We are all familiar with the concept of willing suspension of disbelief. This phrase, coined by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, refers to the reader’s willingness to believe the plausibility of the narrative as long as the plot is pretty much airtight.
This does not refer to the realism of a plot. We may read a book set in a fantasy world featuring a Beast Glatisant and villages that appear only once every hundred years, but we’re willing to suspend our rational minds and accept those elements so long as they are presented with a well-thought-out explanation. Oh, of course, the village disappears as an act of God, or the beast is a Jurassic leftover. Of course, on with the story!
This is all well and good. And often in sci-fi and fantasy works, the science or the fantasy is well thought out and reasonably explained. But many works stumble on the presentation of utterly mundane details.
What do I mean? Here, I’m going to use several television series as my example. In the sci-fi world, Terran explorers often encounter alien species. The aliens are generally well-created, with backgrounds, technology, and cultures viewers can easily accept. But one tiny hitch exists: how are the Terrans and the aliens communicating?
Several series have come up with acceptable explanations for this. Star Trek had its Universal Translator, and Farscape had its translator microbes. Now, if you really start to deconstruct these tricks, you can find issues with them, and many do. But for the most part, you can accept these devices and move on to enjoy the show.
But what happens if you don’t even try to explain away a completely mundane but utterly necessary detail like this? I am thinking specifically of the television version of Stargate. In the movie, Daniel Jackson must learn to communicate with the inhabitants of Abydos. But in the series, this is simply not an issue. Somehow, no matter what planet the team visits, everyone can communicate immediately.
I’ll be honest, this sort of series-long flubbing of a perfectly mundane detail ruined the show for me, and I didn’t watch it after the first few episodes. And in the nerd world, trust me, people are watching for these flubs. They will notice, and they will discuss it online to the death.
Now, you may pooh-pooh some readers’ need for believable detail. And yes, yes, some people (meaning the likes of myself) may be overly obsessed with accuracy. But it’s really not that hard to come up with some sort of technology or device that fixes these insurmountable barriers for you.
Paradoxically, the more outrageous your fix, the less most readers will question it. But have a fix. Please, allow us to suspend our disbelief.