Thursday, December 31, 2009

It seems this has somehow become my New Year's post.

So there's Coleridge who saddled us with the notion that the ideal reader-writer relationship is achieved by a "willing suspension of disbelief," which idea caught on and we've been stuck with it ever since.

As you can no doubt tell, I don't like the idea and never have. Long before I had any real notion of becoming a storyteller myself I was a dedicated participant on the reader side of the equation, and could never warm up to the concept that a reader will (or even could) temporarily cancel his disbelief mechanisms in order to be drawn into a story to the extent that he could care about characters and events that never happened and never will. It always seemed to miss the mark. But I couldn't pin down what was wrong with it until I stumbled across an essay from JRR Tolkien who posited the more apt idea that readers "create a secondary belief." And I knew instantly, in that unmistakable ping of epiphany, that this was right. This was the essential formula in a successful story, and the proof at last that Coleridge had gotten it wrong.

Why does this matter? Why is it more than just a semantic exercise?

Well, for one thing, the most important thing in fact, a suspension of disbelief, willing or otherwise, is a negation. It's passive. Not an act, but a lack of one. However the creation of secondary belief is active by definition. The partnership between writer and reader is a collaboration in which the reader participates actively and bears much, if not most, of the responsibility of creating the fictional world in which the stories take place. There's nothing passive about it. As one tiny example of the million things a reader will bring to any story: the writer may mention a city in which part of the action will take place, and maybe even describe some of the details, but it is up to the reader to create the fullness of that city in his imagination. Not being able to abide a blank canvas, he fills the streets with people and architecture and a nearly infinite number of details the writer can't fully describe for fear of bogging down the story beyond endurance.

Your readers don't sit at a remove and let the story happen to them. They don't suspend application of consistency, logic and accountability. They participate. They get to work on each page, paragraph, sentence, teaming up with you to create.



Any story in which the reader hasn't actively and enthusiastically participated in the creative process, every step of the way, is an unread story. There's no other option.

In part I mention this in order to get it on the record, to let my colleagues know, in our ongoing discussion about the craft, that anytime they mention the "willing suspension of disbelief," the conversation (whatever the specifics of the conversation might have been) will grind to a halt while we argue the point of suspension versus creation. And I'll win that debate, so why even try? Can we just agree now to suspend the idea of suspension?

Okay, I've been meaning to get to this rant for some time, but deadlines, holiday guests, and other things intervened, as things often will, until now it's become a New Year's Eve post. I suppose that obligates me to tie it in somehow with the new year. Easy enough: In the coming year I plan to write about thirty (or so) comic stories, a couple of short prose stories, and at least one new novel. And each of these stories will fly or fall depending on the willingness of many readers, most of whom I will never meet, to do most of the work, to help create the worlds, the characters, the histories and the events, and every other detail in each and every tale. I'll do what I can to make all that work enjoyable.

Also in the coming year I plan to read a lot of books, including just about everything written by the nine other writers sharing this space with me. In that role I will be a willing and active participant, rolling up my metaphorical sleeves, doing my part in our collaboration to get those stories told. I will not be at a safe remove, negating. Sorry, Mr. Coleridge, but you got it wrong.


  1. I once had an argument with a theatre director who thought the term was "suspension of belief" -- as in, the audience must hold up their belief, perhaps to keep it from hitting the floor. But maybe his term is closer to what you're talking about.

    I do like the term "secondary belief" better -- hadn't heard that. So I hereby suspend my use of suspension.

  2. It's an interesting way to look at things, and one I have long considered useful. Just like as a child you develop a model of our world, when you read a book, you develop a model of the world in the story. Now, in that sense, I disagree that "suspension of disbelief" is a useless term. You do in fact have to suspend your primary "belief" in order to create the secondary one. Otherwise, they are going to come into conflict.

    Which is what can jerk you out of the story. Especially if the author likes to toss you in the deep end without swimming lessons, suspension keeps you afloat (lol) until you've got your bearings.

    Now, there are also the sort of authors who build up that different model more slowly, so that the overlap helps you keep your sanity. In that case, the suspension might be a more passive, unconcious act. But with the first type of story, it is quite active indeed.

