Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Suspension of Disbelief

Have you ever been talking about a sci-fi / fantasy thing and you’ve got hung up on one detail that you find unbelievable, but the person you’re talking to replies with something like ‘You’ve just watched a whole movie with somebody who can shoot lasers from his eyes, but three people keep running back and forth across the road and THAT’s the part you find unbelievable?’

I’ve seen it many times. So where do I draw the line on suspension of disbelief?

I think it’s surprisingly simple. Humans need to act like humans, no matter the context – if they don’t, I can’t suspend my disbelief it. BUT, this is a different issue, but still a simple one:

I have to believe the author knows this is impossible.

I can read a comic where a human can breathe underwater, and I assume the writer knows that’s impossible – but if they go on to say ‘electric eels are ocean fish’, then I get hung up. (I’ve seen that example in the context of both Sub-Mariner and Aquaman; it’s especially frustrating because they could just say ‘electric rays’ and there wouldn’t be a problem.) I actually think the author believes electric eels aren’t fresh water, and I can’t suspend disbelief.

It’s why  hand-waving a thing works for me; the author is saying ‘yes, I know this is impossible, stop flooding my inbox’. Okay, if you know this doesn’t work, I’ll go with it.


  1. Suspension of Disbelief is an interesting thing. I wrote about it for a while for a blog called “Suspension of Disbelief,” appropriately enough. I answered the question, “isn’t this just nitpicking?” by pointing to Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor of the Cambridge University edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dr. Bruccoli is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of literature at University of South Carolina and a leading authority on Fitzgerald.

    On the subject of accuracy, Dr. Bruccoli says, “Factual errors in fiction distract readers who spot them and may undermine confidence in the work and the author.* Many careful readers hold that if an author cannot be trusted in details, he may not be trustworthy in larger matters.”

    If a comic writer creates a story in which Spectacular Man has to rescue the President of the United States from a super-intelligent bee-headed gorilla, we’ll go along with it and happily suspend disbelief. But if the story says Spectacular Man has to rescue the Prime Minister of the United States, we’re stuck on the ignorance and idiocy of the error and can’t get into the story, unless the author has done a lot of world-building to establish that we’re in an alternate reality where the US has a Prime Minister. And if that’s the only alteration to reality, then we’re stuck with it being a pointless waste of exposition to establish a pointless plot element.


    1. Le Messor

      I think you and I and Dr. Bruccoli are actually talking about the same thing here. I could believe somebody actually thought the US had a Prime Minister – especially if they were writing in the UK, or somewhere that has one.
      (Or, more likely, that they had a typing tic that they never corrected.)

      Though there’s been a phenomenon noticed – and I’ve done it myself – where people will see Hollywood get 100 things wrong about a subject they know about, and figure out Hollywood knows nothing. But then they see Hollywood portray something the viewer knows nothing about, and the viewer assumes Hollywood got it right.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    For me, it’s more about being consistent within the universe you have created. If you have set up Batman as completely human and have him fall 10 stories, with no parachute, no batline to grab and swing on (leaving aside the physics of falling and coming to a sudden stop, with something like that), no airbag to land it, nothing that could conceivably absorb the impact without hurting him, then I am going to cry “bullshit” and I will be completely out of the story. Humans can’t do that. If you come up with a clever out that doesn’t require some kind of desu ex machina, then I will give it a pass. The cloak acts like a parachute? Fine, up to a point. Boot jets? okay, but the duration better be short and thrust limited. Utility belt? If it involves pulling out some kind of grappling line, fine. Superman turns up? He better appear early in the story or you better work hard to earnt he moment.

    Factual errors will pull me out within certain contexts. If you do a military story, set during the Vietnam War and everyone is decked out in WW2 uniforms and equipment and the terrain looks like Western Europe? I am going to stop reading (I’ve been writing essays about Vietnam, as portrayed in comics over the decades; and there were a lot of stories like that, in the 60s) I couldn’t take The Losers seriously because Captain Storm has a wooden leg and wouldn’t have been allowed to command a PT boat, let alone go on infantry-oriented missions. Also, he was a lieutenant and not entitled to be called “captain,” after he was no longer commanding a PT Boat, when his series was cancelled and he ended up in The Losers.

    You give Jonny Quest a jetpack, VSTOL plane, lasers, invisible monsters, giant komodo dragons and secret mountainside bases and I am right there with you, because, A, it is cool, and B, it looks plausible enough and they usually justified it through some kind of (questionable science).

    1. Le Messor

      Oh, yeah internal consistency is very important!
      There’s a real example like yours that’s been brought up – where Bruce Wayne knocks down a decently-sized tree by punching it. (It wasn’t huge or anything, but no human could do that.) From Batman: Year One.

