The Suspension of Disbelief by Neil McGowan

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. We’ve bought a house (and a car, as the old one was getting rather past it) and had all the attendant fun that goes with that. Still, at least I’m settled now.

It’s had an impact on my writing, for obvious reasons – from not having the time or energy after a full day at work and then messing around for a couple of hours with boxes (and sheesh, I didn’t realise just how many books we actually own), to practicalities such as not having internet set up or secured,.

As a wee reward, I treated myself to a trip to the opera (Rossini, the Barber of Seville) on World Opera Day. Wonderful staging, and the cast was stellar. A thoroughly good time was had.

But it got me thinking on the way home, just how many parallels could be drawn between writing and opera (or, I suppose, other sorts of show or TV programmes).

There was a wonderful phrase I heard (or read – it was a long time ago) that said good writing made it easy to suspend your disbelief and fill in the gaps in the story. Practicalities are glossed over or even omitted and, if it’s done well, we don’t even notice. This ranges from the mundane – the hero rushes off to save the world without stopping for the bathroom – to bringing in elements of the fantastical in such a way as to ground them in normality. Vast distances are covered in the blink of an eye without batting an eyelid at the outrage done to laws of physics.

Interestingly, one of the few books I’ve read that does tackle this head-on is Stephen Baxter’s ‘Flood’ – this postulates a practical use of the Alcubierre Warp Drive in space travel and doesn’t shy away from the timespans involved; the Alcubierre Warp Drive is a real theory and checks out mathematically, although the practical aspects mean it’s unlikely we could build a working model of it. There’s also Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, in which the journey takes thousands of years (and it’s a cracking book – I was rooting for the spiders…) but there’s the magic hand-waving of cryogenic hibernation to get around this. After all, we want to build a relationship with the characters, and not have to meet a new cast every chapter.

And it’s things like this where there are parallels to be drawn. Star Trek has a warp drive; in Star Wars it’s a hyperdrive. Need an action-packed gunfight? There’s rarely any thought given to conserving ammunition (unless it’s a deliberate plot point). Even a brawl plays fast and loose with reality – the hero gets shot, or stabbed, and carries on heroically. People get knocked unconscious and wake up with little more than a headache, despite the fact a blow that hard would very likely cause a degree of brain damage.

Stage shows (including opera) have similar traits – in opera, for example, it’s almost de rigeur for the soprano to sing either as they die or even after death, just to make the point. And as audiences, we accept this. But why?

I’d suggest it’s all about excitement. We want the plot to thrill us and entertain; we don’t want to be bogged down in practicalities. We want our heroes to be almost superhuman. There’s not much fun in a gunfight if everyone is wandering around partially deaf afterwards.

This, I think, is what good writing does: it bridges the gaps where the mundane and practical lie. Even dialogue isn’t immune – if written well, it’s a hyper-real, stripped-down version of real speech. Good dialogue misses the ums and ahs, and the random changes of direction that pepper real speech. Things work because the author has suggested they work in a specific way. And as long as the internal logic of the story is maintained, we have no reason to doubt things.

At the end of the day, we want a medium – be it a book, television, play, or opera – to entertain us. We want a kind of edited highlights reel without all the boring bits, and I think writing is one of the best ways of achieving this. As writers, the only limit on what we can do on the page is our imagination and, of course, that of the reader. As writers, that’s our job – to take the readers on a journey and make it easy for them to suspend their disbelief.


Griselda Heppel said…
Yes, you've hit the nail on the head. Writing good, readable, realistic fiction is all about using art to convey a sense of reality without all the boring bits. At the same time you need enough mundane details not to lose the sense of realism altogether. This is why I always make sure I feed the characters in my children's books, especially if I'm sending them on a long, arduous quest, which of course I usually am. Also children love learning what people eat.

Opera's a bit different though, isn't it, as the singing is to express emotion and to entertain the audience with beautiful music conveying the story. We suspend our disbelief knowing this aspect is completely unrealistic but as you say, entertaining. After all, someone singing 'I'll have confidence' all the way to the Schloss in a packed bus would have driven the other passengers dotty but in The Sound of Music none of them are aware of Julie Andrews doing just that. I have to admit that in Abba the Musical I couldn't help feeling sorry for the local Greeks having the peace of their idyllic harbour shattered by a gaggle of loud women singing and hugging each other. But again, no one seemed to notice.

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