Suspension of Disbelief

Suspension of disbelief – a term coined in 1817 by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Now that I’ve finished plagiarizing Wikipedia, I can go on and say that what I’m really trying to define here are those certain instances when a work of art shatters the limitations of its medium.

So let’s proceed, shall we?

I’ve come up with the idea for this post after one of the rare instances in which a work of art (a TV episode) managed to defeat my rational mind, and I ended up so involved in the story that I lost all sense of reality and actually felt something. I’m not easy to impress, but there are certain occasions when I surrender to whatever the author of a story has planned for me.

Some people are  strong believers in the fact that movies offer a much more visual experience, thus rendering books useless. My opinion is that movies and books offer two different experiences altogether – movies make it easy for a viewer to get invested in the story, but it also limits imagination, which can be a pretty big deal if you ask me. Because it offers everything the viewer needs, all the information is there, on the screen, and there’s nothing more that he has to do. It’s easier, but to me it also feels like having someone chew your food for you. Or if that analogy is too disgusting for you, it’s like over-boiling some vegetables – you lose all the nutrients and vitamins, all the good stuff.

Books, on the other hand, offer you enough freedom – depending, of course, on the writing style of the respective author. But it allows the reader to tap into his own resources, to compare situations and scenes with his own experiences. It’s a highly imaginative process and it requires, I’m afraid, a little bit more work.

Sometimes a story manages to transform its medium, to eliminate the middle man entirely, so to speak. And to me that’s almost like magic. To make a reader forget, maybe just for a moment, that he’s reading a story, to have him so invested in the situations and characters that he’s willing to consider them as real, to discard that it’s all just a convention between the author and the reader,  it’s  nothing short of a miracle.

There are scenes which have managed to affect me long after I finished reading the novel itself. And there are scenes in movies that affected me just as much. Passages that I’ve read over and over again, and scenes in movies that I had to see repeatedly until the DVD would break down. For instance I’ve watched the trailer for The Artist at least three hundred times.

Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light, and when I reached my estate at West Egg I ran the car under its shed and sat for a while on an abandoned grass roller in the yard. The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight and turning my head to watch it I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.

I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

This scene has haunted me ever since I first read it a couple of years ago. And I’ve read it dozens of times after that, and it never fails to make me shudder. It’s brilliantly executed. Of course, taken out of context it might not offer the same experience, but it’s great writing nonetheless. My point with adding this scene to my post is that it doesn’t have to be a scene of epic proportions. Most times less is actually more.


37 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Excellent and wonderfully written. I’ve had these same thoughts myself. I am a movie buff and a reader which seems like it should cause a conflict, but it doesn’t. I find that I must watch 10 movies to achieve the enjoyment I can gain from one good book. Great post.


  2. I like and understand your post. Teachers of writing classes stress that this is the aim of a good writer “the suspension of disbelief”. No matter what nonsense one writes the reader will swallow it if he / she can indeed suspend disbelief.

    I just finished a book written by Dan Brown (The lost Symbol). I read it only because it was given as a birthday present to me. He is a knowledgeable fellow and can add one word to another but what he did not do is “suspend my disbelief”. He writes about mythological nonsense. He gives words a twist that only leaves uneducated people in awe. Those are the stories domestic staff told each other in times gone by by candle light.

    Reading his book confirmed all my preconceived notions of his writing. The book is well presented with illustrations and could be a collector’s item for one of his fans.


  3. This is a wonderful post! I will have to say that I really appreciate Alfred Hitchcock’s work because of his initiative to involve the viewer’s imagination. But you’re right, most of the time movies do hand it all to the viewer.


  4. I have never read that Novel. Oft times, my taste may differ. And Novel others like, I may not. However, that was indeed an interesting paragraph. I have never thought of the Great Gatsby as being a novel with any preternatural elements. Maybe I was mistaken – having never read it that might be obvious.


  5. Wonderful post and beautifully written! I agree that movies and books exercise our minds in different ways. For me, movies appeal to the visual aspects of my brain; books appeal to the creative/imaginative parts. Movies are less work, but the books that really draw me in and, as you said, make me forget I’m reading a book, require even less effort. As a writer, my challenge is to write something that the readers can effortlessly lose themselves in, which takes a great deal of effort on my part that I’m not sure I’ve accomplished quite yet. But that’s what all us writers work toward, I think.