  3. It’s not just that electric eels are freshwater fish, it’s that Arthur or Namor can be anywhere in the ocean and simply find them. The DC Role Playing Game gave Aquaman “fish summoning powers” to represent that.
    For me it’s a sliding scale: how bad is the mistake? How much do I like the book. For example I read a thriller recently that says Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, was preaching a century before the Nazis. Wrong, but I’d count that as minor. Then the author gets quantum physics’ Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle completely wrong. That’s super-sloppy.
    One that sticks in my head after 50 years is a sword-and-sorcery novel from the 1970s that has Attila the Hun battling Hindu Thuggee … except the description is the Islamic Hashasheen/Assassin sect (more properly the Nizari Ismaili). That’s impressively stupid.

    1. Le Messor

      “it’s that Arthur or Namor can be anywhere in the ocean and simply find them.”
      Oh, yeah!
      I think that’s one of those things that nags at my mind every time I run into it, but I’ve never quite put it into words – until now. Thanks!

      Somebody should make a graph about how egregious the mistake is vs how much you enjoy the work.

      I agree with your comment about ‘would a well-read layman spot this?’ or would ‘only an expert with extreme, obscure knowledge notice?’ is a good one, that I’ve thought about before.

  4. My rule of thumb when I’m evaluating a work, or my own work, is “would a well-read layman spot this is wrong?” If it’s something only an expert would get and it doesn’t significantly affect the plot, I don’t think it’s a serious flaw, even if it bugs me personally.

  5. jccalhoun

    My pet peeve is when movies/tv shows/comics say someone/something is from another galaxy or someone has conquered galaxies. Space is really really really big. Andromeda is 2.6 million light years away. That means it takes light 2.6 million years to get here. Just say they are from another solar system.

  6. Years ago, a friend of mine who was a big Harry Potter fan convinced me to go see one of the movies with her (I think it was “Half Blood Prince”, maybe?). I was not impressed, and I spent most of viewing time cataloguing a list of the plot holes and logical lapses that seemed to occur every few minutes.

    Thinking about it later, I had to admit that the lapses in the Potter movie weren’t objectively any worse than other movies I’d enjoyed, including some of my all-time favorites (looking at you, Chris Reeve Superman movies). I realized that my nit-picks were not the cause of my dislike, but a symptom of it. I was not engaged by the characters or story, so my mind had nothing left to do but look for faults.

    If I’d been on the edge of my seat, rooting for the heroes and eager to see what happened next, I would have been much more forgiving of the logic lapses…if I had even noticed them at all.

      1. Le Messor

        Yes, it’s like you said above – there’s an enjoyment vs plot holes graph.

        JK, starting with the later HP movies was probably a mistake (not by choice, though).

        1. Case in point, both “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and the TV rom-com “I Was a Mail-Order Bride” have their female leads playing journalists and they’re clueless about that career field. I forgive the first movie because it won me over (the only movie I like Matthew McConaughey in) but I don’t forgive the second because it didn’t.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Interesting that you mention the Reeve Superman films. I do like the first two, but do not hold them in as high regard as many others seem to – and that’s precisely because of some of the story aspects/lapses that have always bothered me.

  7. Omar Karindu

    I think there’s a parallel between suspension of disbelief and the uncanny valley concept, where there’s a place in the middle between totally fantastical and well-researched or well-observed realism where the suspension of disbelief breaks. Inconsistency is part of it, but so is “almost like reality, but just not quite there.”

    In general, the further out into the fantastical something is, the easier it is to just roll with it as the pleasure of pure imagination or genre conventions. The closer to the reader’s actual social or emotional realities and experiences it is, the harder it is for breaks with that reality to work.

    This even gets down into the level of style. It’s why I love, say, Kirby’s poetic dialogue coming from his space gods, but find it grating when it’s meant to be coming from regular people. And it’s why I’m willing to let go of astrophysics to accept alien empires that span galaxies, but get irritated by some of Stan Lee’s WTF attempts at technobabble (like Iceman’s ice missiles that are “attracted to speed” in 1963’s inaugural issue of X-Men).

    Also, a totally fantastical situation that’s set up as a very transparent allegory for some real political or social thing can be very grating or very effective depending on how well the allegory parallels the more grounded thing it encodes.

    For instance, I like most of Peter David’s Trans-Sabal story from his Hulk run, but the thing with the Middle Eastern dictator being worshipped by his people as a god just doesn’t work for me, since it’s not something I recognize as part of the Middle Eastern politics the story references.

    1. Le Messor

      I agree with all that you said – I hadn’t even thought about how the Uncanny Valley affects it.
      Even some of the things that specifically bother you also bother me.

      I only recently read the Trans-Sabal story, and that bugged me too. It’s basically riffing on a Muslim country -therefore, monotheistic. Thinking of your ruler as a god is so 1,000 years ago!

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