better. If they had little to do, employers did not care  Ostentation was all.

one of footmenIn 1777, Lord North (often called “the Prime Minister who lost America”) proposed to tax male servants at a guinea a man to help pay for the American wars. He reckoned that some 100,000 menservants were kept for purposes of “luxury and ostentation”. (The tax was increased in 1785 and not completely repealed until 1889. You can read more about it in an extensive article on The Regency Redingote.)

The cost of keeping bewigged footmen increased again in 1795 when the tax on powdered hair began to be enforced, at a guinea a head. Opponents of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, stopped using powder themselves. They began to apply the term “guinea-pigs” to those gentlemen who still powdered their hair, and so paid the guinea in tax. Continue reading

That Unique Moment – Making a Story Special

That unique moment — we all know what it is when we come across it in a book or a movie, an opera. We recognise it the moment we see it.

smell evokes memoryAlthough feel it would probably be a better word. And sometimes we don’t even realise what it was until we’re describing the story to someone else.

Lots of people try to analyse it. But essentially, it’s visceral. More like a fleeting scent or a snatch of music than anything we can explain. Continue reading

Servants on the Page: the Downton Conundrum


Downton Abbey
 — and Upstairs, Downstairs before that — can be a bit of a curse for writers. Why? Because both show us servants, below stairs, who are human and empathetic. Because they show us relationships between upstairs and downstairs that seem respectful on both sides, even cosy. And because they aren’t always true to history.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s turn to Mrs Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) for advice:

A servant is not to be seated … in his master’s or mistress’s presence; nor to offer any opinion, unless asked for it; nor even to say “good night,” or “good morning,” except in reply to that salutation.  Continue reading

Be My Valentine? I Don’t Think So

old laptop with valentineWhen email was new and spam was something you found in school lunches, I once got a message on my hefty laptop headed “Be My Valentine?”

I deleted it, unopened.

With a shudder. And I’d never even heard of viruses then. I just didn’t want to go there. Continue reading

Celebrating the Remarkable, Against the Odds

remarkable Claire Lorrimer

This week I went to a celebration of the extraordinary life of Patricia Denise Clark, whom I knew as distinguished romantic novelist, Claire Lorrimer. It would have been her 96th birthday. It was unforgettable — a truly remarkable occasion. Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter: Exclamation Marks Shriek

Do you use exclamation marks? Often? Maybe too often??!!!

pen in razor shape, text critic, for exclamation marksSome readers HATE exclamation marks

Exclamation marks used to be all the rage. Once.

But tastes change and, nowadays, some readers count exclamation marks and scream abuse on all the social media platforms if they think an author has used too many. Quite a few of my clients — including bestselling authors — have suffered at the hands of the exclamation mark police. And many have sworn, as a result, never to use an exclamation mark again.

Ever. Continue reading