  6. Indeed wonderfully written! I love Reading, but I find myself more ‘Movie’ Oriented. There is a great difference, but with movies, I’m able to absorb a bit more of the scope of it all. Books are also so great because the text joints with your whims of imagination. So there is no true place you can’t go. Both are great expressions of creativity!


  7. Movies are less work? Have you watched an audience that is truly engaged by a great film? They bite their fingernails, cover their faces, smile, laugh, cry, and much more… Done well, they make people feel in a different fashion than books. They provoke what is often a collaborative emotional response in a large dark theatre. Nothing passive about that. Films make for a more visual experience, whereas books happen in the head and have to be shared verbally. Nothing better or worse in that — just different. But a film is likely to be roughly two hours long with a script of around 25,000 words, a quarter of which are the characters’ names being repeated. Books are longer and can get into characters’ thoughts in a way that film can’t. They are entirely different from any point of view.


  8. Instantly I know those words can be from no other author. I’ve recently seen the film and done a short speech on Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve just finished reading ‘Zelda’, by Therese Anne Fowler. Those two couldn’t live together and couldn’t live apart. The story rounded off the man and allowed you to see him in a gentler view. He must have been impossible to live with – or without.


  9. I’m an avid reader and movie watcher and I must say, the books movies are based upon are much better than the movies themselves. The movies often omit things that are rather important to the story line, more than likely due to time restrictions.
    I personally prefer to watch the movie first, then read the book. I found that if I read the book first, I often find tremendous fault with the movie… “That’s not how he/she was described to appear! That isn’t how that part of the story went, they did it completely opposite!” Which leaves me filled with disappointment.
    In my opinion, books are superior to movies. If the author has any talent, they’ll be able to paint a picture in your mind of the events written on the page. The trouble today is that with so many movies/TV shows/video games, it leaves people without the imagination needed to enjoy books. Especially children… I have two of my own and have noticed, with them as well as others their age, that the thought of picking up a book is about as pleasing a thought as having a root canal.
    I still hold on to the hope that, some day, people will once again come to find the magic in reading a well written book. :)


  10. In “The Art of Fiction,” John Gardner discusses the “vivid and continuous” fictive dream, and delves into writing techniques that enable the suspension of disbelief. I haven’t read Gardner in a while, but this may prompt me to pay a visit.


  11. Nothing will ever Compare to books! At least that is my opinion as well. I was of a mind for a while, after so many let downs with book inspired movies. To read them after watching the movie. In some ways, it is actually better, at least for me I wasn’t Shaking my head every three minutes. Oh missed a scene here, added a scene there that wasn’t even remotely in the book.
    Though I wouldn’t recommend it. I definitely won’t do it again for there’s that edge missing, the words just don’t ink into your brain right. Of course. I am not the best movie companion, I’ve actually shut them off! Graffiti Moon By Cath Crowley, Is one of my favorite books. And for me it was much the same, its almost poetic. When you find a piece that inspires you that much it works itself into your mind and heart in a way that its hard to think you could live up to. Even subconsciously, you measure yourself. Push too hard. =)
    I’ve been meaning to read many books, though I usually get the free ones. Or 99 cent ones I’ve been getting aggravated with them. I actually just bought The Great Gatsby- Thanks for putting that excerpt.
    I love poetic essence in books.


  12. The best feeling for me is when I get so caught up in a book that I can’t ever put it down. That has happened for me with only one author, Daniel Silva who writes international intrigue. I really cherish the fact that it happened. I hope it happens for me again sometime.


