Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Suspension Bridge

Most of us have heard the term willing suspension of disbelief. It’s when a story or plot has something implausible, maybe even impossible in it, but we accept it for the sake of the narrative. Long lost twins. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The lucky coincidence. Hidden messages behind the Mona Lisa. The walking dead. Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. All things that are inherently unrealistic, but we let them slide because they’re part of the story.

Children have an incredible ability to suspend disbelief, because they don’t know what not to believe in. To them, Cinderella and Aladdin are real. So are Optimus Prime, Sponge Bob, Barney, Barbie, Spider-Man, and Dora the Explorer. When I was little, I was absolutely convinced the stop-motion dinosaurs of Land of the Lost were real (look at them! They’re not cartoons! They’re on film! With people!!) and had many sleepless nights worried Grumpy the Tyrannosaurus would be looming outside my bedroom window the same way he was always outside that cave.

On the other hand, my dad, a former liaison with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, lost interest in Back to the Future less than a minute in. As the gears and gadgets made breakfast for Doc Brown and his dog, the television news report said plutonium had vanished from a local nuclear reactor. He looked at me and said “Do you know what it would take for someone to sneak in and get any amount of plutonium off-site from a reactor?”

Willing suspension of disbelief is like a huge block. Throughout the course of reading a story or watching a film, the audience is going to chip at that block. You, the writer, are going to give them the tools and motivation to do it. The trick is knowing what to give them and how much to encourage them.

Every story starts with that block at 100%. Picture a huge solid cube of ice, stone, or whatever visual appeals to you. Every audience goes in completely willing to believe this is a true story, a story they will believe and accept without hesitation. No matter what the topic or genre is, no one picks up a book or walks into a theater without being open and ready to commit to it.

However, each time you hand them something they can’t accept, for whatever reason, they take a chip off that block. Maybe it’s a small little sliver. Maybe it’s a gigantic slab like one of those ice shelves that keep breaking off in the Arctic Circle (but don’t worry, kids—global warming’s just a myth).

The big trick here, of course, is knowing when to stop chipping, because eventually that block will shatter and collapse in on itself. That’s the point people start laughing, shaking their heads, and posting angry rants online. You want to put in your wild coincidences, werewolves, and wacky supporting characters, but you don’t want to undermine your own work. You need to be aware of what’s going to push your story over the edge. And be aware—that edge comes before the block hits zero.

Quick pause for story time...

On a publisher’s message board I frequent, a gentleman recently posted a large rant of his own about a straight-to-DVD zombie film and the many, many problems it had. Problems like misrolled sleeves on Marines and soldiers. Military vehicles with license plates. The size of a missile silo set. Now, faithful readers (all three of you), d’you remember what the genre of this film was?

Yes, it was a zombie film. In a film about the walking dead rising up to eat the flesh of the living, this gent found someone’s cuffs so unbelievable and distracting that it ruined the film for him.

Don’t worry about pleasing this guy. Or my dad.

Well, okay. Dad loves stuff from William-Sonoma.

So, anyway, let’s get back on track and play a simple game...

Put that big block of belief up in front of you. I’m just going to rattle off some stuff at random and assign values to it based off my own experience. Consider your story and subtract as you need to.

Keep in mind, some chips are contained within larger ones. If you got a chunk knocked off for flying saucers, odds are no one’s going to take another chunk off if you introduce extraterrestrials. Once you’ve taken a sliver away for a woman who’s been pining for her high school boyfriend for twenty years, it’s not too hard to believe she can instantly remember the maiden name of the girl he took to the senior prom. And once they’ve accepted time-travel, most audience members will accept a paradox or two.

Ready?

Every single wooden, forced, or “on the nose” line of dialogue is going to cost you 1% off the block, so be careful because they’ll add up fast. Characters who are supposed to be smart but do inherently stupid things—that’s a good 3%. Every stereotypical burnt-out cop, stripper with the heart of gold, clueless boss, snotty cheerleader, dumb jock, or introspective pot smoker—take 5% of the block for every one of those overused characters. Take off another 10% if they’re one of your main characters. Any unarmed, unprotected person who walks into the dark building they just heard screams come from is going to cost you 5%. Anyone pausing in mid-action to deliver more than three lines worth of dialogue—oh, that’s a good 7% off the big block.