    The short version of that is that I think both are required to really immerse a reader in the world.

  3. Very interesting, I hadn't heard of the idea "create a secondary belief." As a reader, I think it more aptly describes what I do when reading, which is engaging the story. I find myself immersed in that world rather than staying in ours and suspending what I know to be true.

    @Bill - Was the rest of Tolkien's essay as useful, and where might one find it for further examination?

    @atsiko - I'm not sure I buy the conflict argument between the two. If anything, I would say the suspension of disbelief would cause more conflict on its own and be more likely to lift, thereby jerking you out of a story more readily than creating a secondary belief would. In the former you're fighting your instinct to shout "This is ridiculous!"(when you are not being passive, as suggested above), in the latter you've allowed yourself to grow in whatever world the writer has presented, just as we grow in our own reality.

  4. If I recall correctly, and I often don't, it's from a collection of his essays called Monsters and the Critics.

  5. @Christian

    I completely agree that creating the secondary belief is very important to the story.

    I completely agree that suspension of disbelief is not the "ideal writer reader relationship".

    But when you reader a story, you have your model of the real world ingrained in your conscience. It's the primary vehicle through which your perceptions are filtered. In order to really engage with a story, you must not only be able to hold the story world as a hypothetical model, you must believe in it.

    In order to believe in your secondary model, you cannot also hold your primary model as an equal, because your primary model will not agree with your secondary model. It cannot. For instance, in the movie Bruce Alimighty, God is an objective, present reality. As someone who is not a Christian, it is impossible for me to believe that this could be true. I can create a hypothetical model in which it would be, and extrapolate from that, but there is inevitably a distance between me and the story because the story must pass through my "hypothetical" filter. In order to really engage in the story, I need to remove that extra filter, by suspending my disbelief in God.

    To use another anaology, think of it like video conversion. When I rip something off dvd for a backup, it loses quality. When I convert it from the dvd format to say, AVI with an xvid video codec and AAC sound, it loses more quality. The more conversions, the less quality, because we are using lossy conversion/compression each time.

    So, to avoid that extra layer, I turn off, or "suspend" my primary model and work directly with the secondary one.

  6. Yeah, I more or less agree that the secondary belief structure argument is more sound. In a recent article in the LA Times, mystery writer Robert Crais called it a collaboration as he defended his choice not to sell movie rights to some of his work...

    "But to me, books are special in that they are an incomplete art form. A film is projected on a screen, and you and I sit there and watch it, and if Bruce Willis is playing Elvis Cole, you look at him, and it sure looks like Bruce Willis to you and me. But a book isn't complete until a reader reads it. That's the magic of books. When you read one of my books or I read one of your books, we are, in fact, collaborating. I'm concerned a film might somehow insert itself into that. Maybe one day I'll change my mind, but for now, I guess I'm just a little protective of that collaboration."

    I come down in that ballpark which is at the edge of Willingham's neighborhood. A new reader coming in brings certain touchstones and prejudices and personal literary history. That past colors the way that the reader interacts with the lines on the page and screen. I've written enough comics to know more or less what mythology the comic reader brings to the table. I've read some fantasy fiction, so I can make an educated guess of what to expect coming out of the gate. The weak spot in my literary resume is science fiction, so I'm struggling with a short story about space travel and just how much I have to define for the reader.

    That's why I'm spending some time here on the Clockwork page today writing about writing when I should be knocking out the paragraphs. Stage fright.

    More Crais-

  7. This may be a tangent, but in watching movies, I'm struck by how much is NOT there, how much the viewer still has to supply to make the world complete. Last night I took Roberson's advice on watching UP with the director's commentary on. When you break down that movie shot by shot, you realize how much they've cutting out, how much they're framing and -suggesting- rather than showing. Yes, there is a huge amount of visual detail hitting the retinas at once, and a lot of sonic information, but it is by no means "reality."

    There's an argument here that the definiton of "art" is "the creative simplification of the world."

  8. Daryl: That last sense is not even arguable for me. What else could happen, considering the compplexity of the world and the hundred thousand or so words you have to write about it?