Maintaining Belief During Fantastical Stories

This post is 2 in the series: The Suspension of Disbelief

In the film version of The Return of the King, Gollum falls into the lava and slowly sinks. But as it turns out, lava is much too heavy for people to sink into. Gollum should have remained on the surface and burst into flame instead. A science columnist at made a point of this inaccuracy. He didn’t criticize the magic or giant eagles in the movie, just the way Gollum sunk into the lava.

I’m using this example because John Scalzi mentioned it a couple years ago on his blog. He calls the point at which belief breaks in a spec fic story a “flying snowman.” The term comes from a children’s story his wife once read to his daughter. In it, a snowman comes to life and a befriends a boy. They do all sorts of boyish activities, including eating hot soup. Then the snowman flies. His wife didn’t care about the hot soup, but she thought a flying snowman was ridiculous.

This is what Scalzi had to say on flying snowmen:

In a film with impossibly large spiders, talking trees, rings freighted with corrupting evil, Uruks birthed from mud (not to mention legions of ghost warriors and battle elephants larger than tanks), are we really going to complain about insufficiently dense lava? Because if you’re going to demand that be accurate in a physical sense, I want to know why you’re giving the rest of that stuff a pass. If you’re going to complain that the snowman flies, you should also be able to explain why it’s okay to have it eat hot soup.

That’s right, dear audience, your personal reaction to a story isn’t valid until you can explain exactly why you reacted the way you did. It’s lucky you’re reading this post, because I’ll tell you why.

Stories Are Believable When They’re Consistent

Scalzi mentions consistency in worldbuilding, but he misses consistency with sources outside the story. There are three primary types of consistency that influence audiences. The levels closer to the story override the ones farther away.

  • External Consistency – consistency with the real world. Except where the genre and story deviate, everything in the story world is expected to work like the real world does. This includes the lava of Mount Doom. That’s why watery lava was unbelievable; it broke external consistency.
  • Genre Consistency – consistency with other works in the same genre. This is why no one has a problem with the magic or the giant spiders in LotR. They are standard in fantasy, so they feel consistent.
  • Internal Consistency – consistency within a work. If the movie had established early on that the lava of Mount Doom was different from normal lava, it would have overruled external consistency.

As a note of caution, genre consistency requires familiarity with the genre in question. This isn’t a big issue for fantasy overall, but it can be for subgenres like urban fantasy. Many urban fantasies employ a trope known as the masquerade: non-magical people don’t know magic and magical creatures exist. Regular fans of urban fantasy will probably accept this premise without explanation, even when magical creatures are running rampant in the streets. However, fans of high fantasy trying their first urban fantasy might find it unbelievable until justified.

Once you explain something fantastical in your story, it gains the shield of internal consistency. You don’t have to explain again so long as it continues to operate in the same manner.

Consistency plays a large role in sightings of flying snowmen. But why?

Consistency Satisfies Audience Expectations

For almost two hundred years, storytellers have explained why audiences accept things like magic with a theory called the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. The idea is that an audience member says “this is a work of fiction; I should just believe.” They consciously put aside doubts in order to enjoy the story.

Not everyone agrees. Some say audiences believe by default, and only disbelieve when the storyteller messes up. Tolkien himself put forth the idea of secondary belief, based on internal consistency.

I think those are both closer, but this is the real rule: Audiences will believe your story as long as it meets their expectations.

Consistency is important because it satisfies the expectations that audiences have for your story. But the three consistencies I listed above are only the beginning; anything that influences expectations will also change belief. By thinking about expectations in a broader sense, we can uncover the mystery of the flying snowman.

First, stories of snowmen coming to life and playing with children aren’t unusual. Frosty is probably the best known example; however, he doesn’t eat hot soup. Looking at the story a little closer, I would say the snowman in question has Pinocchio Syndrome – he wants to be a real boy. After all, his magical abilities in the beginning of the story involve him doing what real boys do, with a real boy. The audience would naturally expect his powers to grow in the “more boy-like” direction, including the hot soup. But then, defying all the buildup toward becoming a boy, he flies. To Scalzi’s wife, that probably felt like it came out of nowhere.

Set Expectations, Then Capitalize on Them

Knowing that audience expectations determine the believeability of a story, and much of those expectations come from external sources, you might think storytellers are at the mercy of audience demands. But storytellers don’t just fulfill expectations; they set them.

That’s the primary purpose of foreshadowing. It’s a vital tool in making stories believeable. In the beginning of the Matrix, we are told Neo feels like he’s in a dream, and that the Matrix is all around him. Because of these hints, the big reveal feels like the next step in the story, rather than a bizarre turn.