Each woman who randomly gets undressed, changes clothes for no reason, or frets about her hair while in a burning building surrounded by vampires—that’s 10% off the block. Every man who grunts, drinks, or randomly demeans people is another 10%. Anyone who can spontaneously fight like a 20-year devotee of the martial arts will cost you 5%. If any character says “I don’t understand” or some variation thereof twice or more in a chapter or scene, that’s 10%. Also you’ll lose 5% every time a characters does something that goes directly against their established type—cops who get drunk and do drugs with underage girls, college professors who get baffled by simple problems, incredibly wise and intelligent aliens who can’t figure out a doorknob.

Anything that shows a complete failure of research or understanding of the real world adds up fast. A Protestant minister who takes confession is 5% off the block. So do rabbis eating ham sandwiches. Diesel fuel tanks that explode in a fire are 1%. Revolvers that fire seven or eight bullets will be 3 or 4% per extra shot, and people who die from being shot in the shoulder cost you a good 5% off. Every time a random stranger walks off and leaves their keys in the ignition with the engine running—that’s a solid 10%.

If your main character falls five stories without suffering any harm, that’s minus 5%. Another 7% off if computers randomly develop sentience. Call it 10% if, with no foreshadowing, aliens suddenly attack. Knock it up to 20% if, with no foreshadowing, flying space monkeys attack.

Now, ready for the hard one...?

Every misspelled or misused word is going to cost you 1%. As readers hit mistake after mistake, their faith in the writer’s ability drops. After three dozen typos, they just aren’t going to believe the writer can pull off revealing Bobby is a retired NSA agent or that Debbie was raised by wolves. It’s not fair, no, but that’s the way it is.

So, with all that in mind... how’s you do?

More importantly, how did your block do?

Even more importantly—it’s time to get back to writing.


2 comments:

Rakie said...

good point, well made. :)

to be honest, i sound like exactly the sort of person who faults tiny, pointless things in movies. If i'd stopped to think about the plutonium in Back to the Future, yeah, i'd have yelled about that too. In fact, i watched that movie just recently and remember shouting about the terrifying Libyans, who numbered three guys in a VW van. :) My shouty point of view is that if films can't pay attention to the tiny details, how can they be trusted to get the big stuff right? (i do realise this is just my own daft point of view, bear with me)

for example... the Pixar movies are a great example - they always look like so much time and effort has gone into the little details. The buildings in Monsters Inc look like they were designed by and for monsters. The robots in Wall-E are quite obviously robots built for a specific purpose and not just people-characters who happen to be made of metal (as in, say, Robots). My least favourite Pixar movie is Cars, specifically because it DOESN'T have this amazing attention to detail (Doc makes a scrapbook... yeah, fine, except HE'S A CAR AND HAS NO THUMBS).

also, i think maybe you have to have different rules of belief-suspension depending on the movie in question. Like, if it's anything involving John Woo or Jackie Chan, you can't really take points off for people jumping unharmed out of fifth floor windows, or shrugging off near-fatal gunshot wounds, or failing to notice the mountains behind the New York skyline.

these are the things i think. :)

Virtual Stranger said...

Fair points, Rakie-dearest... ;)

I think the thing to remember, though is that many of these points are inter-connected. As I mentioned, lots of little chips off the block are often covered by a single larger one.

In Cars, if you accept a world of talking, thinking cars, you have to be willing to not think too much about how they create anything. Forget scrapbooks-- how did they make buildings? How did they sculpt the statue of the town founder? Who typesets all those newspaper headlines? These all get covered in the blanket acceptance of "a world of talking cars."

Likewise, a John Woo or Jackie Chan film are a certain form of storytelling that comes with certain pre-established conditions up front. No one's surprised when Jackie Chan moves in an incredibly flexible, inhumanly daring way in one of his films. However, if Hugh Grant suddenly did it in Notting Hill people would've instantly called foul...