Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term, but he didn’t invent the idea. Coleridge was a masterful poet, though, and embraced the supernatural when his fellow writers largely abandoned it. (Oh Samuel, would you have only lived forever to know my love and devotion! Our babies would have been beautiful and creative.)
Coleridge wrote, “It was agreed, that my endeavors 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 poetry faith.”
At the time, the supernatural was out of popular favor and science was all the rage. Where people once believed in the supernatural – honestly and totally like fairies and sprites and demons actually existed and haunted us if we weren’t careful – the world wasn’t so much falling for that anymore. Science and philosophy replaced superstition and that was that. Like how in the 60s and 70s there was a lot of politics in our literature and fiction, and not so much anymore. Coleridge introduced the idea of Willing Suspension of Disbelief to show how educated audiences could still enjoy the supernatural, even if they understood it wasn’t real. They could let go for the duration of the literary experience to be transported to someplace more sublime, and yet still come back to the world as an enlightened individual.
These days, no one is leaving milk out as gifts to the fae in hopes they won’t touch the laundry or the livestock, but we have embraced Willing Suspension of Disbelief like fervent little children who still believe in Santa Claus. We’ve increasingly made the unreal believable to help pull us into a place where we can capital B Believe, temporarily that the supernatural exists. We have giant movie theaters with surround sound and wrapping screens so we become tunnel-visioned, easily captured. Some theaters have wind machines and vibrating, shifting chairs, so you feel like you are a part of the action. Books have illustrations and playlists and characters have Twitter accounts. Video game engines are becoming so realistic that characters on screen sometimes cannot be distinguished from an actor being filmed.
But, the truth is, we don’t NEED any of those things, not when we have Willing Suspension of Disbelief – everything else is just an accessory that makes the immersion more fun. The closer we can get to experiencing the Matrix or District 12, the happier we’ll be in general.
Authors are good at immersing us through the power engine of our imagination just fine without the tricks, and for that we can always be grateful. People want to believe. They are ready to believe. It doesn’t take much to bewitch an audience.
But authors have to be careful. Very careful. Their made-upness has to still work within the laws of the known world. If you’re writing science fiction and you write that gravity no longer works so that your feet don’t stick to the ground and that you require fancy suits to live and move around, your world then exists three dimensionally because the ceiling is just as good as the floor, how would the world work? How would it look? Could a single room become four living spaces so that people no longer need large houses? But once you decide that gravity works differently, you must decide HOW it does work, show examples and give reasons – even if those reasons are based on Quantum Hand-Wavy Science – you must never deviate from those rules. Once set, they are for always, or unless you can come up with a very good reason why it works one way one minute and another way the next. And then you’ve got two sets of rules and you can’t ever deviate from those. And so on. Consistency and Honesty are your secret weapons.
Here’s an example of writers doing it very badly. Everyone raise your hand if you watched the television show HEROES. Keep your hands raised if you just LOVED the first season. Keep your hands raised if you liked the second season. Keep your hands raised if you even kept watching after that.
One of the problems at the core of the television show is that it didn’t understand the rules of its world and the writers kept changing their minds and no one bothered taking their Twizzlers away until they figured out what the hell they were doing. It violated itself with time travel, which is just a bad idea in any storytelling, regardless of medium or audience. Once you introduce time travel, you need specific guardrails as to how it works and how it doesn’t work and you have to explain why the past can or can’t be changed, what happens when it is changed, and why the hell the time traveling character doesn’t run around time fixing the terrible things the bad guys do anyway. And Peter? That character was a wet hot mess. He could “capture” powers from others, take them on for himself, so he had all these powers in his head which he constantly forgot he had, so he’d get into these situations but forget he could time travel, or go invisible, or have super strength, or heal people, or whatever mcguffin power he was supposed to be playing with that week. Inevitably the writers had an Oh Shit moment and retconned all his powers away so they could start over, only Syler was on his way to a Peter-like character meltdown too and someone in a back boardroom was demanding to know who green lit the decision to hire a bunch of thirteen year old comic book fans to write the script for them in the first place. Half the cast got retconned out of the story, including my favorite television moment ever when at the end of one episode a girl is with a group who invade Claire’s house, and the next episode she’s gone. No explanation. It’s as if she never existed in the first place.
The show tanked quickly, and it was no surprise. Once the audience loses their Willing Suspension of Disbelief, the story is over.