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Old 02-20-2017, 04:02 AM   #1
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Harry Potter and the Willing Suspension of Disbelief

So, I was musing about a potential story idea earlier today, and at one point in my musings, I was struck with a thought:

'I can't expect the reader to just go along with that idea can I?'

Which made me start to consider; Just what is a reader willing to go along with?

Thinking back to Harry Potter, I can't point to a specific scene, or action that broke my suspension of disbelief when I was younger. I'm certain if I re-read them now (as a fair few of the DLP family is currently) There would be parts that would indeed stick out like a sore thumb and threaten my suspension of disbelief.

The concept that sparked this thought was—I shouldn't go so far as to call it original—an original fiction wherein the main character was a student at a school for Heroes and Villains.

Students don't go into the school with a set career path in front of them. You don't have to decide to be a hero or villain—in fact, that choice is taken out of the students hands. It's your grades, your aptitudes and performance in the school that will decide whether you're a Hero, an arch-villain, or just C-lister on a Hero's wall.

That was what gave me pause: Just what could I get away with before I'd be straining the readers SOD?

That there is a school for Heros and Villains?

That they don't get to pick which they want to be?

That their future in heroism or villainy is determined by their grades?

That you would get detention if you, as part of the villain class, stopped another villain from picking on a hero in training?

Obviously if you write something well enough then there is a lot that a reader can ignore re: SOD. But, even that has to have a hard limit somewhere.

Readers: Can you think of any moment in a specific story where your SOD was broken?

Writers: Have you come across similar moments where you've found yourself given pause at something you were writing?
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Old 02-20-2017, 04:10 AM   #2
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I very rarely have problems with the setting of any particular work of fiction (even when it is trivially breakable, like Harry Potter). My problem is usually with insufficiently consistent/explainable character motivations.

If I read a characters action/dialogue/response to something, and I don't understand why they did that, then something's very wrong. I actually experienced this several times early on in Full Pensieve's Years of Rebellion, but I still consider it to be one of the greatest works of fanfiction of all time despite that. (There were other stories where this pattern occurred, but for obvious reasons I can't remember them. They sucked.)
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Old 02-20-2017, 05:32 AM   #3
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Broadly, it's all to do with consistency - internal and external consistency.

I believe that Luke Skywalker can use the Force, I don't believe that Sherlock Holmes can. I believe that magic exists in the Harry Potter universe, I'd be annoyed if James Bond encountered a wizard.

Consistency extends to coincidence. Coincidences that make things difficult for the characters are acceptable. Coincidences that help them out are lazy.

If you're ever at a point in a story where the character is no longer challenged, not worried about something, then it's time to end that story, and swiftly.

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Old 02-20-2017, 06:56 AM   #4
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Just recently, I was reading a fic that pulled a crappy trope right away and the Disbelief Suspension indeed broke, because the trope requires circumstances that I find very hard to reconcile with canon, even if the AU license is invoked. With that in mind, I second Joe's point about consistency.
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Old 02-20-2017, 07:13 AM   #5
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Basically, what @Joe said. Internal consistency is the main thing. For the heroes/villains school in your example, @Jon, I'd look at the world it was a part of, the genre - I'd be a lot more accepting of that in a YA book than one aimed at adults - and things like that. However, the quality of execution is also important.

Take Doctor Who as an example. In Peter Capaldi's first series there were two episodes that got criticised for this exact thing, 'Kill the Moon' and 'Forest of the Night'.

'Kill the Moon' revolved around the moon turning out to be an egg for a space dragon, and as it hatched it was having a catastrophic affect on the earth, and that was before you got to the anti-bodies that looked like giant spiders and the highly convenient way the dragon immediately laid another moon sized egg before leaving, thus making everything ok again. There was a lot of vitriol about the scientific problems this presented, and I remember responding to friends, and possibly on this very site, basically saying "Come on, it's Doctor Who, you really want rigorous scientific accuracy?"

A few weeks later 'Forest of the Night' came along, giving us an episode where overnight, earth was covered in forests, which turned out to be a planetary defence system to protect us all against a solar flare, and I was right there with everyone decrying the plausibility of this. The difference? 'Forest of the Night' was shit in pretty much every respect, not just the plausibility. 'Kill the Moon' wasn't an all time classic, but it kept me engaged and entertained enough that I was willing to go along with the ridiculous premise.

(putting the below in spoiler tags because although it's technically on topic, it's really just an elaboration of the above point with an overview of Steven Moffat's last decade in TV, plus spoilers for the last series of Sherlock)
Steven Moffat is actually an excellent case study in the importance of suspension of disbelief, IMO. Arguably, he's made his career on, as I once saw it put, "being able to sell you something you know is nonsense with enough charm and style that you're willing to ignore it".

