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.
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
- Acceptable Breaks from Reality - Sometimes absolute realism can make a work or story boring, disgusting, downright impossible, or otherwise just doesn't work. Breaking from it in those instances, as long as it's not an Ass Pull and is internally consistent, actually makes your story better.
- Artistic License - As above, sometimes the correct depiction of something wouldn't work for the story in some way (e.g. in a Cop Show, having everyone do paperwork and eat and drink coffee 90 percent of the time would likely bore the audience, which is expecting drama and action). Generally doesn't break Willing Suspension of Disbelief unless the following applies:
- The Artistic License is so inaccurate and jarring that it doesn't even make sense even in the embellished version of the field (e.g. a cop in said Cop Show doing an on the spot sniff test for DNA)
- The Artistic License is internally inconsistent (e.g. it's established cops in said Cop Show, despite it being over the top action, can't dual-wield rocket launchers as they are human beings of ordinary strength... and then, suddenly, everyone is dual-wielding rocket launchers and the cops are on the level of space marines.)
- Ass Pull: THE biggest way you can break Willing Suspension of Disbelief, as mentioned above. Some subtropes of it will do it almost 100 percent of the time, specifically the Deus ex Machina and Diabolus Ex Machina.
- Clap Your Hands If You Believe
- Contrived Coincidence: If the coincidence couldn't believably happen in Real Life for some reason, try to figure out why and how it could, OR try to figure out an In-Universe explanation for it happening that makes consistent sense. Otherwise, this is right up next to the Ass Pull as a way to immediately break Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
- Fourth Wall / No Fourth Wall
- Gambit Roulette
- Gameplay and Story Segregation
- How Unscientific!
- Lampshade Hanging
- Literary Agent Hypothesis
- Magic A Is Magic A
- Plausible Deniability
- Post Modernism
- Science Fiction Writers Have No Sense Of Scale