The other day I happened to be watching The Walking Dead with my darling wife Lily. We’ve been enjoying the series mostly up to now, although sometimes I find that the focus is too much on human drama and too little on actual survival. The show is well into its sixth season and going strong, but to illustrate my point, I’ll need to go into SPOILERS here.
So the plot of the season is that Rick and his buddies have ended up in Alexandria and are trying to make a living there. Problem is, there’s other people living there too, people who’ve been there since the start of the zombie apocalypse. As a consequence of their sheltered existence, most of them ain’t never seen a zombie in the flesh, so to speak.
However, to enforce drama and tension, an uncomfortable us-and-them scenario is played out. The original inhabitants see Rick as a raving lunatic and Rick sees them as people who’ve been living a sheltered life in a crazy world. Being the audience and having seen the shit that Rick and his group have been through, we’re of course inclined to choose his side. However, they go so far as to conspire to assassinate him due to their distrust of him and his newcomer friends. Numerous confrontations occur and that’s where I have moments like this:
I find myself thinking: in any real-world scenario, people who have the least bit more experience in any given situation command instant authority. We tend to believe them and do as they say, and reasonably so since they’ve faced similar problems before.
Any educational system is based on this principle, where the teacher supposedly has tons of experience in his field and the student has close to none. We are naturally inclined to give authority to more experienced people, and we tend to patronize those who have less experience.
It stands to reason that the more extreme the situation is, the more authority and respect we give to experienced people. A zombie apocalypse would seem like a pretty extreme situation to me, even if your life up to that point was sheltered and protected. The big metal wall surrounding your village would be a bit of a give-away, especially if you never go outside. In fact, living in close quarters for extended periods of time could qualify in itself as a pretty extreme situation.
In moments like these I find that TWD should focus on some form of plot development or action. It’s a good show, but sometimes the drama seems forced and awkward and it clashes with our understanding of how people work. It did, however, make me think a bit deeper, trying to understand my own irritation, and I concluded it all came down to the concept of suspension of disbelief.
Suspension of disbelief
That little moment where you find yourself thinking “what?!” and ranting at the screen is the collapse of the suspension of disbelief. You no longer find the story you’re being told believable and you’re no longer able to project yourself into it. It’s a highly personal thing and anything might kick it off, but generally speaking people experience it when there’s logical inconsistencies.
Imagine reading a spy novel from the cold war and at one point the hero finds himself cornered. Luckily he remembers he brought his magic wand and casts an invisibility spell. No one would buy that as it goes against our understanding of how the fictional world works. Such a gross and sudden change of genre might put you off. This is partly the reason why James Bond’s gadgets are always carefully introduced by Q, along with some sciency explanation of how they work.
One of my favourite examples of the shattering of the suspension of disbelief is Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus. The black goo must be the worst plot device ever shoved into a movie for convenience, maybe second to the head bombs in The Phantom Menace. Every single time it’s encountered, it does something completely different. As I was swept away by the beautiful visuals of the alien world and technology, the black goo kept nagging at me. At one point whilst watching the film, I theorised that the script started off as a collection of cool things they wanted to show and that the true function of the black goo was only to transition between those scenes.
Suspension of disbelief, or the lack thereof, can also be more subtle and actually utilized as a storytelling device. This sort of idea was first explored by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in Die Dreigroschenoper. They showed set changes on stage, with stage hands just walking amongst the actors, a narrator interacting with the characters and habitual breaking of the fourth wall. Their idea was that the audience was to be informed that it was simply a play, intentionally lifting the suspension of their disbelief.
Such ideas are still used today in modern films. For instance, we all have a sense of how everyday physics works in real life, and seeing something that goes against that understanding gives us pause and makes us think. Quentin Tarantino uses extreme, over the top violence to achieve a Brechtian effect and to tell the audience: hey, it’s a movie, it’s supposed to be fun. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go see Kill Bill.
The suspension of disbelief is a fragile thing that must be carefully cultivated by any writer, actor or film maker. When done properly it helps us, the audience, immerse in the story and project ourselves into the situation. Or it might serve as a storytelling element to remind us that it’s simply a story and we shouldn’t take it too seriously. Either case, it is a powerful tool that any storyteller must learn to wield with great care.