Suspension of Disbelief

Worlds to Colonize

Surely everyone familiar with the arts has come across the phrase suspension of disbelief. When we see a play or read a novel, it is clear that the play or the novel is a representation of reality. We are not flies on the wall, watching and reading about real people living their real lives (or being able to crawl into their minds, as we can with written stories). Even so, most people have little difficulty suppressing this fact in order to enjoy the play or book. The representation need only be sufficient to permit the audience/reader to suspend disbelief.

Many stories go further in their reliance on readers to suspend disbelief. For example, superheroes and talking animals can make for entertaining stories even if they don’t exist in the real world. For these genres, each individual must decide for themselves how far they are willing to suppress disbelief for the sake of entertainment, education, and/or examining imaginative ideas.

Far future science fiction stories like Star Wars have a unique place in this essay because their reality is defined at a time well into the future. This greatly facilitates suspension of disbelief since who knows what will happen by then. True, modern science suggests certain SF tropes will likely never exist. These include time travel, matter transporters (beam me up, Scotty), and faster-than-light space travel. On the other hand, modern science also hints at developing technologies that make plausible major advancements in human immortality, highly intelligent and mobile robots, and routine interplanetary space travel for non-astronauts.

To explore suspension of disbelief further consider one SF story I’ve read that takes place in a far future where mankind has colonized a number of planets in another part of the galaxy. In the hundreds of years since colonization, unfortunately, most of the colonies have failed and those remaining are in dire shape. The colonies were failing because: 1) the environments were very harsh, 2) the colonists’ equipment was getting old and failing (insufficient spares), and 3) supplies like seeds and medicines were low or exhausted. In other words, the colonies were not self-sustaining and there was (for some unexplained reason) no help available from earth.

I find the basic premise of colonizing planets believable. As for the harsh planet environments, our growing knowledge of exoplanets supports this view of planet diversity. Just because humans colonize a planet doesn’t mean it is very earth-like. In all likelihood, it is not.

However, I was unable to suspend disbelief of several presuppositions within the story. The first was the idea of humans colonizing planets without the goal of self-sustainment. No reason is given why taking this extreme risk is justified. It seems simply suicidal to me in view of the anticipated challenges in resupplying colonies. Second, nowhere in the story are intelligent robots even mentioned. Sorry, but in my opinion humanity will be relying heavily on intelligent robots to help us make our way into space. In fact, this has been much the case already. Consider all the space probes we have already sent into our solar system to gather data (New Horizons, Voyagers 1 & 2, Cassini, Pioneer series, Rosetta, Deep Space 1, Deep Impact, Vega 1 & 2, and many more). These probes foreshadow the smart, highly mobile robots that will help us successfully make our way deeper into space. They will be doing the dirty work or completely replacing humans on risky missions.

Of course, we all know that conflict is key in storytelling. The author thus needs to come up with challenges to be overcome. However, if it seems to me that a challenge is inserted to make the story work, rather than portray a realistic aspect of world building, I lose interest. I also recognize that SF writers are, by and large, not in the business of forecasting the future. So, if their future worlds don’t fit with my views of the future, that’s on me. Their job is to write entertaining stories.

My point in all of this is that knowing a person in the literary sense means understanding where they draw the line on suspension of disbelief. And if they don’t even read SF, well, I feel compassion for those who never ask, “What if?

Writers’ Workshop Critiques

In August of last year, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon 74) in Kansas City, Mo. It was my first SF convention and a bucket list check off. As a world convention, there were thousands of attendees, a huge conference center, and a lot going on – almost 24-hours a day for the entire week. I learned ahead of time about the writers’ workshop program that was part of the conference. I submitted a SF novella before the convention started and it was accepted. At the convention, I received face-to-face reviews by two successful SF writers, as well as two aspiring writers. Our small group met for over two hours to discuss our reviews of the three submitted stories.

Afterwards, I felt I received good critiques from each participant in the group. However, the real issue in getting the most out of writing critiques is knowing how to deal with them. For me this knowledge came mostly from experience. Specifically, I’d attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop (AWW) in Dayton, Ohio the prior three summers. At the AWW I had worked on fiction writing, more specifically science fiction writing. Several years of receiving and assimilating criticism taught me to separate the helpful comments from the pedestrian ones. I consider each participant’s written and verbal feedback, and I work through all of the items in a slow, thoughtful pace. I know most style and all grammar problems can be fixed by a good editor, so I give them minimal attention. What I’m most interested in are any surprising or unexpected big-picture inputs. For example, the two key criticisms the professional writers at Worldcon gave me were: 1) my story lacked suspense, and 2) my story was partly predictable. The first was a surprise since I knew that my story contained a Big Mystery. Through discussions I came to understand that the problem was not the big mystery, but the need to inject little mysteries along the way to egg on the reader. This provides the chapter to chapter suspense that was missing from my draft.

As for the predictability of the story, that is something I’m still working on. I was concerned about it when revising the second draft so when I got the criticism I knew the point was valid. The trick seems to be to do better at concealing upcoming milestone events without shifting the story arc. I’m still exploring the best ways to do this.

Perhaps what was most interesting was that I sort of stumbled into conducting an experiment. It turns out I had the same SF novella reviewed in a fiction writing class at the annual AWW summer session a month before the Worldcon conference workshop. Thus, I had received critiques on the same draft from both workshops and could compare and contrast the feedback. What I learned was more than can be addressed in this post, but I can summarize three observations that I felt were telling. They are described in the following three paragraphs.

The first observation is that new or aspiring writers’ critiques often need some interpretation. As an example, one young writer commented that a particular section of my narrative – one having to do with a meeting among councilmen – slowed down my story. When I later looked at the draft and the feedback from the professionals I understood what was being said. The subject narrative was: 1) in the wrong place in the story, and 2) more importantly, it did not serve the purpose I had in mind when I initially wrote it. I ended up putting it in the scrap pile where it remains today.

My second observation was about a common critique I received in both workshops. Everyone seemed to agree that I needed to inject more detail into the story. We all understand why detail is important in fiction – it helps make the narrative more believable i.e. like it actually happened. I concluded that there were really several parts to this criticism. One is that, while I was doing a fairly good job at world-building, too much had been left out. This gap in information did not shroud the story in mystery (as I had hoped for) but rather it came across as not-well-thought-out. The criticism was spot on. Another part of this critique was clearly linked to the need to flesh out the major characters. I needed to get more emotion into them by having them reflect on past events and let the reader understand (via internal dialog and other techniques) why they were interpreting things the way they were.

The third observation was mildly surprising but worth some thought. Simply put, critiques provided by writers (both professionals as well as aspiring authors) who write in the same genre as the aspiring writer (i.e. me) generally provide more insight, especially in plotting and originality. As an example, I am one of those aspiring SF writers who prefers hard SF and has little interest in the neighboring genre of fantasy. As a consequence, I know my critiques of fantasy stories are not as good as they otherwise could be. I’m simply not well read on the tropes and trends of the genre. As another example, one time I received a review of my SF novella from an aspiring writer who had mentioned beforehand that she had no interest in SF stories. While she truly made a concerted effort in reading my story, her critiques showed a lack of even the most basic technical or scientific depth. This caused her to misconstrue what was meant in several important passages.

In closing, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard fiction writers talk much about the interpreter aspects of creative writing, but it occurs to me that perhaps this is what fiction writers have in common – a healthy interest in, or dare I say, a need to try to interpret the human condition.