Curb Your Disbelief

To the person who stumbled across my blog by entering the search term: “What was Bruce Campbell’s nom de plume in Burn Notice?” I believe the name you are looking for is either Sam Axe (his character’s name) or Chuck Finley (his character’s alter ego). And from what I gathered from the show (which I loved and need to rewatch soon) Chuck Finley basically ran Miami. It is my firm belief that he could easily win election as mayor, based on his extensive experience in cleaning up (and blowing up) most of the streets and neighborhoods of Miami-Dade County.

 

Chuck Finley for Mayor. Because he's probably already in charge anyway.

Chuck Finley for Mayor. Because he’s probably already in charge anyway.

 

Not sure how that brought you here, my dear guest, but I guess I mentioned the show more than once. Anyway, I hope that answers your question and you’ll come back again soon!

But let’s talk about Burn Notice for a bit. It is easily one of my top ten favorite shows of all time. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. Binge watch that thing. It’s perfect for it. Spy shows are generally better when binge watched, because the over-arching world-threatening plot lines can often get hard to follow when only tuning in every other week or so and having to wait several months for the next season. But even in bite-sized chunks, the show does very well – in fact, I think that’s where it shines. The formula of a super-specially trained agent forced to find his way when completely out of his natural element is a compelling hook, but add in the elements of needing to rely on his mom, his ex-girlfriend and his best friend after being accustomed to a life of self-sufficiency and the show not only exists in the real world, it thrives in it.

Although it was a great show, there was one thing that always bothered me about it. How did Michael, Fiona and Sam always get away with what amounts to limited urban warfare without law enforcement eventually stepping in and calling shenanigans? Or at least the media? Seriously, these three carried out a sort of vigilante justice with such extreme prejudice against property (but rarely life, which was cool in an A-Team kind of way) that I found my suspension of disbelief severely taxed.

But how important is suspension of disbelief? And what is it? Coleridge, the guy who coined the term, explains its necessity: “…a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Basically, it’s a “I know this is gonna sound crazy, but just bear with me” contract between the author and the reader.

I mentioned in a previous post how I noticed some authors making obvious betrayals of this concept. Although it bothered me enough to make mention of it, it actually didn’t stop me from enjoying their books. That is, I found a work could still be entertaining and yet somehow violate this “law” of good fiction writing. Same with Burn Notice.

It’s the “human interest” part that is the most vulnerable to betrayal, in my opinion. The “semblance of truth” not so much. For instance, if you tell me a man can fly and don’t bother to explain why, then so be it. It’s a bit of a hurdle, but my suspension of disbelief is established. I see that you’re writing fiction here, so we’re good. But if he can fly and no one else can, then you should at least let me know that everyone else wonders about it from time to time. I know I would. Wouldn’t you? And perhaps people even seek to discover why your character has this power when no one else does. But if everyone just accepts it without a second thought, then I’m no longer sure the people that are in your book are human. Which is fine if they aren’t! But that would be the explanation I would need in order to keep my disbelief at bay. That was what bothered me in the example I gave previously and also what bothered me in Burn Notice.

Buildings exploded. Boats exploded. Shots were fired. A lot of shots were fired. Yet the cops were always somewhere else and when they presumably finally showed up, there were no witnesses? We live in a world where private surveillance cameras are extensively used, helicopters and drones flying around and a citizenry hyper-sensitive to terrorist attack, yet our heroes continually slip under the radar. Hmmm.

 

"What? Another huge fireball? I swear, no one in this damn town knows how to light a charcoal grill."

“What? Another huge fireball? I swear, no one in this damn town knows how to light a charcoal grill.”

 

And yet I enjoyed the show. Why is that? Because I wanted to see Michael, Fiona and Sam do it all again next week. The magical formula worked. Even though the suspension of disbelief was violated by ignoring the critical element of natural human curiosity (not to mention the entire institution of law enforcement being at least somewhat interested in doing their jobs) I still had a good time.

And how did the creators manage this? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, because it directly applies to writing fantasy. In the world of Grant Scotland, I often have to wrestle with how much disbelief I’m asking the reader to suspend. A fantasy world seemingly asks for all of it. All fantasy stories take place in worlds that are very clearly not our own. You have to earn the reader’s trust from word one in order to get them to invest themselves in your world. But I think the way you do that is the same way the Burn Notice writers did it. Verisimilitude.

That is, despite that show having one glaring false representation of reality, the show also had many more truths. Michael’s complicated relationship with his mother. His craving to get back the life he had, despite it being obvious he can never go back. The very human conflicts he was drawn into each episode. The motivations of each character are the same as any real world person you might meet or hear about. These are the things that keep my disbelief suspended. If the conflict is human in nature, then the occasional lapse in realism is forgivable.

You say your evil necromancer villain wants to turn everyone into zombies so she can rule the world with absolute power and security? Really? Who would even want that? Who would want to rule over a world of zombies? Seems like it would become tiresome and boring quite quickly. Think about it. Who would she talk to? Who would praise her wise and righteous rule without her having to tell them what to say? Who would cook anything for her besides brains?

 

"Welcome to Chez Braaaiiiiins, My Queen! Tonight's specials are beer-battered brains, brains au gratin and brains stroganoff. And for dessert - brains a la mode."

“Welcome to Chez Braaaiiiiins, My Queen! Tonight’s specials are Beer-battered Brains, Brains Au Gratin and Brains Stroganoff. And for dessert – Brains A La Mode.”

 

No. Her motivation isn’t human in nature, so the reader can’t bring himself to care. But what if she sought to create an army of zombies to seize power and institute kingdom-wide reforms that would usher in a new age of discovery and enlightenment? What if she succeeds and then has to destroy her own zombie army in order to be loved by her (non-zombified) people? Would she finally surrender power to accomplish the fullest extent of her well intended but misguided purpose? Or would she find that the heady brew of power was too intoxicating of a tonic to give up and thus insure her own eventual downfall?

See? Now you got me. I don’t even care if there’s any semblance of reality behind how she’s turning people into zombies. You’ve got me hooked. That’s a story I want to read.

So maybe suspending disbelief isn’t as important as just curbing it a bit.

 

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That’s all for now! Thanks for visiting. As always, feel free to express your thoughts below in the comment section.

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