In 'Jekyll', Hyde acquired new powers literally as the plot demanded (character expresses disbelief at his 'genetic memory' which allows him to recall events that happened to his ancestor from the best part of a century ago. His response? "You can't do that?"), and the whole thing revolved around cloning, the standard Jekyll/Hyde shift, super powers and the power of love, but the whole thing is just so awesome that (most) viewers just didn't care how ridiculous it was.

Doctor Who...well, pick an episode. Between the sentient snow and the carnivorous dust (and wi-fi), and the more complex excesses of his plots, the show has been increasingly daft for the last few years, but for the most part I still love it.

As for Sherlock...I really enjoyed the finale of series 3, but you've got a secret sister who's so smart it borders on mind control, an elaborate, death trap filled island that's like a Saw film with Blofeld as the villain, a huge amount of forward planning that relies on people doing very specific things predicted years in advance, and multiple characters grabbing enormous idiot balls to keep the plot moving. It's pure nonsense, but, again, I was enjoying myself so much I didn't care. I was in a minority - leaving aside the more hardcore/insane Johnlock shippers, the most common response to the episode was "Holy shit that was dumb".
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Old 02-20-2017, 08:37 AM   #6
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I break my SoD when a character becomes the "first" to achieve something incredibly remarkable yet at the same time very simple. When that happens I have to ask myself why no one else managed it. Indy!Harry and the training montage are examples of Harry becoming Voldemort's equal very easily so I have to ask why no one else has become as powerful as Voldemort.

The first thing you need to consider when writing a powerful character is how this one person can become powerful while no one else (or very few people) can do the same.

@Shinysavage Steven Moffat is a terrible writer who I feel ruined DW with terrible SoD breaking writing. The only good thing he did was Blink which was the last season I could stomach.
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Old 02-20-2017, 09:18 AM   #7
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If the story takes place in the canon universe but with an introduced Point of Departure, then I expect the characters to stay true to their canon selves and react to the new events the way canon characters would.

Example: Say that everything is as in canon up until the Battle in the Department of Mysteries except Sirius doesn't fall through the Veil. Now, in Canon Harry was badly affected by Sirius' death, cast the Cruciatus on Bellatrix and later raged at Dumbledore and ruined his office at Hogwarts.

If Sirius doesn't die, I fully expect Harry to be less emotionally affected. But if the author still had Harry rage and shout and break stuff, it would break my immersion completely.

So in other words, if you're gonna write a character, write that character and not an OC with his name. Unless it's a complete AU, in which it's fair game.
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Old 02-20-2017, 09:26 AM   #8
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@Download: I probably should have prefaced my post by acknowledging that such things are always subjective, but whatever your opinion of Moffat, if the series with Blink was the last one you could stomach, that's as much Russell Davies as Moffat - he didn't take over for another series and a half
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Old 02-20-2017, 01:19 PM   #9
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It's hard to say; I watch/read so much that it's more like if there's a moment that just annoys me that can get the turn off, but the truth is I tend to quit due to boredom instead of SoD issues. The HP didn't break SoD before for me on the reread, but the DH had a bit the first time I read it. Now I'm more charitable towards it.

Dresden books have done this a few times with breaking of established characterization for no reason. For my stories, I yeah have gone back and wondered about plot points. Sometimes people point things out and it's way too late to do anything. But I think if it flows and only a small percentage find a flaw, it's still fine.
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Old 02-20-2017, 02:38 PM   #10
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I'll accept pretty much anything that's established as part of the premise of the story. If you want to write a story about someone who wins the lottery, I'm not going to complain about how unlikely it is for the protagonist to have won the lottery. Similarly, if your first chapter is a giant wall of ridiculously implausible coincidences that are required to make the story work, well obviously you're writing about what would happen if those implausible things did happen.

What matters is that the events of the story follow in a sensible way from what has been previously established in the story. If HP was a story about Voldemort's first rise that ended with Voldemort dying due to a quirk that had never been hinted at before it would have been a terrible plot twist.
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Old 03-02-2017, 09:49 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by Saot View Post
I'll accept pretty much anything that's established as part of the premise of the story.
This is the case for me too, and, as others have also stated, I think that the rest of the universe established in the story has to be consistent also. I think that a fanfic can deviate wildly from the canon universe but it has to establish what is acceptable within its universe and not break expectations.

I'm not sure there has to be a hard limit on what you can do in a story without breaking the suspension of disbelief. I do, however, think there is a definite limit on how quickly you may be able to introduce something and still retain suspension of disbelief.

