The Improbable, the Impossible, and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief in Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Greg Leitich Smith
Contemplate the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief.”
We’ve all heard the term on countless occasions, and most people, I’d guess, know that it’s a quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s also clearly a snippet of something larger.
It turns out that the full quote arose in 1817 in the context of defending the “supernatural” in poetry, in an era in which the fantastical had gone out of fashion. In Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes:
[M]y endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural … 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.
Some observations on this quote. First, it seems clear that Coleridge believes that it is incumbent upon the author to instill in his characters (and, presumably, story) sufficient realism that the reader will momentarily believe them, or in them.
Second, he calls the willing suspension of disbelief an act of “poetic faith.” It’s interesting that he chooses the term “faith.” Strunk & White likewise says that writing is an “act of faith.”
“Faith,” of course, is merely “confidence or trust.”
So how is an act of writing an act of faith?
Simply put, when a reader approaches a piece of fiction, his natural inclination is to regard it with confidence that the author has done his job sufficiently well so that he is willing to accept “shadows of the imagination” as truth.
At least for the moment.
This holds true for all fiction, both realistic and speculative. And I think it’s how most of us approach all reading, whether fiction or nonfiction. We vouchsafe the author a certain trust, which we hold to until given reason not to.
And that’s kind of the key. As we all know, trust can be betrayed. A breach of the writer’s trust can pull us out of a novel, tear us unceremoniously away from characters and action, and in some cases, make us give up on a particular author forever.
So, how do we ensure that the trust—the faith—reposed in our stories (and therefore in us as authors) is not misdirected? How do we ensure that the reader is not pulled rudely out of a story?
First, we attend to the basics. In the introduction to The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes of William Strunk that he
felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on high ground, or at least throw him a rope.
I’m sure everyone has had the experience of encountering a badly-produced volume, where a mis-spelling jars or a dangling participle annoys. Each of these things, minor in and of themselves, like the bites of a gnat, still cause twitches that redirect our attention away from the story. Granted, there are pedants who still insist that sentences absolutely must not end in a preposition or who dither on about the difference between “will” and “shall,” but basic grammar, diction, and strength of voice—the lifeline—are still important, even to those of us who are not copy-editors.
I’d like to briefly touch on a handful of things not covered by Strunk & White that I have found that cause people to stumble, to at least momentarily question their faith in an act of writing:
Overuse of adverbs, especially when applied to speech indicators, or where they don’t change the already-obvious meaning. In other words, the classic “Tom Swifty:”
“Oh, I’m not a professor,” he said quickly.
“No professor?” cried Miss Parkman indignantly.
Unintentional Double Entendres. Granted, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but especially when you’re writing for twelve-year-old boys, you really don’t want to give anyone unintentional giggles. Apropos of nothing, I note that my second novel involved the making of sausage.
Overuse of cliches and figures of speech: Especially when related to metaphorical use of bodily functions as surrogates for expressing emotion. “My heart skipped a beat,” makes me wonder if the character has arrhythmia. “My face burned,” implies someone misplaced a Zippo lighter.
The raisonneur: That is, the character in a work who appears to act as the mouthpiece for the work’s author. For example, in Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm was clearly the raisonneur. This often feels heavy-handed, preachy, and really annoying.
The Very Special Episode: For those of you who weren’t around in the ’80s, this is what happens when a TV show (usually a comedy) decides to tackle an “issue.” The episode was often introduced with a serious warning beforehand and concluded with a number to call. In literature, a Very Special Episode occurs if the issue gets ahead of the story. A particularly egregious example was in the Green Lantern-Green Arrow comics, when Speedy, Green Arrow’s protégé, was found to have been a drug addict. The cover actually contained the caption “DC attacks youth’s greatest problem – drugs!”Again, this often feels heavy-handed, preachy, and annoying.
The “Where’s Your Brain?” Plot: This isn’t just a plot that has holes, but one in which one or all of the characters act in such a ridiculously and uncharacteristically bizarre and out-of-character fashion, you believe they must be subject to some kind of alien mind control or brain theft. For example, the 6th Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer revolved around the fact that Buffy was hurting for money and so took a job at a fast food joint. It apparently occurred to no one that she might ask the Watcher’s Council for a salary, even though the council paid her mentor and apparently had created the Slayer in the first place.
