Suspension of disbelief is essentially what allows fiction to be entertaining.
Thanks to it, the audience member of a Shakespeare play can enjoy the show without asking the person sitting next to him “Are those people crazy? Why are they talking to each other like that?”.
It allows the reader of a book to let loose the imagination and enter a fantastic world without thinking “There’s no such a thing as dragons. This book is full of nonsense”.
Suspension of disbelief is also the same thing that makes us swoon watching the main characters of a movie kissing without throwing popcorns at the screen and yelling “I know that they’re just pretending! That actress came out as lesbian last year!”.
So what is suspension of disbelief? Or to be more specific willing suspension of disbelief? Essentially it’s that moment when a person who’s consuming a piece of entertainment puts logic and reality aside for the sake of enjoyment.
The problem is that suspension of disbelief is not completely up to the audience. A person who walks into a theatre has to put realism asite to believe and understand the story. But when the movie starts, it’s the duty of the writer and the director to make the story compelling enough for the audience to not question its incongruencies.
The reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is important for any kind of story. But crucial when it comes to Fantasy, Sci-fi and any kind of fictional work that is set in a word different from our own.
Those stories need to be extra convincing when it comes to world building and establishing believable rules regarding physics, natural elements and life forms. If the rules that regulate the storyworld are not convincing enough, the audience will not be able to suspend disbelief and by consequence they won’t care about the plot or the characters.
I’ve already written about the importance of presenting the story world the right way, but now I want to look at the 2017 Netflix movie Bright (directed by David Ayer) to see why it’s so hard to suspend disbelief while watching it. And compare it to Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s Zootopia.
Both movies ask us a lot in terms of suspension of disbelief: Zootopia asks us to believe that there is a world full of animals where humans don’t exist and different species have learnt to live together in harmony.
While Bright asks us to believe that in a world very similar to ours magic exists and that this world is populated by animals, humans but also creatures like orcs, elves and fairies.
Let’s see what are the steps that a story needs to take in order to be believable:
Avoid unnecessary worldbuilding elements
In the very first scene of Bright the protagonist Daryl Ward kills a fairy that is flying over his house and says the line “fairy lives don’t matter today”. For the rest of the movie fairies are seen here and there flying or sitting on objects, never really playing a role. How they live and what they do is never explained.
But what exactly are those fairies? Are they more similar to humans or to animals? Since Daryl doesn’t have to face consequences for killing one, are they considered equivalent to insects? If so, why does Daryl says the cryptic line “fairy lives don’t matter today”? Did they matter before? Is “fairy lives matter” a slogan like “Black lives matter”… but it’s about animal-like creatures that no one cares about instead of police brutality?
Here’s the thing, if the scene where the fairy gets killed was cut, those questions wouldn’t need to be asked. The introduction of the fairy doesn’t have any real relevance to the plot nor it helps understanding the characters. What it does is simply arouse curiosity, but since this curiosity is not satisfied, it becomes a let down.
Zootopia stays away from this problem by trying to avoid arousing curiosity for topics that are not relevant to the plot. For example: we know that there is tension between predators and preys, but how did they learn to live together in the first place? If they can’t eat the meat of other animals, what do predators eat?
We’re not given an explanation but we don’t feel the need to ask those questions because we understand that the narrative has nothing to do with this and there are no scenes calling attentions to those details.
Use Chekhov’s gun well
I’ve already written an article about how to use Chekhov’s gun and why it’s important, but with stories like Bright and Zootopia, this principle has a whole different meaning.
Since we consciously know that those worlds are works of fiction and not reality, we need something to help us believe in the internal logic on those worlds. That something is stability and consistency, both in the internal rules that are displayed and in the behaviour of the characters.
In Bright the principle of Chekhov’s gun is not always respected, there’s a scene where Jakoby and Daryl have to arrest a loonatic man who’s ranting while waving around a sword. The camera spends a long time on that man and the weapon, giving the audience the impression that the sword has some particular relevance or meaning.
Also, one else in the city seems to possess or walk around with a sword like that, so it’s not an object common enough to part of the people’s everyday life. Naturally the audience expects to see such an unusual object again and to have an explanation about it.
But the sword is never brought back after this scene, it’s not explained why that man had it in the first place or why no one else in the city possesses one. It’s just an odd object that appears and disappears consuming precious screen time without having a real role in the story.
In Zootopia most of the elements that are shown at the beginning of the story end up having a role before the end. An example of this is the pen with the recording device: Judy uses it in act 1 to frame Nick for tax evasion and at the beginning of act 3 Nick uses it to record Judy’s apology and forgives her.
Real world/ pop culture references
Here’s where things get really bad for Bright. The movie inserts elements of our current pop culture like the Shrek movies, the Crips, “Black lives matter” into a world where those things shouldn’t exist.
Since the story is supposed to take place in an alternative present (the same world where we live in but with some variations), the history, the technology, the culture of the world as we know it should be different. I mean, in a world where orcs exist, why would someone make a movie like Shrek?
The solution to this problem is actually pretty easy: don’t insert elements of our world into a reality where those elements wouldn’t make sense.
The reason why this point is important is because suspension of disbelief, like a magic spell, can be undone by a few poorly placed words.
When Daryl says “fairy lives don’t matter today” we stop watching the movie for a second and think about the real world equivalent: “Black lives matter”. And the spell is broken. We were inside Bright’s world and now we’re back into our own thinking about the news show, the T-shirt or the Facebook post where we’ve seen the “Black lives matter” slogan for the first time.
Also, hearing a character that lives in a complete different universe casually reference something relevant to our current pop culture doesn’t sound right.
For example: would you be ok if Daenerys Targaryen casually said “#MeToo” while making a speech in Dothraki?
The references to our pop culture in Zootopia are a lot, probably even more than the ones in Bright. But they are subtle. They don’t contrast with the internal logic of the story world, they are just a fun addition. Take for example this picture:
The sheep wearing that suit is a clear reference to the popular TV series Breaking Bad, but this is not explicitly said. No one in the movie says to the sheep “Hey you look like Walter White” it’s the audience that thinks “that look like Walter White’s suit”.
Understanding that reference depends solely on the viewer’s experience: if he has watched Breaking bad, he’ll probably get it, if he hasn’t he won’t. But the logic of the scene doesn’t depend on the viewer understanding the reference.
To avoid this mistake, it’s enough to think about pop culture references as a fun addition to the story, not an essential element of it. If the sheep’s suit was green instead of yellow, there would have been no reference to Breaking Bad. And yet the scene would have worked well anyway because the suit is not essential, it’s just an addition.
Too often filmmakers and writers give for discounted that the audience will believe every line that is said and every image that is put on screen without questioning it. The result is an audience full of questions and doubts who inevitably stops paying attention to the plot and starts nitpicking.
That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the suspension of disbelief depends equally the reader and the writer.