On Stories

Suspension of disbelief is a well-known concept in fiction. It describes the relaxing assumptions made by the audience towards implausible events which occur in a work of fiction. A classic example is Superman’s disguise: the audience willingly accepts that a pair of eyeglasses deceives all the people who surround Clark Kent. The entire narrative is based on this assumption, and so a person who takes it with a grain of salt will not be able to enjoy the story.

This term is usually associated with superficial laws of the fictional environment. In a work of fantasy or science fiction, the audience must accept the supernatural/pseudo-scientific. Another example is the usage of a particular language in a setting which in reality uses a different language. Making these leaps of faith is essential for the audience to be able to enjoy the work of fiction. However, I feel this notion goes much deeper than that.

Acceptance of the physical environment of the work of fiction is not the final compromise made by the audience. In any sort of creation – be it a realistic everyday drama or a full scale space opera – assumptions are made. The artist crafts a unique world which works according to its own set of laws. The characters act in a certain way. The pace of the narrative is set. The atmosphere is defined. Things which we deem unrealistic happen all the time: people do not speak like Tarantino’s characters, and real-world visuals do not resemble those made by Kubrick. I think it is crucial for the reader or viewer to restrain his own perceptions to be able to enjoy a work of art. Fiction allows the creation of an endless array of universes and settings; some are closer to our own standards, beliefs and way of thinking, and some are light years away. Both have their right to be, and can be fully enjoyed – if only we do not attempt to impose ourselves on the work of fiction.

Having said that, there still are rules the artist has to adhere to – the one he himself has set. The artist shapes his universe as he wishes, but he then must remain true to it. Tolkien addressed this in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories“, where he argued that a world of fantasy has to be consistently defined and presented, otherwise “disbelief arises”. I agree with him, and was happy to find out that the Master uses the same term I coined to myself. However, I again want to extend it beyond the supernatural. It is not just the physical laws which have to remain consistent, but the spirit of the creation. Following the exposition, where the rules are set, characters should act in a way which fits how they were presented. Events unfolding should seem natural and possible given the axioms of the world. This goes beyond narrative as well – stylization should remain consistent as well. The literary style of a book mustn’t change out of the blue, just as the color palette of a film shouldn’t suddenly be turned opposite without justified reason.

Only when the artist successfully maintains consistency, can his work reach what I consider as the highest and most evasive quality of fiction: continuity. In a perfect narrative, events unfold not because they were devised in the mind of their creator, but because they are the natural continuation of the story that had preceded them. The world and characters and stylization were so consistently presented that they have become real enough to be independent of the artist and have a life of their own. In a continuous story, its progress is believable because the audience feels that this is exactly what these characters would have done given these circumstances.

As an example, I pose my very favorite movie: Oldboy. If coldly dissected, this movie has no element which is even slightly plausible. The premise, the characters, the plot and the style are all absurd. However, writer-director Chan-wook Park creates a universe where this is bold and pure reality. Everything happening in the film is in line with the axioms it defines. The twists and turns of the story feel perfect, because the audience can believe them. There is no gap the viewer has to overcome with a leap of faith, and thus – no disbelief arises.

Without continuity, the “backstage scenery” shines through. Events and character decisions do not feel as if they have naturally spawned in the fictional universe, but made up in the artist’s mind and forced upon the story. These events are merely plot devices, meant to progress the story from point A to point B. The classic example for me is David Fincher’s The Game. This is a good and intriguing thriller, right up to the end where two unnecessary twists occur. The writers decided ahead of writing the story that this is how it is going to end, and wouldn’t let any creative flow interfere with that. For me, that cracked the illusion. I became fully aware that this a movie I am watching, not a story.

Just like consistency, continuity isn’t achieved only in characters or plots. It takes place even in music. A song has a style and direction, and it should progress in a natural way. This my problem with Dream Theater. They are excellent musicians and songwriters, but usually just can’t restrain themselves from breaking away to an unnecessary instrumental part which has nothing to do with the song. This musical masturbation distracts from the main song and prevents ןא from being a single continuous unit.

Continuity is the utmost pinnacle of creation. It is the common denominator of all great works of fiction. If I have stirred some thoughts in you, I suggest you go and watch Adaptation while you still have them. Now there’s a a mindfuck. 🙂

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