  13. Wrapping my mind around this concept: Medium. I think you mean this denotation: Artistic technique or means of expression determined by materials/method. (Taken from:
    This is interesting to me in terms of the (perhaps) limiting perspective I have of an “eloquence of the idea,” a concept provided to me by Stan Tomita, Professor/Instructor of Photography, University of Hawaii, where one chooses a medium to express the idea in mind. The idea comes with the medium implied/provided, and where that which seemed to “shatter” the limitations of a medium, could extend to the inclusion of another medium, such that multimedia becomes the vehicle for production.
    But, I don’t think that is what you mean. A work, for example, drafted in a particular medium could dwarf its utility.
    Let’s consider the word “limitation.” I think you mean to limit your definition to the denotations: Restriction, shortcoming or defect. (Again provided by
    Let us consider a work of art that is restricted within it’s medium or where the medium has a short-coming or defect.
    Also, let us note the word choice “shatter;” A work of art that shatters the limitations of its medium. This assumes media have limitations.
    We need examples of media, but first I would like to offer a definition of medium as a way of communicating.
    As I sit here and contemplate the idea of shattering the limitations of a particular way of communicating, I tend to think in terms of the opposite, which is where the artist is contained within the means of communicating, implying a discipline in using the particular medium he has chosen or as has been chosen for her.
    I am staring at a painting I did, simply white paint on black paint. The lines of white form the idea. It is line travel, shape and form impression. Within the context of the painting, I followed an inner, emotional guide to first draw the lines by putting tracing paper over the black-painted surface and the tracing paper made yellow lines, while I drew in a manner befitting my inner direction or mood. I would close my eyes and push the pencil over the paper, which would then produce a yellow line that I later painted white. I call these works skeleton paintings, which are a step above the pencil-on-white canvases, and a step below the color field paintings that make up the collection of some 10 paintings. One is as large as 10’ x 6’.
    I don’t think in terms of a medium limitation but rather my limitation to use the medium in an artistically worthy way. It is my skill-set that I question, not the medium. And with images of photography, I am often amazed by the results, which are often not what I planned, mainly because of the results of exposure and the medium as a compositionally-limiting and also compositionally-unlimiting medium. I think we compose in the camera, but we also see the images as compositions after we take them, both as negatives and as the images we produce at various sizes and through different means: Papers, canvas prints, etc.
    There are burning and dodging issues. I once did a series where my focus was on the effect that various exposure times had on the moments I was depicting. I would go from least exposed to most exposed only to find that, in one case, I argued that the person, where two were presented, was more in the white in a composition that was about the “gray area.” The image was about truth and that there are no blacks and whites in this world, but that in such a world, one side had to be better than the other, which of course was not true if the manipulation of exposure had anything to do with it.
    I think the word “shatter” implies that this is the operable desire of the artist to “shatter” the limitations of the medium she works in. But, I am just glad that I can use the medium to create a work that communicates the thought I had in mind. I am not interested in shattering but rather in being true to the muse, who would have told me that I needed to use more than one medium or even to use the medium that would over-extend it. I think it is then that the muse’s directions are more important than the medium of expression and that the concentration should not be on the medium but upon the muse, who is giving direction and one should not see the making of art as having a personal ambition to be the best, but rather to be humble that the muse is even speaking to you. I think this is what is wonderful about being an artist. You realize these ideas are not yours. They come to you and it is your job to depict them as exactly as they have been provided. The medium just seems the appropriate vehicle within which to present them.