I think introducing elements into a story is sort of like education. You can't stick a kid from a first grade class into a physics class and expect them to make sense of anything. With time and proper training, it may be no problem. I think it's the same things with stories. If something breaks the reader's suspension of disbelief, it's because they have not prepared the reader for it and it makes no sense to the reader within the context of everything else established in the story universe.
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Old 03-03-2017, 06:01 AM   #12
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It's about the way an author explains things to me. Reading fiction especially fantasy means that the reader had already assumed that the story is not going to be about real life stuff and therefore are willing to accept whatever the author is able to justify. The issue always comes to that justification, if the readers find it acceptable, they will go along with the author.

Take stories with super Harry, the readers will go along with it as long as it fits the story. But, if the super Harry does something that doesn't fit the story and breaks character, the readers will not accept it.
The evil Harry stories are presenting Harry as a character different from the canon and people will go along with the OCness of it all as long as the author keeps them convinced that it fits with the story. The reader had already gone along with the premise of Harry being evil and therefore have no reason to complain that Harry is acting completely different from how he is in the canon.

In any story, it comes down to maintaining as earlier had been mention, internal and external consistency. As long as you can do that, people will go along with it. If there is a time as an author where you need your character(s) to break character for whatever, you should be able to justify it within the story.
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Old 03-12-2017, 03:02 AM   #13
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You - the reader - have to believe that the author knows the story. That they have legitimacy to tell it to you. Once you have that, you can say anything you like.

An eleven year old boy discovers he's a wizard? Who has to work his way through a goofy obstacle course? To fight a powerful, learned, psychopath that wants him, specifically, dead? No problem.

Minerva is actually a spy for the Unseelie Court? Why not. Lupin was the traitor? I'm listening. Hermione and Ron are paid informers by Dumbledore but decide to openly tell Harry to fuck off in the summer of 5th year after burning his broom and killing Hedwig and so Harry runs away into a magical trunk... okay, I'll give it one more shot if you insist but then I'm done.

Draco makes a passing reference to The Beatles? No, fuck that nonsense. The author has demonstrated that they not only do not understand the character, they do not understand the laws of the fandom universe and I no longer can trust anything they have to tell.
"Trembling, she left the chamber with Anthony Goldstein, Gregory Goyle and Daphne Greengrass." ~ Most important sentence in Harry Potter.

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Old 03-15-2017, 12:10 AM   #14
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What matters is internal consistency and rigid adherence to deterministic causality; if you can maintain that in a story, there is frankly nothing that cannot be believed.
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Old 03-21-2017, 10:25 PM   #15
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When super-harry finds an exploit, such as a powerful spell or timeturner. when noone else starts using this later, i just can't keep reading. Also superheroes with masks and capes. I simply can't relate to them as a character.
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Old 03-22-2017, 12:35 AM   #16
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I agree with previous posts mentioning internal consistency. I just want to point out in addition to that: We accept stories about hidden worlds and people that can make something float or blow up or turn invisible by waving a fancy stick around. We accept stories with people flying around in capes and saving the day in downtown new york, though we've never seen it in a news report. We accept stories about massive carnivorous intelligent lizards flying around and eating people.

We do not have an acceptable basis in reality for any of those things, and yet we suspend our disbelief, because they are interesting. Because they seem "real enough."

However, within those stories, the changes have consequences, and they make sense within the basis of whatever alternate reality they're pulling from.
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Old 03-22-2017, 11:46 PM   #17
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Originally posted by Billy Flynn:

Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle dazzle 'em
Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate

Razzle dazzle 'em
And they'll never catch wise
On further consideration, I would like to go one step further than 'internal consistency': I believe that there's literally nothing you can't sell provided you sell it with confidence and you don't contradict yourself. And you don't tempt the 'tisms with overly, unnecessary technical explanations for why something works in-verse the way it does.

I guarantee that if you wrote a scene where the headmaster explains how it's very important that they study hard because their careers as heroes or villains depend on it, and you wrote another scene where not-Hermione explains the formula in great detail for determining how sidekick points are awarded...

... You're going to have more people dissecting the formula and expressing skepticism over why this class is weighted this much than you are over the premise itself. By 100:1.

Don't waste any time explaining (which will be read as being defensive about) why there's a need to sort schoolchildren into heroes and villains, or why anyone would agree it's a good idea. Just start the story with Tom and Bob being nervous about their first day at school and if they're going to have to be arch nemises with one another or what have you. Any sort of 'back story' et.al. you can come later, if necessary, once we've already bought the premise.

Do it ballsy and you will have the reader cheering along when Dr. Doom, who last year held all of New York City hostage with the moon cannon that he stole from the Planetary Defense League, and is currently wanted dead-or-alive in 56 countries...is going to be dropping by for career day!
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