Expectations about unusual elements must be set before they become critical to the story. Otherwise you can end up with Deus Ex Machina, a resolution that feels cheap and contrived. It wouldn’t have been good enough for Frodo to go on about the strangeness of Mount Doom lava as Gollum was sinking into it. To be believable, it would need to be mentioned beforehand — the earlier the better, as long as the audience doesn’t forget about the hint entirely.

We can now see the intersection between belief and Sanderson’s First Law:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Audiences want to be surprised about what happens in a story, but they shouldn’t be surprised about what could happen. This rule isn’t as strict when you are creating conflict and tension, but for resolving conflict and tension it’s essential.

But what if you write yourself into a corner, leaving no choice but to violate expectations? I’ll give you some tips next week.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?



  1. Jack Marshall

    I look at that picture with Golem and am reminded of how many movies have people running through lava-filled caverns, often jumping from solid rock to solid rock amidst the flows. If you’ve ever been to the Volcanic National Park in Hawaii, and climbed near a little burble of lava a foot or two across, you can’t get within 15 feet of it, it’s so hot (apparently it also hardens so fast you can step on it in about 10 seconds after it emerges, if you could get close enough). A cave would be worse than an oven during a cleaning cycle – you’d die so fast you wouldn’t have a chance to breathe the poisonous fumes.
    Fortunately, danger of running into said cave is reduced by the fact that you’d run into a wall of heat nigh impenetrable.
    No worries – there’s still time to whoop up your magical zone of coldness to follow you in, where you can die of more dramatic causes such as a fight on a precipice.

  2. Montana Diva

    I agree with the fact that once you create the world you should remain true and some what consistent to what you have created and not go running off changing stuff.

    We as humans find comfort in what laws we even comprehend (since most people can’t explain how gravity works or how electricity works)

    Of course there are many exceptions to the rule of what is possible in a SCI FI world of the future, since just for instance, of course the theory of time travel doesn’t exist in our world. The first time Star Trek whipped around the sun was fun.. the 8th time like in Search for Spoke to retrieve the whales to bring them back..well that was a bit outlandish..but Scotty did do the math for us..didn’t he? to make the implausible plausible.

    Sci Fi geeks just want you to explain HOW it might be possible, THEN they will allow you to do what you want. ( the in depth conversation on how the Holo deck works did not happen until it had been used many times in ST-TNG).

    But LOR was about a fantastical world, and I guess that is where I must say..this articles premise is just so silly, in light of the very reasons you, writer point out.

    your friend allowed Magic, Gandolf falling for like a century and fighting a walking furnace yet never being burned, a ring that allowed Sauran to see across hundreds of miles yet did not have the power to send someone directly to kill Frodo.

    An army of a few hundred ill equipped people fighting off a military made up of it would appear to be millions, and ill equipped with ancient swords just to add insult to injury.

    An Elf who has a Gatling bow with endless arrows.. a fall off of a cliff to a rocky river by a HUMAN, I might add, yet only a scratch not ONE broken bone, and a horse that has an amazing sense of direction to follow a stream to find his master and helps him ride away, with no concussion or injuries (have you ever galloped on a horse..even in the best of health it is a pummeling experience)..

    O my this person watching the movie must have been in so much writhing pain one episode after another as the assault to his logical senses mounted that if all he could find fault with was the Lava it was because he had an anurism from trying to make sense of any of it.. but .that is just my take on this..

    This is a topic I guess we could debate for ever because it really is about personal perspective while staying inside of an expectation within a genre. This may be the reason why books don’t always translate into Movies and remain true to the original stories.. reading the words and SEEING them played out create very different reactions in people.

    We have all seen movies that did NOT do the stories justice..often because the movie forces you to work in the real world..while a book allows you to remain in ones own personal world where there need NOT for consensus on how something works.

    We should remember the reason why Star Wars was done the way it was. Lucas specifically said he had to wait for the movie technology to catch up to the vision he had in mind. We could talk about the epic implausibilities that exist in that 6 part movie but we won’t..for me, I read and watch to escape the real world.

    To me anyone that wants to try to make these two specific genres conform to OUR world will find that Sci Fi and Fantasy will not be to their liking. IMHO

  3. Nadia

    But the lava in Mount Doom is special. It is clearly established that the fires of Mt. Doom are unique, there is no evidence of items in nature having special magical capabilities therefor it would not follow that the reason for the ring needing to be destroyed in Mt. Doom because of some magical property of the lava, that would be inconsistent. If it took something special (in addition to magic) to create the ring then doesn’t it make sense for the lava to have a unique physical property? By the same token if the lava is indeed magical then wouldn’t you expect it to behave differently than normal lava? Otherwise what sets it apart. If the lava behaves exactly like normal lava then why wouldn’t any lava do the job? The ring somehow remembers its origin and only allows itself to be undone there? Sure but the sentience of the ring is already stretched a little far by the story. I think that the special lava helps to confirm why we have just spent 9+ hours taking the ring to this place. The villain isn’t there to confirm it therefor the setting itself has to set itself apart to validate the necessity of bringing the ring so far and at such a great cost.

