Suspension of Belief



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  • Suspension of Belief

    I would like to get some opinions on whether or not it is necessary to explain how's and why's to an audience in a story.

    For example in the Sixth Sense, I don't remember being told why it is that Cole could see dead people, I just accepted that he could. But back story is told about the abilities of super heroes such as Spiderman, Superman, Hulk, etc.

    I'm writing a thriller and my protag has a supernatural ability, what's the guideline on filling in the back story, or can I just immerse the audience in my story hoping they suspend belief?


  • #2
    Ok, first - I'm not a writer, so take this for whatever it is (or isn't) worth...

    Typically, the backstory for superheroes is given because it clues you into their character and what drives them. Superman crashes to earth an alien and it raised by a Kansas farm family. This is important as it shows how Superman was given his values and it also demonstrates a central conflict in his story - the alien protector of humanity who longs to be a part of the human race, but cannot. Spiderman's origin shows the nerdy tennager living with his Aunt and Uncle. The origin of the story - and how he first chooses to use his power - has had an effect in virtually every Spiderman story. The Spiderman story is very much about how a normal person learns to live with his new powers and how he chooses to use them - his character before the accident needs to be known or you'll miss out on any internal conflict. The same can be said about virtually any Superhero.

    With the Sixth Sense, the young boy's backstory isn't really that important - nothing would have been added to the story as it's told if you knew when he first began seeing dead people. The person he was before this happened (if there was such a time) doesn't really matter much since the story, for most purposes, is about another character. What information is known about him before he started having visions comes through his interaction with other characters - like him Mom and doctor.

    Ok, enough rambling - my lunch hour is too short and I probably made no sense anyway.


    • #3
      Let me turn this around on you, look at the first Spiderman or even the old superman movie and ask yourself - why are we being told what we are being told. If all you see is an explanation for the powers you are missing 99% of what is going on in those scenes.

      Look at them again.

      Look at how they connect to the inner and outer struggle of the heroes. Peter yearns to be noticed and be special. Clark yearns to understand who he is, where he came from and find someone who will love him without having to pretend to be something he is not. One desires to be extraordinary and the other wants to be normal.

      Ask yourself how well these internal struggles would have been developed had you removed everything that came before Peter fighting crime as Spiderman or before showing Clark Kent fighting crime as Superman.

      Having said all that, there is no reason why you couldn't just have the hero using his powers without explaining how he got them. Just remember that if you make it real for the character (note how freaked Cole is by it, and Bruce is in Unbreakable) then it will be real to us. Also note the learning curve both Sixth and Unbreak put the audience through as we were educated about the powers both characters had. This is also an important part of effective suspension of disbelief by teaching the audience what the rules of the world are.

      Good luck!

      EDIT TO ADD: I forgot to say that in Sixth Sense, Cole is not the hero so we don't need to know as much about his internal struggles and how his powers relate to them. The story is about Malcolm and his struggle.


      • #4

        the term is 'suspension of disbelief' not 'suspension of belief'. this may help somewhat

        what is needed for sod is well-drawn characters in an interesting world, involved in a compelling plot. without these, the aud will complain about the minutia - thereby not getting involved in your character's plight and the story.

        this may not help but thought it would good if you got the term right - just to understand the concept. as for backstory guidelines - don't know, sorry



        • #5
          Re: Suspension of Disbelief


          Thank you for the correction.


          I appreciate your response and see the correlation. In my situation, using Cole as an example- he would be the protag. If the movie were about him, and his struggles to rid himself of this "gift" using a dead Malcolm, do you think revealing his backstory would be necessary?



          • #6
            Re: Suspension of Disbelief

            There is no one right or wrong way to handle this. Where you chose to start your story is entirely driven by the demands of the story. Determine what your story is about at it's core and decide what is the best starting point to effectively dramatize it.


            • #7
              Re: Suspension of Disbelief

              Thanks for your help, I worked it out.



              • #8
                Re: Suspension of Disbelief

                Coming in a day late...

                When writing a story from a particular 'genre', I've always felt safe to trust my audience. The people who would go to see a movie about a kid who sees dead people don't really need to know why or how it happens. The people like my dad, who'd call it hogwash will not go see it. If I go see sci-fi, I don't need much explanation to accept aliens or faster-than-light travel...