    You are talking in terms of a television show that defeated your rational mind, where you became so involved in the story that you lost all sense of reality and felt something. I love this. This is a great work of art that can do this. As you know, it is catharsis you felt, having gone into yourself and felt rather than concerned yourself with the noise of the communicative vehicle or incompetent use of the communicative vehicle.
    You said the author planned this. As an artist or writer, I never think in terms of planning, but in adhering to the story line in my mind as the muse, God, or me, who gets these ideas.
    You talk about the difference between movies and books when it comes to being more visual. You say they offer different experiences. Movies provide more to make it easier to get involved but it limits the imagination.
    I want to argue with you here. Often, the same thing happens to me while watching a story on TV vs. reading a book. If they are both good at what they do, I end up going into myself and thinking about things they bring up. I was mentioning how black and white TVs vs. color or large screen vs. small didn’t matter, if the storyline or the acting, for example, made me go into myself and think or feel something relative. I am often at a loss, for example, when watching a movie simply utilizing special effects as a vehicle for special effects. They don’t have the story I need to feel or to be shown in relation to my life.
    I have known this about camera lenses, for example, where what I am shooting is more important than the kind of camera I have. But, the lighting is extremely important too or I have found that I wanted the image to be much bigger but at the time I only had an iPhone, for example, to take the image. I can however, use the image to paint a larger canvas of the content and still serve the role I had envisioned.
    I also want to say that the imagination is separate from the communicative device, where when we are in our heads or hearts as an affect of say a movie or a book and it is there that we are at play in the fields. So, I would disagree with you on this point about the lack of imagination as a cause of the vehicle of communication.
    I often get ideas from other works of art and have, in fact, created a book called After to illustrate this kind of appropriation or transpiration of feeling/affect. (See:
    When I read books, I get ideas. I think in terms of linguistics: “Language form, language meaning, and language in context.” I am interested in grammar as it expresses meaning. I might argue that language is meaning. I don’t think I knew anything until I had the language to describe it. I was only experiencing feelings before I had language to give me the words to describe what I saw and felt. Thoughts are words. I couldn’t relate them to the world until I heard what other people were saying. And my vocabulary grew and my life at this point is so complicated in terms of words that I often forget about reality. Words that criss-cross, words that form new ideas, words that are ideas that didn’t exist until I made them up or they were made up for me. I think language is separate from reality. It is a symbolic means to describe reality, which remains out there but we need it to relate to each other so that we have reference points, shared experiences, metaphors we can use to talk to each other. Perhaps we wouldn’t have language if we were alone, but art objects express our inner being.
    When I watch movies, I get emotionally sympathetic. Often my writing is about relationships or lack thereof and so the interrelationship between the ideas I get from books is an interconnected one. If I watch movies, I have a lot of emotional experiences, but if I read I can become inspired to put them in words. Well, that’s not exactly true. I can write because of how a movie made me feel.
    So, I am not sure I agree with you about freedom coming from books as being enough. I think both media “Tap in the viewer’s resources to compare situations (experience). I don’t agree that a good book or a relevant book takes work to stoke the imagination. Sometimes single words become my focus.
    I am not sure I understand the idea of a middleman in a story; the medium is the middleman, who disappears as the motor of the self kicks in.
    Certainly, it is like magic in that before we know it, we are transactional. But, again I beg to differ that great investment must be made on the reader’s part to become engaged, relevance and flawless prose, poetry, etc., allows the transfer.
    You do agree with me and in effect contradict yourself when you say that scenes (in both movies and books) affected you equally.
    I am not one to read scenes over and over, rather, philosophical tomes have caused me long hours of definitive inquiry to know what the author intended (at least if his use of words was intentional), but as for the scenes in novels, I am pretty quick at seeing the forest and the trees.
    The broken DVD was probably just cheap, which is not saying much. I used to linger during porno features to get a second look, but usually once the impression was made in a movie, I would close my eyes, proverbially-speaking, and sense how that environment and actions made me feel.
    I’ll have to look at the trailer for The Artist to see what you mean. As I said, it is usually linguistic issues or meaning coming from words that makes me return until I understand them and not the images of things. I am an artist, that was my first language and things are never as meaningful as relationships between people, and ideas are even more abstract, where it is just the words, the text having no voices, and no imagery to contextualize.
    Yes, Gatsby’s description, while pure, describes the less powerful position of the narrator in comparison to Mr. Gatsby, who if truly trembling would have excluded the less confident disposition of the two.
    I don’t see how the use of the scene is an “instance when a work of art shatters the limitations of its medium,” rather it proves the capacity of the medium to transpose meaning and shared experience among men and women – readers to understand what was going on between the men, what might have been going on between the men, and what might have been going on with/in the character of Gatsby.
    I still think that the medium serves those who can use it well as Fitzgerald proves.


  14. What an awesome post. I love the insights you’ve offered about books and movies here. I love watching movies, a whole lot of them. Some movies have surely taken my breath away, but there’s really something about reading books that takes me to a different plane. While movies are visually great and somehow leaves you to question things about life, books take you on a journey that’s far from reality, an escape perhaps. The problem though lies when a person forgets the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not.


    • @ Kenek, after you said it I realized there might be a big difference that you and Mr. Mihai recognize when reading books vs. movies in that you take a journey that is far from reality. I am not sure it is a problem however when people forget the boundaries between what’s real and what’s not as Drronthomasjr said, who said he forgot that his friend wrote the novel he was reading because it was so good. I do like that Drronthomasjr provides information about a study that reveals Television rests and meditates the brain.