    Ok my two cents have been deposited. Sorry if I am missing any main point that I should have remembered. I haven’t read the series in 5 years or so.

    • Chris Winkle

      Hi Nadia,

      You have some good points. Perhaps the different physical properties of the lava is what allows it to destroy the ring.

      Regardless, someone thought that the lava wasn’t realistic, and you seem to feel the sentience of the ring was unrealistic. In either case, I don’t think it’s on you or the Wired writer to justify your reactions. That’s for storytellers, because we’re trying to engineer a specific reaction (or a range of them). Even if we have a great justification for everything in our stories, if we don’t communicate those reasons in a way that the audience understands and remembers, that’s something we should improve on. It’s impossible to get it perfect, but it’s worth trying.

    • Sheikh Jahbooty

      I agree Nadia,

      When I saw Gollum sink into the volcano, I didn’t think, “Isn’t that molten stone? Is Gollum less buoyant than stone? That can’t be true. We’ve seen him swim.” Instead I thought. “He should have let that go. Look at the power of the ring drag him down into the heart of Mount Doom.”

      Strangely though the flying snowman for me was when Denethor sent his remaining son off to die in battle and then he went crazy on a plate of tacos. He got tacos everywhere. They made a point of showing how messy he was eating those tacos. I thought, “Why the heck is he eating tacos?” My wife assures me that I’m remembering it wrong, and he wasn’t eating tacos, but just tomatoes. For me it’s the same thing. There were no tomatoes outside of Mexico until 1500. Tomatoes were in fact invented by ancient Mexicans. They were eugenically engineered from a type of yellow grape-sized nightshade berry. I suppose New Zealanders and Australians don’t think of tomatoes as Mexican cuisine, but to my American eyes he had clearly called for Mexican delivery, from the taco stand around the corner.

      Another funny story about suspension of disbelief in this film is the Witch King of Agmar’s flail. Peter Jackson kept asking for it to be bigger, and the people making weapons for the film told him, “No, it’s going to look stupid. It’s going to look like he’s attacking her with a chandelier.” But when he did get a chandelier sized flail, everyone agreed with him that it didn’t look stupid, it looked terrifying.

  4. Oren Ashkenazi

    If someone pitched me a story of Peter Jackson trying to turn The Hobbit into THREE films, it would break my suspension of disbelief.

    • Rand al'Thor

      Wow… the Hobbit is as long as the Lord of the Rings?

  5. Rand al'Thor

    I love Brandon Sanderson!

  6. MWS

    I have a similar beef with a friend’s fictional universe (in that case, it’s spiked armor in a fantasy world). My response mirrors how I would respond to the lava question.

    If you introduce wizards throwing around spells, or starships that can travel on the luminiferous aether, we can’t say it’s wrong because those are inventions within the story. Lava doesn’t get that benefit. Lava is a thing. It really exists, and we know how it acts.

    I have pretty much the same reaction to stories that use a mythology with strongly established features but then proceed to ignore most of those features. Had Edward Cullen been some kind of life-force draining corporeal spirit being, I would not have complained about him sparkling (though the complaint of him being a creepy stalker with overprotective/possessive tendencies and weird eyebrows obsessed with a girl 90 years his junior would still stand).

  7. RHJunior

    Perhaps they decided that covering the cinema screen with a twenty foot high screaming burning Gollum might have been a tad much for audiences to take…

  8. Lu

    To most people I think Golum sinking did meet their expectations. Movies of the past have taught us how lava works, very few people in comparison have learned how lava actually works.

    So the lava didn’t work realistically, but it did work how most the audience expected it to.

    I can’t actually think of a movie, outsides of documentaries, that does do lava correctly.

  9. Makhno

    Not just the lava. The cliff fall, the horse’s amazing scouting abilities, the astonishing recoveries – all within movie convention, regardless of genre.

  10. Dave L

    Are you familiar w/ Poul Anderson’s essay, On Thud And Blunder ( about inaccuracies in heroic fiction?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I hadn’t heard of it until now, though it looks to cover a lot of points. Was there a specific aspect of it you were interested in?

      • Dave L

        Nothing specific. And it is long. But I think you like it, especially given your point about External Consistency

        Note that a lot of the stuff he covered has been mentioned in various Mythcreants articles, such as politics, ships, and poison

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