Monday, June 13, 2011

Suspension of Disbelief

I saw some great movies* over the weekend. We borrowed Swing Vote from the library and watched it Friday night, and then on Saturday, Honey Bear and I got a babysitter--wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!--and went to see Super 8. Even though these films were very different, the thing that stuck out to me about both of them was how easily they got me to suspend my disbelief.

I used to think of suspension of disbelief, or the willingness of readers to set aside their doubts and go along with a less-than-plausible storyline, as something that only fantasy and sci-fi readers had to do. But as I watched Swing Vote, I realized that, at least to some degree, readers--or watchers--of every genre must suspend their disbelief.

Swing Vote features Kevin Costner as the sloppy Ernest “Bud” Johnson and Madeline Carroll as his determined, go-get-’em daughter, Molly. Molly spends the month before Election Day learning about the electoral system in her elementary school class, so she really wants her dad to fulfill his social contract and cast his ballot. But Bud, of course, forgets to vote, and by the time he remembers, he’s too drunk to even turn the key in the ignition. Molly takes matters into her own hands by sneaking past the sleepy polling volunteers, forging her dad’s signature in the voter registry, and feeding his ballot into the machine. The power cuts out just before Molly makes her selections (understandably spooking her), and she runs away before the process is complete.

Molly’s little mess-up probably wouldn’t have come to anything had one of the candidates won in a landslide, but in fact, with only one state left to report, the presidential race is in a virtual tie. Thanks to the electoral college, whoever takes New Mexico will take the election, and New Mexico comes down to one county, one city, one vote--Bud Johnson’s.

If you know anything about the American electoral system, you’ll know this scenario is wildly unrealistic. Elections, especially presidential ones, never come down to just one vote. And yet as I watched the story unfold, I was willing to go along with it. Even though there was nothing fantastical about Swing Vote, I still had to suspend my disbelief.

Good moviemakers--and good writers--never trust their audience to willingly suspend their disbelief; they force them to do so through top-notch storytelling. So what was it about Swing Vote and Super 8 that so thoroughly engrossed me? THE CHARACTERS. That seems to be the answer to pretty much every writing question, but that’s because your characters are king. If you want me to suspend my disbelief, just make your characters enchanting and unforgettable. I will believe just about anything enchanting, unforgettable characters tell me. I will follow them to the end of the world and back.

*I loved Swing Vote and Super 8, but I ought to warn you, they both have quite a bit of language. Bud Johnson curses at the slightest provocation, and the tween boys in Super 8 sound like a junior high boys’ locker room. (Or so I’m told. I’ve never been inside a junior high boys’ locker room, mind you, but Honey Bear informs me that it’s pretty bad.) We’re talking multiple S-words in both films, and one character in Super 8 takes the Lord’s name in vain every other sentence, so that’s something you should be aware of, especially if you’re thinking of showing either of these movies to your kids.


Shallee said...

I've wondered before what makes me suspend my disbelief in some books/movies, but not in others. I read one book recently where I just couldn't buy it! It was a well-written book, but I couldn't enjoy it because I didn't believe the premise. It's always nice when you can lose yourself in the story!

Ruth Josse said...

If a story has a good pace and perfectly placed nail-biters and hooks then I'll ride it to the very end. Whether it is believable or not. I'm pretty easy to please.

Connie Keller said...

Okay. I'm adding Swing Vote to my Netflix list.

Speaking of suspension of disbelief, I think a movie that did a marvelous job was Inception. (And I'm not a big sci-fi fan.) I agree with you that it's the characters that make me want to believe them. If I love the characters, then all I need is a vague excuse to believe their world (e.g. the box in Inception).

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Shallee, that was me with Star Trek VI a few days ago. Even though it's generally believed to be one of the better Star Treks, I just couldn't get into it. The world building in particular tripped me up. They expect me to believe that futuristic Klingons hold trials exactly the same way that we do now? Yeah, right.

Good point, Ruth. The story itself definitely has a lot to do with whether we can suspend our disbelief. As long as we don't have time to think about things too long, we won't notice anything's amiss:)

Connie, they never did explain that little dream box in Inception, did they? That was definitely one of those things we just had to accept and go along with. But since the characters seemed so credible, we were willing to do it. Great example.

Myrna Foster said...

I still haven't seen Inception.

I have a hard time suspending disbelief for things that I know wouldn't work, but you're right about making exceptions for a great character. Captain Jack Sparrow comes to mind.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Myrna, Jack Sparrow is an excellent example of a character we make exceptions for:)

Esther Vanderlaan said...

You know, you can always get ClearPlay. It's a DVD player that takes out all bad content including language. We have it- very useful when we want to watch movies like the new Robin Hood.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Esther, good advice. My sister-in-law and her family actually have ClearPlay, and they like it quite a bit.