Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Suspension of Disbelief

Every time we sit down to write, we ask readers to come on a ride with us, to suspend their disbelief and get sucked into our world and our characters and to believe for 300 plus pages that the characters we’ve created are real people taking real actions and feeling real emotions.

One could argue the further one strays from “reality” the more we ask the reader to suspend his/her disbelief, but I think this is debatable and not really what I wanted to talk about. :-) (Maybe a discussion for another time?) That said, I have been thinking about suspended disbelief a lot lately, primarily because I’m working on a book that does require more than average amount of “suspension”.

What I did want to talk about is how fragile suspension can be and to hypothesize that when a writer makes a misstep in this area, they risk losing the reader/viewer completely. Scary.

A couple of things I’ve seen (not read) recently have made me ponder this more: The new season of Prison Break and a film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival called Penelope. (tried to post a picture, but blogger not being nice to me tonight)

I’ll start with Penelope. Now, lots (most) people I talked to in festival lines who’d seen this movie LOVED it. Me? After loving the first half, I ended up decidedly lukewarm in the end. Because my opinion differed from so many others I chatted with, I tried to figure out why. (Exception was Zach Braff's dad, who I met in a line for another movie. He didn't like the movie either and for the exact same reason.)

Some background: Penelope is a fairy tale. It’s not meant to be taken literally. I get that. It’s about a girl who’s cursed. A girl with a pig snout for a nose. A pig snout which can’t be fixed via plastic surgery, because by some strange medical mystery, her carotid artery runs through it.

But are any of these elements what caused me to roll my eyes? No. It was a scene where the hero asks the heroine to guess which musical instrument he plays. Instead of the heroine simply guessing, there’s a cut and suddenly the hero has recruited a five piece jazz ensemble and tries each instrument in turn, while singing “Yes, sir, she’s my baby” wildly off key.

I get that this scene was supposed to show them starting to know and to like each other. I get that it was supposed to be comic relief. For me, it was just annoying (not to mention painful to listen to) and ridiculous – particularly since she could have just asked, “Flute? Guitar? Sax? Piano?” and have been done with it.

Why stage a silly contrived scene when a conversation will do?

This scene was the moment the filmmaker lost me. Every subsequent moment where any degree of suspended disbelief was required, I rolled my eyes. I was no longer sucked into the magical half-NY-half-London fairytale setting and instead was bemoaning the predictability of the outcome and comparing the movie’s theme to Shrek, a movie with a similar theme, but for which I had no problem suspending my disbelief.

Sigh. I don’t know when this film hits the theatres. I’ll be really interested to see what other people think.

On to the second season of Prison Break. I LOVED this show last year. LOVED it. But this season, particularly during the first couple of episodes, I had a lot of trouble believing in Michael’s plans. “Why?” I wondered. He’s still the same guy. Still as smart. Still as obsessive. His plans were wildly implausible last year, too. But I didn't care.

I decided it’s because there are too many variables outside the prison. When they were in the relatively contained environment, I could believe he had contingency plans worked out in case the main plan hit snags -- but that bridge, with that car, with those radio stations, with that handy-dandy pig blood? And how did he know the bridge wouldn't have been repaired since he took out the bolts ages ago. Give me a break. (No pun intended.)

I think this season might have been more interesting if, when things went wrong on the outside, Michael became useless and Lincoln had to solve all the problems.
I’m still willing to give it a few more episodes, but I think they may have already lost me.

Speaking of LOST. Still along for that ride even with all it’s implausible turns and dropped threads. I hope they don’t do anything this season to sink my suspended disbelief. There’s nothing I love more than getting sucked into some other writer’s world. (Except maybe creating my own.)

4 comments:

Paula said...

Great post, Maureen. I LOVE being sucked in - forgetting to look at my watch in a theatre is an indication of whether or not I liked a movie. Or not realizing it's 2am and I'd been reading for well over 5 hours (this one happens a lot!).
Sure hope LOST is intriguing enough to make me want to stay home on Wed nights this season!

Sinead M said...

Great post... I have a much easier time than most suspending belief. As long as what I'm watching/reading is entertaining I can shut down my brain a little.

But most people can't and if you're building a world and you let reality intrude, reader lost..

Sheesh.. no pressure..

Molly O'Keefe said...

Good one Maureen! It's amazing the things that pull you out of books - or movies. As a writer trying to keep that tension taut between reader and work has got to be aim #1. Because once it's gone it's gone.

I'm with you on Lost and on Prison Break. It's just gotten dull. Where oh where has all the good TV gone?

Jordanne Ford said...

'Where oh where has all the good TV gone?' ABC cancelled it, imho. I'm still really ticked that not only did they cancel Invasion, but they left it with a cliff hanger. If it weren't for Grey's Anatomy, I'd boycott ABC altogether.
As far as suspending reality goes, so long as it's not about something I know a fair bit about, I'm okay. I was okay with Twister, I didn't care if it was an accurate portrayal. It kept me watching, I was interested. And the fact there was a romance spinning out of it was gravy.

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