Suspension of Disbelief

Just because you are writing science fiction or fantasy doesn’t mean you can just write whatever you want. Aside from having multi-dimensional characters and evocative imagery you need to provide a consistent world that the reader can believe in. Push too far and you’ll lose your reader; they’ll just assume you’re making it up as you go along.

But I am making it up.

Of course as the author you are making up the story and the universe, but it has to feel to the reader that you aren’t. It has to feel as if you have some hidden camera big brother reality show playing in your head and you are just recording the events. If you think of it that way you can see that you are free to have whatever you like happen so long as within the book’s universe it is consistent with any rules you’ve established.


Readers will assume the same rules apply to the characters in your book as they do to real people unless you tell them otherwise. If you want a pink flamingo that speaks you’ll need to establish that, while uncommon, it is not unheard of for birds, especially pink ones, to speak. This can be done as subtly or obviously as you’d like. You could have a character read about talking flamingos in one scene and then the next he meets one. Or you could have the character not be surprised that there is a talking bird. Conversely you could have the character as dumbfounded as the reader and thus establish that talking birds are unheard of and yet here is one.

What can’t you do.

I watched Terminator: Salvation last night and had a couple moments where my suspension of disbelief was challenged and one moment where it was ripped into shred and spat on. The first point was when Markus wanders into LA and is shot at by a terminator. The terminator has a mini-gun and starts shooting. The shots are so wild and inaccurate that even at relatively short range Markus and Kyle are able to simple run directly in front of the terminator and into a building. What’s wrong with this?

  1. Why the heck is Skynet equipping terminators with weapons that are so ammo hungry they would run out within seconds? Mini-guns (6 barrel rotating canon) fire something like 3,000 rounds per minute so in 6 seconds they will have fired 300 rounds. Each bullet is quite large and heavy. The terminator firing at Marcus and Kyle would have depleted its entire ammo load in the one ten second encounter. Pointless.
  2. Why is the terminator so inaccurate? I’d have thought with all of the terminator’s advanced computers Skynet could have slipped a Playstation 3 in. Simple point and shoot targeting computers exist today and they are more or less perfectly accurate. So accurate that the terminator should have been equipped with a single shot rifle with which it would shoot with pinpoint accuracy instantly killing Marcus and Kyle.
  3. Why did it shoot its own foot off to escape the trap it was caught in? Are all terminators programmed to immediately reduce their operation effectiveness the moment they get a chance? Why not shoot the cable or launch one of its grenades at the winch holding the cable?

So I was able to swallow that stupidity by assuming the terminator was badly damaged from some previous encounter so its targeting was crummy and that it was usually backed up by more effective weapons and a re-arming drone of some kind.
The bit that completely tossed all believability out the window was when Markus reaches Skynet and Skynet goes all evil villain:
“Ha ha, you see you are a machine and did exactly what you were supposed to do. You are an infiltration unit and you brought John Conner and Kyle Reece to me just like I planned and programmed you to do.”
Except that is not what happened at all. The only reason Kyle was captured was because he decided to follow Marcus out of LA. At no time did Marcus try to convince Kyle to come and at no time did he seem to want to find John Conner. Then when Kyle is captured, I guess Skynet just knew that John Conner would be watching a radar and would send two A-10 fighters to help and that one of those fighters would be shot down and the other pilot would eject and that Markus would rescue her and that she would convince him to go with her to her base and that base happened to be where John Conner was and John Conner happened to mention Kyle Reece and the pilot happened to believe Marcus was human and Marcus would be able to escape and would then convince John to sneak into Skynet and… You see where I’m going. I just screwed my face up and spat blood. Why is it that Hollywood writers seem incapable of stringing a plot together without invoking the almighty “Oh just go with it, it’s just a story ok?” Oh and why didn’t Skynet just kill Kyle when he was captured and identified? Damn what a retarded movie.

How you can avoid being like Terminator: Salvation

The number one thing you need to do is determine the realm of possibility for your story. Figure out how much your main character can get away with and why they can. It is OK to have a near omnipotent character but you need to ensure you give the reader plenty of reason to believe they are that way and then when they fail or get stuck, there needs to be a real reason for it. You can’t have the character suddenly develop a fear of heights when they need to leap over a tall building in a single bound when previously they were standing on top of the Eiffel Tower having a picnic.

On last rant

Aliens coming to earth. The only aliens coming to earth movie I can think of from recent times that wasn’t a complete pile of broken reality was District 9. That’s because the film didn’t go into the what, why and how of the aliens. We are told they turned up and they are stuck. As a result the situations seem more or less reasonable as there are so many possible reasons. On the other hand you look at all these alien invasion stories and they are toss. Cowboys and aliens for example. Why is it that aliens can craft space ships able to span interstellar distances and yet they can’t mine gold from an asteroid? And when humans start to fight them, why do they insist on flying low and firing their stupid energy weapons like: pew, pew, bang bang. What we do with our fighters is have them fly 3-4km above the ground (outside of the range of most guns) and they drop smart cluster bombs that level city blocks. Surely the aliens have thought of that? Oh, the humans have found our dastardly plan, let us fire our single shot, pointless zap guns at them and wave our tentacles. What would a human response be? Have you seen Avatar? They flew in, fired their rockets and stuff and blew the crap out of the big tree. The only reason the Avatar aliens were able to stand a chance was because the arrogant humans flew into the flying rocks that stuff up all radar and tracking.
So don’t have aliens with massively advanced technology but with the military planning capacity of a stone age barbarian.


About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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