Why Should Fiction Be Believable?

This post is 1 in the series: The Suspension of Disbelief

On countless Facebook threads, tweets, and forums, there are discussions of stories that go something like this:

Critic: The hero can’t jump off a cliff after the damsel like that! Everyone falls at the same speed; he wouldn’t catch up to her in time.

Anti-Critic: He also couldn’t have a ray gun to kill the villain with, why aren’t you complaining about that?

Anti-Critic 2: It’s just a story. The point is to have fun, not to nitpick. Chillax and enjoy it.

People argue that critics shouldn’t complain about the realism of fictional stories, either because it’s hypocritical to critique just one thing, or because fictional stories don’t need to be realistic.

If you’ve said something similar to the latter, it’s probably because you thought the critic was making a big deal out of nothing. How could the rate of their fall be more important than the heroic sacrifice at the end? It’s not real — so what if it’s technically incorrect?

We Consume Stories for the Experience

Some watch cartoons for fun and laughter; others prefer deeply moving tragedies. Some watch horror movies for the thrill, and others prefer reading romances for that warm fuzzy feeling. We’ll never agree on what stories we prefer, but we have one thing in common: we want stories to invoke something in us.

Storytellers are tasked with imparting those feelings or ideas. They’ll never hit their mark for every single audience member, but the more they get, the better. Depending on the reaction they want, they’ll use a wide variety of storytelling themes and tactics.

Some types of stories, such as comedies, don’t need realism to achieve their goals. They can blatantly call attention to the fact that they are stories, even mentioning their authors in playful self-awareness. Wile E. Coyote can run off a cliff onto air, only falling once he realizes there’s nothing under his feet.

But when’s the last time you heard a friend complaining about how unrealistic a cartoon was? Instead, most critics of this type target stories with tense actions scenes or heartfelt moments. Those scenes require seriousness and believability to succeed. Maybe you didn’t expect the scene in question to be tense or moving, but your friend probably did.

Errors Can Destroy the Mood

The ending of Romeo and Juliet stands out as one of the most powerful, and memorable, moments in fiction. If only word about the plan to fake Juliet’s death had gotten to Romeo. If only she had awoken one moment earlier, and he’d seen that she was alive. If only they weren’t so impulsive. They could have lived a happy life together; instead, they died pointlessly.

But imagine if you were watching the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet, and just as Romeo lifted the poison to his lips, a single green tear came streaming down his cheek. You’d probably be wondering in that moment why the hell his tears were green, rather than thinking “No, don’t take the poison!”  The tragedy is gone from your mind, the moment is now about green tears.

To many scientists, the uneven falling is just as distracting. They’ve watched video after video of objects falling, and it is firmly ingrained in their consciousness that someone heavier does not fall faster than someone lighter. They can’t experience the thrill that falling scenes are designed for while witnessing blatantly incorrect physics.

You don’t have to share a critical friend’s view on the story. Who knows, maybe their facts are even wrong. But telling them they shouldn’t complain because it’s a fictional story ignores why we consume stories in the first place: the experience. The experience the error ruined.

I’ve explained why my sample critic isn’t going overboard by complaining when the hero jumps over a cliff after the damsel, but what about the ray gun? Why didn’t the critic complain about that as well?

I’ll tell you… next week.

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  1. April

    The only time objects fall at the same rate of speed is if they are in a vacuum. Objects fall at different speeds because of air resistance. If you drop a feather off a building and a rock off a building, the rock will fall faster because of the air around it. Take a pebble and toss it in the air, take a leaf and toss it in the air… they do not react the same way.
    Love this blog though, learning many things!

    • Cay Reet

      This is true for very different objects. Two humans should fall at very similar speed, the slight difference in body weight between two adults (presuming both the hero and the damsel are adults) will not make a major difference.

      • j

        April said nothing about weight. This is about air resistance. A significantly more aerodynamic human will fall faster in atmosphere, and people use this fact to change their free fall speed in real life.

  2. C

    This is why so many movies about earthquakes annoy me. They NEVER get the motion of the ground and objects right. You see people running like normal in a supposed huge nine point something quake when in reality a large earthquake screws with your vestibular sense because “down” is moving when it shouldn’t.

    San Andreas jiggled the camera around while showing us cars and light poles rocking the “right” way. But you don’t see the buildings oscillate before they collapse, they just explode like a planned demolition. You don’t really see people being whipped back and forth or wobbling while standing.

    Buildings collapse in earthquakes because they vibrate more than their structural integrity allows, but buildings built to earthquake codes do things to minimize oscillations.

    Earthquakes feel like the ground is sliding and undulating underneath you. It’s unnerving for small quakes and terrifying in big ones. Also, megathrust quakes like in Japan have a bit of buildup before the “oh shit” shaking starts. How much it shakes can also depend on distance from the epicenter and the ground makeup. Sand wobbles like jello, bedrock is more solid and damps some of the effects.

    FINALLY…the San Andreas fault isn’t capable of producing a 9.X quake. That would be the Cascadia subduction zone, and it’ll shake us like the Tokoku quake in Japan when it blows.

    I’m in California. It shakes. I’ve been through a few scary ones. I can’t stand movies that don’t portray quakes properly.

    Sorry for the ramble!

  3. Cay Reet

    One unexpected thing which destroyed a story for me was a thief casually hiding The NIght Watch and carrying it away alone. The painting (which admittedly is rarely shown fully and with something as a scale next to it) has life-sized people in it and needs a wall of the museum to itself. It’s hardly something you can move as a single person. So the moment that theft happened, I was just going WTF? and couldn’t really suspense my disbelief again.

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