You’ll note that all of these things I’ve discussed until now apply to all kinds of fiction. Which makes sense, because in order for it to work, speculative fiction has to work both as “straight” fiction and for its speculative elements. That is, with speculative fiction, there are factors at work that can cause loss of the author’s trust with regard to both the straight and the speculative aspects.
Let me digress a moment and note that there are, as generally agreed, two flavors of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy. The existential question tends to be: what’s the difference?
For our purposes, Orson Scott Card’s formulation is useful:
If a story is set in a world that follows the same “rules” as ours, it is science fiction. If a story is set in a world that follows different “rules,” it’s fantasy.
What does he mean by “rules”? Essentially, the laws of physics or the laws of nature.
More broadly, if the universe involves the laws of science and technology, it’s science fiction. If it involves magic, it’s fantasy.
Really, as we all know, the distinction isn’t that important. According to Clarke’s Third Law, “any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.”
The corollary, of course, is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a completely ad hoc plot device.”
Now, again, our goal as writers is to help readers keep the faith, so they keep reading and so they don’t regard our advanced technology or fantastical element as merely an ad hoc plot device. The producers of Buffy referred to this as “applied phlebotinum.”
So, how to approach this? How do we approach introducing a fantastical element—the applied phlebotinum—and yet not disrupt the reader from that act of faith?
Let’s start with the axiom: It’s easier to believe the impossible than the improbable.
Why? Because as we’ve established, reading is an act of faith. And, as Voltaire says, “[f]aith is believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.” Which means what? Essentially that we’re willing to accept what we do not and never can understand (the impossible) but not that to which we can actually apply reason and common sense (the improbable).
Now, that said, one of the difficulties we face as authors is that reality is not realistic. In other words, just because something happened doesn’t mean it is believable as fiction, because it may be, in fact, completely implausible.
Consider, for example, the strange case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens. One of the most famous cases of the common law, it resulted in a death sentence for the defendants and established, once and for all, that “one must not kill ones shipmates in order to eat them, however hungry one might be.”
It is the tale of the Mignonette, a fifty-foot yacht that sailed in 1884 from Southampton, bound for Australia. When the boat reached the south Atlantic, it foundered. The four crewmen took to the lifeboat. After three weeks at sea, with very little food (two tins of turnips, already consumed) and no water, two of the survivors, Dudley and Stephens, agreed amongst themselves to kill and eat the seventeen-year-old cabin boy, which they proceeded to do with dispatch. (The fourth guy apparently joined in the repast, but didn’t participate in the killing).
They were rescued four days later.
So. You’ve just committed foul murder. In fact, you may have committed the perfect murder. You presumably tossed the evidence overboard and that’s that. No one is the wiser. No one could ever know.
Why, then, were they caught and sentenced to death?
This is the part that beggars the imagination: Because they bragged about it. They were completely and utterly open about it.
Why is that implausible? Because it seems to be a “Where’s your Brain?” plot. Because, as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe put it, “those of us who are both civilized and prudent commit our murders only under the complicated rules which permit us to avoid personal responsibility.”
That said, there actually is an explanation and it makes sense in context. In particular, in the age of sail, it was not uncommon for a ship to go down and for desperate men to take to the lifeboats thousands of miles from land. In fact, it spawned a “custom at sea” in which survivors would draw straws to see who would be eaten. Consequently, Dudley and Stephens didn’t actually think they were doing anything wrong, per se. Indeed, neither did most of Britain, the leading maritime nation of the age.
The trial itself was something of a cause celebre: the problem most of the Empire had wasn’t the actual killing and eating, but the fact that they hadn’t drawn straws according to custom. (Ultimately, their sentences were commuted and they served only about a month in prison).
