Willing Suspension of Disbelief

An eagle-eyed viewer might be able to see the wires. A pedant might be able to see the wires. But I think if you're looking at the wires you're ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show you can see the wires. But it's about the puppets, it's not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you're only watching the wires, you're a freak.
Dean Learner, Garth Marenghis Darkplace

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and author, called drama "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith ..."

Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It's part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord.

An author's work, in other words, does not have to be realistic, only believable and internally consistent (see Magic A Is Magic A). When the author pushes an audience beyond what they're willing to accept, the work fails in the eyes of that particular audience. As far as science fiction is concerned, viewers are usually willing to go along with creative explanations which is why people don't criticize your wormhole travel system or how a shrinking potion doesn't violate the laws of matter conservation, but even in the more fantastical genres, suspension of disbelief can be broken when a work breaks its own established laws or asks the audience to put up with too many things that come off as contrived.

A common way of putting this is "You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable." For example, people will accept that the Grand Mage can teleport across the world, or that the spaceship has technology that makes it completely invisible without rendering its own sensors blind, but they won't accept that the ferocious carnivore just happened to have a heart attack and die right before it attacked the main character, or that the hacker guessed his enemy's password on the first try just by typing random letters, at least without some prior detail justifying it or one of the Rules listed below coming into play. What is in Real Life impossible just has to be made the norm in the setting and kept consistent.

Of course, different people will have different thresholds for what they're willing to accept in a work, and what may break one person's willing suspension of disbelief may not necessarily have the same effect on another.

Most action movies push this trope almost to the breaking point; for the sake of action, the heroes can do virtually anything, given enough Phlebotinum.

As always, the various Rules override nearly all other considerations. When the audience's disbelief, which was suspended during the show, gets reinstated some time afterward, what you get is Fridge Logic.

The MST3K Mantra is an exhortation to reinstate your Willing Suspension of Disbelief even if it's been broken, because "it's just a show".

Incidentally this is one of the more controversial elements of, believe it or not, Professional Wrestling, and is heavily tied to Kayfabe.

See also:


Alternative Title(s):

Suspension Of Disbelief