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
In 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.
Consider 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
I 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.
Recently, 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