Now, I introduced this as a case where, in some sense, reality was unlikely. But by introducing appropriate context, we can make the implausible plausible, which is a key for writing speculative fiction. Even though the reader may be willing to grant the author a certain leeway, we need to introduce context to make both the impossible and improbable believable, to make the reader willing to suspend common sense.
Interestingly enough, in some ways, the very lack of believability of reality can make the author’s job easier.
Put another way, proper introduction of context can make the most improbable occurrence seem at least a bit more likely. Further, this unwillingness to believe the improbable can actually help the writer of speculative fiction in making the impossible believable. Why?
Because we also know in some sense that “truth is stranger than fiction.” And the fantastical can sometimes help us make sense of it. It can, in fact, introduce the context.
Consider, for example, the Hippach family of turn-of-the-century Chicago.
The Hippachs had four children, three boys and one girl. On December 30, 1903, the two oldest boys (aged 12 and 14) went—with a couple thousand of their closest friends—to see the production of Mr. Bluebeard at the “fireproof” Iroquois Theatre.
At the beginning of the second act, an arc light short-circuited and ignited some of the scenery. Some 605 members of the audience died, including the two Hippach boys.
It was the worst theatre-related and single-building fire tragedy in U.S. history. It spawned a host of fire regulations, and is why all doors in public places today easily open outwards.
Mrs. Hippach, as you may imagine, took the loss of the boys hard and was never quite herself again. Some years later, she was persuaded to take a trip to Europe with her daughter.
On April 10 of that year, they decided to book passage on a brand-new ship bound for New York. They were told they had purchased the last two remaining first class tickets and thought themselves lucky.
Several days later, the ship—RMS Titanic—hit an iceberg.
Two years after that, the remaining son died in an auto accident.
Now, pretty much everyone I have told this story to has had they same reaction: they were cursed. I doubt most people actually believe in curses, but I think it’s interesting that people go there immediately rather than contemplate coincidence.
Another example: Above, I discussed the case of Dudley and Stephens. Well, the name of the cabin boy was Richard Parker. Interestingly enough, some fifty years prior to the events associated with the Mignonnete, Edgar Allen Poe write a novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, about a man who stows away on a whaling ship, which goes down in the Pacific. He and a couple other crewmen take to the lifeboats, where they draw straws to see who should be eaten. The “winner’s” name? Richard Parker.
Again, most people I tell this to find this coincidence a little creepy and slightly unbelievable.
Again, if you wrote either scenario into a novel, people would stop believing in it. Why?
Let me again quote Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe: “In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted.”
Coincidences are part of the hard-to-believe improbable. Unless you invoke the fantastical.
If, in an act of fiction, I said that the Hippach family was literally cursed, or that Poe was clairvoyant, most people could accept it far more easily than the truth, at least initially.
So where are we? Well, now we know that we can use our innate suspicion of coincidence and the improbable to enhance our tales of the impossible.
But: Here’s the thing. The impossible itself does not bear up well to inspection. It’s like that 100 year old bottle of wine that’s very fine until you open it and discover it’s actually vinegar. In other words, with speculative fiction, you always are in danger that the audience will look too closely at the impossible and it will become merely improbable and hence a breach of faith and not believable.
How do you prevent this? You have to do two things: provide just enough context for your impossibilities, and do not introduce extraneous improbabilities. By this I mean improbabilities outside your main scope of the fantastical. To do this, you need to make up your rules for the fantastical and stick to them.
With my novel, Chronal Engine, this was somewhat difficult, inasmuch as I was dealing with both time travel and dinosaurs. Granted, dinosaurs are not fantastical creatures, but that in some ways made it harder. If I made the dinosaurs improbable, the reader would be jarred from the book just when I’d asked them to take the leap to believe in time travel. That is, the dinosaur part of the story was in some sense historical fiction and one of the keys of historical fiction is that you have to get the history right.
In other words, even though it was a work of speculative fiction, the “reality” part had to work just as much as in non-genre fiction.
I’ve spoken and written elsewhere on researching the dinosaur aspects of the book, and want to focus more here on the most fantastical element, the time travel. One reason I found developing time travel for Chronal Engine to be problematic is that people seem to either love or hate time travel stories and a lot of it comes down to the issues I discussed above. The problem being, it is (probably) impossible, and many executions require the reader or viewer to engage in an act of analysis that can either open up (real or apparent) paradoxes which run contrary to our experiences. Thus we have a sort of visceral tendency to reject them.
