When you hear “suspension of disbelief,” what do you think? Do you think, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that it is a willingness to fall into a “poetic faith”? Maybe Coleridge is not your thing, and Wordsworth is more on the right track with “ to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural.”
Whatever your take on it is, at the end of the day you are basically turning off a little logical piece of your brain and allowing the excitement of the fantastic to take you away. We may not realize how often we do this already in our everyday lives, but from the book you are reading on the train to work to the magician using a little prestidigitation to pull a coin out of your ear, we frequently suspend our disbelief for just a moment. Even though we logically know our protagonist is not real or that we most certainly did not put that quarter in our ear for safekeeping, we allow ourselves to be pulled in and enjoy the moment.
Steampunk is a wonderful medium for allowing one’s suspension of disbelief to run rampant. While each medium is faced with its own distinct set of challenges, from the characters we create to the costumes and gadgets we make and wear, it all lends itself to the experience and enjoyment of the genre. But how do we pull our audience in and allow them to romp in our world? How does one achieve that feat, and what is the art behind the suspension of disbelief?
Looking back, the desire to test the boundaries of disbelief is ingrained in our human history. Every time we sit around the fire telling stories of the fish we caught last year that was “this big,” we attempt to magnetize our audience and draw them in. We use clever devices like sound effects, gestures and actions to sell the story. But what else is there that can really sell the story? Relatability. In whatever medium you are working in your audience must be able to relate to the story. Sticking with the fishing analogy, when recounting to the audience that the fish was the size of you, it might be a hard sell. It is just too fantastic and your audience is to close to the truth. But rather, if it’s implied that the fish was twice its actual size, it makes your audience stop and think, “ well I caught a really big fish once, I don’t know if it was that big, but it was pretty big…” To push that limit of believability without crossing the line into improbability is the key to pulling your audience into your story—they can relate to the tale, using their own perceptions.
Telling the same anecdote with your grandfather catching this colossal fish could be more believable, though. Why is that?
The willingness to suspend one’s disbelief comes easier the further one is from the truth. This is an example we see more often in a literary medium, where the source of the tale is probably foreign to the reader or from an author of authority. Naturally, the reader is hoping to be pulled into a fantastic tale, but in a literary medium you are faced with a different set of challenges in storytelling. A writer is forced to balance between too much detail, which might tax the reader, or too little, which might bore them. Like Renaissance painters, authors need to lay down a foundation layer and apply their edicts in just the right places, allowing their readers to fill in the negative space with their own imaginations, providing a richer, more vivid experience.
Visual mediums have their own unique challenges and advantages, because most average humans use sight to perceive the world, and therefore trust that sense. Through the use of clever editing, implausible situations become visually possible. Given the proper resources a filmmaker can create a completely artificial world that will allow their audience to be sucked in. Alternatively, a filmmaker with limited resources can tell a story in a more accessible setting with just as much success. A project with limitless recourses is not guaranteed to be good, because if the audience is not engaged with the story or characters, the storyteller may fail. There is a different set of pitfalls when dealing with limited resources, for when a filmmaker extends beyond their resources they may fracture the illusion and lose the audience. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and the ingenuity of artists is limitless.
All of these mediums and countless others apply to the steampunk genre. The community is full of storytellers, authors, artist and makers, with many touching multiple facets. One of the beautiful aspects of this community is the acceptance of novel ideas in so many ways. Faced with the challenges of each medium, we strive as storytellers to pull our audience into our world, and when done well, the audience will be able to run rampant in our mythos. And with the words of Wordsworth “ awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom ” we can add that little bit of enjoyment to our everyday lives.
Glenn Freund is a transmedia storyteller specializing community interaction, audio storytelling, and design. He is one of the liaisons for the World-Wide Alliance for the Tracking of Creatures and Haunts (W.A.T.C.H.) to the League of S.T.E.A.M., a steampunk transmedia entertainment project based in Los Angeles, CA.