I remember when I was a small child and every year, once a year, The Wizard of Oz was aired on TV. There were no such things as DVRs, or even videos. You watched it then or not at all. And we always did. That evening was looked forward to every year, and I planted myself on the living room floor in anticipation.
I loved The Wizard of Oz but I was terrified of it at the same time. Yes, the monkeys–who wasn’t afraid of the flying monkeys? They still scare me. But there was also that horrible Miss Gulch stealing away with Dorothy’s dog. Her dog! The music of her pedaling away with Toto gave me chills. At eight years old, it was my equivalent to the shower scene music in Psycho.
And then there was that dark forest of talking trees that threw their apples at Dorothy and her friends. They looked like ordinary trees but then their branchy arms reached out and grabbed you. I felt them grabbing me. Adding to the fright were those striped socks that shriveled up underneath Dorothy’s house. I don’t know why those freaked me out as much as they did, but they touched some sort of nerve. A dead witch under her very own house!
Maybe it was because I had a crawl space beneath my own house that was dark and mysterious and frightened me even without those shriveling striped socks and a dead witch lurking beneath it. And of course the bellowing image of the disembodied wizard head in the Emerald City didn’t help calm me down either. By the time Glenda the Good Witch told Dorothy to tap her shoes together and wish for home, I believed those ruby slippers could transport Dorothy all the way across the universe if need be. No, I didn’t just believe, I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe there was some escape, some remedy, for all the frightening things in the world.
A few years later when I read about this little runt of a pig who was going to get the ax just because he was small (I was always the runt at school—the smallest in the class), I was horrified at the injustice. It wasn’t his fault he was small. You don’t get a choice about the size you are born. I was ready, if not eager, to believe that a tiny spot of a spider had the power to save this pig’s life. I wanted to believe that even the small and powerless were sometimes able to remedy injustice. A spelling spider in a real farm yard was a preposterous notion even for my ten-year-old self, but I was willing to let go of logic and hold on to what I wanted to believe should be.
Now fast forward several years. At this point I have grown up on a steady diet of body counts of soldiers on the nightly news, and the ever-present fear of looming drafts where my young cousins, brother, or classmates could be called off to war, their numbers picked in lotteries. These were young men who were not even old enough to vote for the officials who were sealing their fates. (Yes, the lotteries in The Hunger Games didn’t require much suspension of disbelief from me.)
During this time fear and hopelessness could have reigned, but then, a draft card was burned, and another, and flowers were woven into hair, and chants of “make love not war” were heard, and it was suspension of disbelief that reigned instead: They could make a difference, they would, even though they had no power. And though I was barely a teen myself, I wanted to believe that the improbable was possible, that a war that had gone on forever in my memory could be ended by those with the least power. And then the improbable did happen, the suspension of disbelief evolved into reality.
Even though, technically, suspension of disbelief is a literary term, I think we find it in all facets of our lives and culture. Obviously for me, I jumped on board that Suspension Train in films, books, and in reality. Yes, that could never happen, but . . .
The phrase was penned by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the supernatural elements of his poetry had fallen out of style. Audiences of his time were believing less and less in the supernatural world, but he still felt the fantastic elements in his poetry could waken readers out of the numbness and routine of the real world so they could actually see the “wonders of the world before us,” but first, they would have to have a “willingness to suspend disbelief.”
So some of the responsibility now falls on the reader. There has to be a willingness, or wanting, as I described myself above, to get hooked into the story. In my book, The Miles Between, suspension of disbelief is required on the part of the reader. I sometimes describe it as a willingness to “get in the car” with Destiny and her friends. A wild ride. But the responsibility to create this willingness is not just on the reader. It is on the writer, too. Yep, me. As Coleridge also said, there has to be some “human interest and semblance of truth” for this suspension to take place. In The Miles Between the characters and settings are rooted in reality with just a slight tweak, just enough so you aren’t really sure if you’re in Kansas anymore or not—a semblance of truth. In some ways, this presents a greater challenge in persuading the reader to get in the car and go for the ride. They sort of think they are in the real world, but are they? I wanted to straddle that line to create a surreal effect. Is it real or is it memorex? I later learned that this straddling is an element of slipstream fiction, but that is a discussion for another day.
One of my favorite parts of the story that requires a dose of suspension, was one of the seemingly lighter scenes when the lamb that the teens have adopted and brought along on their journey was in jeopardy. The teens had just arrived in the city and were walking the lamb along the sidewalk when they were approached by a swaggering policeman. “You can’t be walking livestock on a city street,” he tells them. One of the teens, Seth, is especially desperate to save the lamb and is quick to respond. He says, “Livestock? Oh, you mean him? This is my dog, Lucky. A lot of people make that mistake. But he’s a lambadoodle. A new breed.”
Now the moment of truth comes. Is the reader in the car with me? Have I laid out enough truth and connection with the characters for them to be willing to suspend disbelief? Will the policeman who is definitely not in the car with us, be willing to suspend his disbelief. Will he believe in lambadoodles? Or maybe more precisely, do we want him to believe in lambadoodles?
I suppose I have to back up a bit here and say that the trip that day for the four teens is a journey in search of one fair day. Even the mismatched crew of characters wonders if there can be such a thing, the premise being, if everything can add up wrong to create an impossibly disastrous day, wouldn’t logic hold that there could also be just one day where everything could go impossibly right?
Whether I was successful in creating that human interest and semblance of truth so that the reader was a willing partner in the suspension of disbelief, will vary from reader to reader. Some will, in essence, cheer for lambadoodles, and others won’t. You never know what will catch someone up, especially when everyone’s personal experiences are so different and can feed into the story and how they experience it.
Probably my most recent encounter with suspension of disbelief was with a Youtube video my husband sent me. The title is “Honking Fail” if you want to look it up on Youtube, and it shows an old lady at a crosswalk with Mr. Mega Jerk honking his horn at her to hurry her along. This old lady, who can only shuffle, finally swings her bag of groceries into the car’s bumper to show her annoyance at the honker, but in the process sets his airbag off, incapacitating him and his car. Sweet justice!
Now logic tells me that this was probably staged since 1) a bag of groceries swung by an old lady is probably not going to trigger an airbag, and 2) how convenient that a camera just happened to be there when this occurred. But I don’t care! As Coleridge said, with “some human interest and semblance of truth” the reader, or in my case, the viewer, is willing to suspend disbelief. And I suspended in spades–at least for a few minutes. I wanted to believe that the guy behind the wheel got his due for being such a jerk, and to make it even better, a fragile and seemingly powerless old lady delivered it to him. And from the over 3 million views and 14,000 comments on youtube, I think there are plenty of others who were willing to suspend their disbelief as well. They wanted to believe that sometimes the universe gets it right. Maybe that is part of the “wonder” that Coleridge was talking about. We want to be wakened to some of that at least occasionally.
What are your encounters with suspension of disbelief, either in literature or in life? Are there sometimes you just plain want to believe?
Mary E. Pearson is the author of five novels for teens, most recently, The Miles Between just out in September, and newly out in paperback, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which has been optioned by 20th Century Fox for a major motion picture and translated into thirteen languages, both from Henry Holt Books.