One of the great pleasures of science fiction and fantasy is that they ask us to suspend our disbelief more than almost any other fictional genres. (Except maybe romance.) Stories about fantastical worlds and strange discoveries force us to use our imaginations to bring the settings to life — but they also force us to accept the unreal as real, for the purposes of the story.
Suspending your disbelief isn't as simple as not asking too many questions, or just taking things at face value. It's actually a kind of hard work. And that's why we enjoy it so much.
There are really two great myths about suspension of disbelief: 1) It's a passive business, in which you just sit back and accept whatever nonsense the storyteller wants to throw at you. 2) The more you have to suspend your disbelief, the dumber the story is, because a well-done, clever story would automatically seem plausible without any effort on your part. In fact, the opposite of these two myths is closer to the truth, which is why suspension of disbelief is so valuable a skill.
Suspending your disbelief is hard work
Many people accept that one of the main pleasures of literary fiction, as well as art movies and artsy TV shows, is that they make the audience work harder to understand what's going on. Plot points are more subtle, allusions are cleverly buried under the surface, the characters are more complex — and all of this forces the audience to do more work to engage with the story. Any ambiguity within a literary work is an invitation to do some hard work, and so is the idea of parsing layers of meaning within a story.
But suspending your disbelief is a form of hard work for audiences, too — at times, it can be just as Herculean as making sense of a complex story or dealing with an ambivalent protagonist. Experienced readers/viewers of speculative fiction develop a whole set of muscles for taking on board off-kilter premises and unusual plot devices. There's a reason why the full phrase is "willing suspension of disbelief" — because this process involves exerting your will.
In fact, different genres can make audiences work hard in different ways. Science fiction is just as capable as literary fiction of challenging you with complexity and ambiguity. But at the same time, science fiction and fantasy are also uniquely able to demand more work out of audiences, in the form of greater suspension of disbelief. Which is just as valuable a form of work as delving into the layers of a dense narrative.
And we like to work hard while reading a book, or even watching a TV show or movie. Working hard makes us feel smart, and that's one of the main reasons we consume narratives. We get a kind of mental endorphin rush from challenging ourselves, and going the extra distance for a good story makes us feel clever and excited.
I think people underestimate the extent to which you feel triumphant after a really good bout of believing in something implausible — it's like having climbed a mountain. You can look down on the pathetic depths of the stuff you had previously been able to make yourself believe in temporarily, from the Everestian heights of your new credulity.
Suspending your disbelief can make stories smarter and more interesting
Obviously, this isn't always true — a lot of very dumb movies, like the Transformers films, require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief from audiences. But even when your amazing powers of acceptance are deployed in support of a story that's pulpy and silly, about a giant robot fighting a butterfly from outer space or whatever, most of us would still agree that the result is "more interesting" on its face than a story about a businessman who questions whether the rat race is for him.
But also, suspension of disbelief can contribute to the audacity or cleverness of a story. Our willingness, as consumers, to go along with an off-beat premise can empower creators to go to some places they couldn't go otherwise. Think of the comics of Grant Morrison, in which all kinds of crazy explode onto the page, and the net effect of all that loopiness is a critique on the notion of consensual reality that wouldn't be possible otherwise. Or think of the weird, ultra-contrived dystopias of Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Truman Show and the upcoming In Time) whose contrived nature is a huge part of why they're so fascinating. Think of the deranged plot devices of Philip K. Dick. And so on.
The bigger the departure from our own experience, and the wilder the premise, the more we gain from suspending our disbelief. This works for satire and dystopian stories of all kinds, but also for any story that introduces something huge or surreal into the mix.
And it's not always true that how hard you have to work to suspend disbelief is a function of plausibility. There are a lot of other factors that can require you to work harder — like how seriously a story takes its outlandish elements. A story that's constantly winking at the audience is basically letting you know that this stuff makes no sense, and you're not supposed to try and believe in it, really.
Also, the more a story and its characters' emotional lives depend on a premise, the more you'll want to suspend your disbelief — because if you stop believing in the premise, then the characters go with it. Also, the more cliched a story is, the less you have to work to suspend your disbelief, because you're already ironizing the whole thing — when you take in the umpteenth "vampire detective" story, you're more likely to be watching out for genre tropes than worrying about whether a vampire could really become a detective.
What happens when we stop suspending disbelief?
We've all felt it give way, like a paper bag full of too-heavy groceries. There's that moment when you just stop trying to buy into whatever the story is selling you, and you're like, "Screw it. This is dumb." You start laughing at the story, rather than with it. You may even feel a bit triumphant, as though you've outsmarted someone, but you also feel a bit let down inside — like you and the story both tried to make it work, you really did, but in the end it just wasn't enough.
What happens, exactly, when we give up on suspending our disbelief? Is it that the story isn't giving us enough to work with? Or is it that we suspect, deep down, that the creators of this thing also didn't quite believe in it? Is it one crazy plot twist too many, or a pile of high concepts that just gets a bit too high? It could be all sorts of things.
One thing I do know, though — asking questions doesn't weaken your suspension of disbelief, it strengthens it. Unless the questions clearly have no good answers, in which case you're screwed. But wondering about how things work, and how exactly this world came about, can add more load-bearing to your suspension of disbelief just as often as it weakens it.
Final thought: Suspension of disbelief is not a way of accepting the unreal, so much as the pathway to greater realism. The fact is, humans have a high ability to accept a consensual reality — whatever reality the rest of us are accepting at the time. During the McCarthy era, that meant believing that there was a Communist hiding behind every shrub. During the dot-com boom, that meant believing that dot-com stocks would go up forever and P/E ratios could become near-infinite. I remember sitting in an international relations seminar in the early 1990s, and none of us could quite understand why everybody had believed in certain clearly counterfactual ideas during the Cold War — which was just a few years earlier, at that point.
And the world we live in now would require enormous suspension of disbelief from anyone that you told about it ten years ago. It seems reasonable and "normal" to us, because we're living in the midst of it, and we all accept the same things as truth. But we wouldn't believe in it if we weren't experiencing it.
In that same way, science fiction and fantasy stories can ask us to explore worlds that offer as much opportunity to explore human nature and human politics as a "realistic" story about the world of today would. The only thing this form of extreme realism asks from us is that we do a little work on our end, of suspending our disbelief.