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What Is a Suspension of Disbelief?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Suspension of disbelief, or willing suspension of disbelief, is an important element in drama and storytelling. It refers to an audience becoming emotionally invested in the story despite their sure knowledge that it is not actually happening. In effect, the audience implicitly agrees to pretend the story’s reality is the only reality. To help achieve this effect, the storyteller must create convincing characters and gripping plots. The overall story may be fantastic or even impossible, but as long as it remains entertaining and internally consistent, the audience will eagerly accept it as plausible.

Storytelling demands a certain license from its audience. No matter how realistic the media used to portray the story, all but the smallest children know it is a creative work. Engaging the imagination requires a conscious decision on the part of the audience to ignore the usual skepticism of the rational mind. In 1817, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” to describe this phenomenon. While it may seem obvious, the successful creation of art and entertainment depends on its existence.

In criticism, the term is often used negatively. As suspension of disbelief is a basic concept all stories must achieve, critics sometimes accuse a writer or filmmaker of failing at this. This usually means the story was preposterous, contradicted itself, or had characters doing things real people probably wouldn’t do. Even if the characters have impossible abilities or live in an impossible world, they should still behave realistically. This allows the audience to sympathize with them, another essential element of good storytelling.

An opposite principle also applies. Suspension of disbelief is easier if the story is highly entertaining. The Star Wars and James Bond film series, to name just two examples, are famous for emphasizing fun, flashy effects over realistic detail. Every decade, numerous films achieve blockbuster status by impressing audiences with cutting-edge special effects. The realistic effects allow audiences worldwide to willingly accept the fantastic story lines. Professional critics, who routinely see many such movies, may not be as quick to suspend their disbelief, however.

Internal consistency is another important aspect for suspension of disbelief. While a story may be full of fantastic phenomena, it must obey the rules as established in the story itself. Dead characters cannot return to life, for example, unless the story has previously established how this is possible. Overuse of such unrealistic devices, especially in comic books and movies, has become so common that many are in danger of becoming clichés. Inconsistent or unrealistic plot devices can make the overall story unbelievable; for a modern audience, the suspension of disbelief can be a fragile thing.

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