Whose Responsbility Is It to Suspend Disbelief?

A fascinating question was posed in one of my networking groups:

Whose responsibility is it to suspend disbelief, the writer’s or the reader’s?

I think the kneejerk response would be that it’s the writer’s. But my feeling is that it’s a shared burden, that the burden of “suspending disbelief” is on the writer to create a believable story, yes, but also on the reader who needs to agree to accept the rules of the author’s literary world.

Then it becomes a balancing act. Throughout a book, the writer needs to be careful not to overstep his limits or take advantage of the reader’s generosity — I mean, we’ve all read books where at some point we think: Okay, Ms. Author, you had me all this time, but THAT could never happen! By the same token, the reader needs to resist the urge to be fickle, or moody, or decide that he or she is not going to buy into this world anymore.

This question actually reminds me of something the Pre-Cana priest told my husband and me when we were getting married: “If you are going to agree to a decision or a rule, then you can’t arbitrarily change the rules ( think “writers”) or begin to criticize that rule (think “readers”) later on.”

A formula for success. After all, I’ve been married for nearly 18 years.


4 thoughts on “Whose Responsbility Is It to Suspend Disbelief?

  1. After we watched a not-so-convincing movie recently, my husband and I had just-this conversation! There are some movies/actors that make or allow you to suspend belief with all kinds of things–like time travel, aliens, even cartoons (Ratatouille was the one we immediately thought of). For me, it is when a movie (or book) is so well done, so well written, that it carries me away. So I’m going to have to say it’s the writer’s responsibility (at least 99%) to enrapture and draw the reader in and to keep the medium from getting in the way of the story.

    Of course, that said, as you say it’s also up to the reader (1%) to buy in (which I think readers are only willing to do, certainly true for me, if the story is well crafted.) And of course this only reflects my opinion, not at all scientific, even though I use percentages! :)

  2. While from a certain perspective I can agree with what Julia said up there, I think readers give more than 1% just by getting past the first chapter.

    And, even having said that, a reader can still kick-out later.

    I honestly believe the writer’s proper use of their craft is the first necessity for suspending disbelief but they do have the assurance that many readers will go out of their way to help them create the dream and turn fiction into subjective reality…

    I also think the whole issue is way more complex then what I’ve said :-)

  3. Part of the reason I read is to be entertained and I am willing to “suspend disbelief” for the sake a great story. I do agree with you that it’s a shared responsibility, but I also think it’s a tool that should be used to enhance the story and not as a crutch to prop up a thin plot.

    So, from that perspective I think the author does have an additional burden to make sure the payoff at the end is worth the reader’s efforts, especially if it’s a recurring character in a series. If the payoff is great, I’ll not only “believe”, but I’ll come back for more.

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