The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Suspension of disbelief

Suspension of disbelief is a willingness of a reader or viewer to suspend his or her critical faculties to the extent of ignoring minor inconsistencies so as to enjoy a work of fiction. The phrase was coined by Coleridge in 1817, writing

... it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

(It is not uncommon to cite the full phrase "willing suspension of disbelief", but the arguably redundant "willing" is more often omitted, at least on the Web.)

The concept was certainly recognised by Shakespeare, who refers to it in the Prologue to Henry V:

... make imaginary puissance ... 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings ... turning th'accomplishment of many years into an hourglass.

The audience accepts limitations in the story being presented, sacrificing realism (and occasionally logic and believability) for the sake of enjoyment. Tolkien challenges this concept in his essay On Fairy-Stories, choosing instead the paradigm of subcreation .

Suspension of disbelief is an essential component of live theatre.

It is an essential ingredient in the enjoyment of many B-grade science fiction films and television series such as Doctor Who, where the audience willingly ignores low-budget "cheesy" props, plot holes, and poor acting, in order to fully engage with the enjoyable story – which may be the more so for those additions to its inherent outrageousness.

There are varying degrees to how much suspension of disbelief someone will accept. Fans of the science fiction series Star Trek accept the premises that starships can travel at warp speed and that aliens such as Vulcans exist, but when a given premise is inconsistent with previously written canon or violates known real-world science (such as the plot device whereby injection with a creature's DNA will turn someone into a similar creature), fans are usually not pleased.

As budgets have risen and special effects have become more and more realistic, audiences have become less inclined to engage in suspension of disbelief. Modern movie-going audiences often say that recent Hollywood blockbusters are superior to movies made several decades ago because modern computer-generated special effects are more impressive than the less sophisticated effects used in the past, rather than accepting that at the time these movies were made such techniques were not available. A similar attitude often applies to color vs. black-and-white films, particularly among younger fans.

A related concept is a character's self-awareness. The example of this is where the character addresses the audience directly (breaking the fourth wall) or otherwise engages with a glance or look or does or says something to show that the character realises that he is a character in a work of fiction. This action obviously challenges the audience's suspension of disbelief.

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