                • #9

                  Suspension of disbelief is like a magician's misdirection. It takes a minimum of flummery. All you need lots of the time is some magical phrase that removes need for explanation (like "mass hypnosis") "Radioactive" is a good one...worked for Spidey as well as Godzilla.
                  Ancient curses are great, mystic powers. Being a mutant sells almost anything...from Watchmen to X-Men. Escaped from scientific lab--especially a genetics lab. Alien interference--aliens can have any power you want, no matter how scientifically impossible.
                  Superman, though very early on, still has one of the most original ones with the different sun thingie.
                  One way to sell such stuff is with an eye-glazing OD of jargon. Scientists babble worriedly while lights flash and all hell breaks loose.
                  Nothing has to be actually beleiveable. People probably know that a hand grenade can't blow a jeep up in the air. They know that martial artists can't fly around in the air hitting each other. They know you can't throw a boomerang knife that cuts off people's arms then returns to the thrower. They know that stagecoach wheels don't turn backwards. They don't care.

                  The other word in the phrase is "WILLING suspension of disbelief" All you gotta do is make people want to believe it. Kind of like politics.


                  • #10
                    Re: ?

                    One thing you don't want to do with suspension of disbelief is give the reader/audience too much information. Only write down what is necessary to explain enough of what has happened so that the reader/audience can say to themselves "This happened and then that happened. Ok, I get it". You do not want to give them too much info in your hopes to make them believe, because you will most likely get the opposite effect. They will then be saying to themselves "this happened and then that and this guy did that and so-and-so went to that place and then the thingey did the whatever and the other guy married that dude's wife and..." etc.


                    • #11
                      Re: Suspension of Disbelief


                      If you want explanations, then all movies are incomplete.

                      There's only so much you can show in balancing your creation... and pleasing the world. :eek

                      For example, I greatly enjoyed Kate & Leopold, in spite of the anemic and silly scientific explanations driving the story's time travel premise. But critics were divided about the value of the explanations (Kate's boyfriend physically locating a crack in the texture of time somewhere atop the Brooklyn Bridge, elevators not being yet invented when previous-century inventor Leopold travels to elevator-driven New York, etc.) and the value of the comedy supported by these explanations.

                      I, for one, couldn't care less about the precision of scientific facts... especially since we're dealing with time travel - a near impossible thing. I was completely immersed in the story, the characters, the fun interaction among them, and the fascination of it all. There was a wonderful, refreshing elegance to the story and great acting to make it work!

                      Had the writer given more scientific details - adding pleasure to the nerds (I guess half of the critics are nerds) - the comedy would've lost its charm. In my judgment, this was a great romantic comedy… and even more so because of its scientific flaws and absurdity. :lol

                      So… regarding what and how much to show… it all depends on what youâ€TMre trying to accomplish with your creation. Kate & Leopold frustrated a million nerds, but it gave me a lot of pleasure. Thanks James Mangold and Steven Rogers!


                      • #12
                        SOme things are easier to believe than others. For example some people claim to be born with high esp ability.

                        Hence having a protagonist with the ability to see dead people might be unusual but possible.

                        Most people who have these gifts are born with them so there is no need for a back story.

                        However unless you're a mutant or superman super hero powers are usually a consequence of some unfortunate event (or fortunate pending on your take). For example: Batman, dare devil, spiderman, fantastic five, Cat woman and many others fall into this catagory.


                        • #13
                          I'm a little more analytical than most (notice the first four letters of analytical). I like a little explanation. A little feasibility as to why someone can do something or why something exists as it does. Comic book characters aside, if I want to deleve into the deep, dark secrets of internal struggles, I'll read Freud. I think it adds a little credibility of your character has an ability that is 'possible' and you allude to a theory supporting it.

                          When I worked at a tech company, I used to have fun talking with engineers who had doctorates in physics. I am a Star Trek fan and loved to talk about traveling at the speed of light. It is all but impossible. My beloved warp drive can never happen because as you approach the speed of light, the mass of an object increases astronomically. A 100 pound object may weigh 100 million tons and require an increasing fuel load as it reaches light speed. Photons have no mass (but they have energy), so they don't increase in mass. These physicists said the odds of folding space and moving great distances without moving is more likely than warp drive. That concept is way above my pay grade. So, like Star Trek because of the characters and not the physics.


                          • #14
                            Even if you don't reveal why in the screenplay, it's good to have a reason behind everything you write so that you can answer questions from those who are making the movie. Knowing what came before and why can enhance your portrayal of what's happening now and give you a base for making needed changes.


                            • #15
                              one way to get the audience to believe in special powers is to prove them. Does the character have ESP? then have a side character, who is very rational, disbelieve in the power. this character is a rational stand-in for the audience. This character will say what the audience is thinking, there is no such thing as ESP. Then prove the power.

                              which is how it works in the Sixth Sense. Cole's power is proven by the protagonist- so we believe. Until the power is proven by the rational stand-in, Cole could just as well be crazy.

                              When the rational stand-in for the audience comes to believe in the power, the audience will believe and accept.

                              It also happens in Superman and Spider-man. Think about when the powers are proven and accepted by rational characters.

                              Another great example is in The Gift.