There are also many, many tropes of time travel and applying one may mean you cannot consistently apply another, even if that one is a reader favorite.
For example, you’ve heard of the butterfly effect. Well, the butterfly effect seems to have originated with a time travel tale involving dinosaurs.
In 1952, Ray Bradbury published a short story called “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a pair of time travelers go back, step on a butterfly which returns with them, thereby irrevocably altering history so that a fascist candidate becomes president of the United States.
Now, the butterfly effect is well known, but it never made sense to me. If you stipluate the existence of time travel, then the butterfly effect implies such instability in the universe that time travel itself could never exist.
It also implies that you can change the past, which opens up the possibility of fun things like the “grandfather paradox,” where you go back in time to kill your grandfather and are never born. While I enjoy stories in which you get to change the past, in some ways, they make no literary sense: if you can change the past, then you can do so at any time and, therefore, no matter what you do, there will be no final consequence and therefore no stakes about which to care. On the other hand, I still enjoy and was engaged by Back to the Future.
L. Sprague de Camp addresses this issue in the short story “A Gun for Dinosaurs,” by having the universe kill the time traveler before he can make a change.
Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter which form of time travel you choose, so long as it is consistent. That is, once you’ve worked out your rules, stick to them. You do not need to necessarily even tell them all to the reader, but you do need to ensure you know them so you don’t contradict yourself. For example, if you’ve established that the past can’t be changed, then if you do some change in the past, if your story, your fantastical element is inconsistent, then the reader will cry “Foul!” and lose faith.
As Orson Scott Card puts it,
if at the beginning of your story, you have established that your hero can make only three wishes, you had better not have him come up with a fourth wish to save his neck right at the end. That’s cheating, and your reader will be quite correct to throw your book across the room and carefully avoid anything you ever write in the future.
Incidentally, this self-consistency principle applies not just to fiction about time travel, but may also apply to time travel itself. The Novikov Self-Consistency Princple holds that it is impossible to create a change to the past or, indeed, time paradoxes (You may, however, be able to influence the past).
All of this, then, is simply to say that, yes, you need to apply your rules of fantasy/sci fi consistently so that both the impossible and improbable become believable. The laws of physics require it.
One final thing: I’ve talked about context and rules and consistency, etc., and how they serve the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. There is, however, one exception:
The Rule of Awesome.
This rule holds that you can get away with violating logic and almost all of the factors I’ve talked about above if, and only if, the result is completely and utterly, mind-bendingly awesome.
For example, in the movie The Avengers (2012), the flying aircraft carrier falls into that category. Even granting the existence of a world of superheroes and demigods, making an aircraft carrier fly with four spinning propellors is objectively ludicrous.
And yet, the viewer is willing to go with it, because it’s 100,000 tons of flying aricraft carrier.
Note that this is a powerful tool and should generally be avoided. If used, however, please make absolutely certain that the result is fantastically and undeniably awesome.
Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Airship (Grosset & Dunlap 1910)
Brandt, Nat. Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 (Southern Illinois University Press 2003).
Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, (Writers Digest Books 1990)
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria (1817)
Langford, David. “A Gadget Too Far.”http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/dlnw.htm
R. v Dudley & Stephens, 14 QBD 74 QC (1884
Simpson, A.W. Brian. Cannibalism and the Common Law (The Hambledon Press 1994)
Stout, Rex. Champagne for One (Viking Press, 1958).
Stout, Rex. Fer-de-Lance (Farrar & Rhinehart 1934).
Strunk, William & E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 3d Ed., (Macmillan 1979)
 Of course, “improper” grammar can also be reflective of dialect or voice, but that’s a topic for another discussion…
 Granted, Mrs. Hippach and her daughter were rescued by Carpathia, but still.
 See, e.g., Paul J. Nahin, Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction (Springer/AIP, 2d. Ed., 1999).