  15. A friend of mine is a mystery novelist and he set his stories in the same part of Florida where we both live. At first, it was interesting to note local references and think of when I had last been there. It was also interesting when one of his characters used obscene language because my friend never did and I laughed to myself when I imagined him saying such things.

    However, it didn’t take long for me to get into the mystery and hear the characters in their own voices. The next day I told my friend that I had a high compliment for him. “Your novel was so good that I forgot you wrote it.”

    Perhaps what I was experiencing was “suspension of belief.” I knew the author. I knew the setting. Somehow, put my concrete knowledge aside to go along with the flow of the book. I had let myself change from evaluation to entertainment.

    I agree with you about books and movies being different items and experiences. I I have seen the movie before I read the book, I “hear” the actors. In any of the follow-up books by Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan sounds like Harrison Ford in my “mind’s ear.” If I read the book first, I am nit-picking the film for what it left out or altered. For example, tis fall when I see “Ender’s Game,” I will subconsciously be judging it against the printed version, going all the way back to the original novella in Analog magazine.

    The 1969 Krugman study showed that TV viewers’ brainwaves switch to Alpha waves, the resting and meditative kind. That’s why you can come back into a room where someone was watching a game on TV and, if you ask for the score, the viewer might not know, having been lulled into a relaxed state. As you say, the visual medium does too much work for you and puts your brain into a light sleep.


  16. I love the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’. As a Catholic, I’ve come to believe that is exactly what’s needed in order to believe all the dogma. The same is true for many novels and movies. If you start to nitpick, like my husband sitting beside me while watching TV, you see the flaws. Very often, the part of a novel that is least satisfying is the ending. It’s where the most flaws become visible.


    • If you suspend disbelief you are being hoodwinked. Sometimes we don’t mind it fits our circumstances at other times we know what we are asked for is nonsense. If your husband is nitpicking it is advisable to switch off the TV.


  17. Ah! The Great Gatsby…I read it several years ago on a beach in Crete during a vacation—and as preparation for teaching it to a class of Higher students. The introduction is a learning process all of its own! A brilliant exposé of the recklessness of the moneyed class. And a wonderful treatise on ambition, envy and love. The work of a genius doing what he was destined to do.


    CC Cairns


  18. For the time that I’m reading a book or watching a movie, I am out of reality. There’s nothing wrong with that because I know the difference between reality and imagination. There is only a small percentage that will consider the story they are reading or watching is like a how-to on what ever. Most people want to be entertained, not instructed or preached at.
    Savioni’s comment, ‘You said the author planned this. As an artist or writer, I never think in terms of planning, but in adhering to the story line in my mind as the muse, God, or me, who gets these ideas.’, was interesting. Throughout the day a person makes hundreds of decisions, which are very much like planning. At work you check your watch and see it’s 10 am. ‘I’ll finish this, make those phone calls and go to lunch at noon.’ Those are all little decisions, but they are part of a plan as well. There is nothing wrong with planning.
    I planned my book one way, changed my mind, now I have to re-edit it with those changes in mind. My characters sometimes surprise me and I’m left staring at the words, wondering what I needed to do next because the heroine did something different than I originally had in my mind. I learned at a writing seminar it was better to let your characters speak, that way they become more real to the readers. There have been a few times I’m not sure what is happening, but I keep writing until my characters reveal things.
    I believe God gives us the inspiration, but we still have the freedom to change our minds.
    There’s a reason for those phrases–”flying by the seat of his pants” and “thinks while standing on his feet”–those people are thinking, deciding, planning, and moving.


  19. Quirky: My comment is not to say that I don’t admire you, who can plan a novel, for example. I have no patience. I just do and hope I’ll get. My books are culminations of particular decisions, as each piece represents an expression a La minute. I don’t have characters, usually, running around in my head. There’s just me and some words in my head. The last book was many stories strung together in linear fashion with an editor putting them in places that seemed to follow. This is why my planning and yours are different. Where decisions are concerned I leave that to the editor, at least, I did. So, I guess I do an in-camera edit. I compose on the fly and present an image of what I had in mind. This is less ambitious than putting a puzzle together that seems to be outside on a table. Still, I plan to post three dialogs as a single work, a kind of literary triptych. Perhaps, I do have my characters after all. Thank you for talking about my comment, so I could talk about yours.


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