I just finished watching a movie, the 1987 Suspect, starring Cher as an attorney, Dennis Quaid as a lobbyist and juror, and Liam Neeson as a deaf and dumb homeless person accused — falsely, it turns out — of murder. It’s all very 1980s, complete with the melodrama, fashions, music, over-saturated color, and earnest plot, and with Toronto standing in for an American city, in this case Washington, D.C.
The movie is okay, if a bit slow-paced and low-key at times, and the acting better than one might otherwise expect, especially by Cher, but what got me were the gaping plot holes that first challenged and then, finally, overwhelmed this viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief. Some reviewers compared these plot holes to Swiss cheese and one said they were big enough to drive a truck through. Exactly my sentiments.
Now most decent stories ask the viewer or reader to suspend disbelief to some degree. It’s one quality that differentiates a good story from reality. And readers generally are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of getting to the juicy goodness of a story. The skillful building of a plot and characters entices the reader to go with the flow the writer sets up with the hope and expectation that, by the end, they’ll be rewarded for their effort and the truth will be revealed.
Of course, we’re not talking about fantasies here, where a story’s entire premise takes us into some imaginary place or time. Rather, we’re talking about stories that otherwise are based in the real world in which we live. In this world we might be willing to accept that a mild-mannered college professor is a sadistic murderer in his spare time, or that a carefree Irish nanny moonlights as a fashion model. But we’re not inclined to accept, for instance, that cows fly (except in a fantasy), or that an earth-bound character can routinely defy the law of gravity. The things that exceed our willingness to suspend disbelief in Suspect are not of the metaphysical variety, but we’re supposed to accept that the police left the murder victim’s car parked in a parking lot for the time it took for a prosecution and trial without even so much as inspecting it — even for the Washington police, this stretches our suspension of disbelief to the breaking point — or that a defense attorney would be carrying on a clandestine affair with one of the jurors in the trial. There are so many lapses from reality in the movie, this being but two of them, I lost count of them all. Like I said, my ability to suspend disbelief was, finally, overwhelmed, and I wound up laughing at things that I’m sure were intended to be serious.
Now I find myself refusing to suspend disbelief on a regular basis with many of the series that appear on television. Even a rudimentary application of logic draws so many details into question I’m frequently musing, “Who thinks of these stupid plots?” The answer, of course, is that highly paid screenwriters and directors think of them, but often they take things to a point that, were an author to posit them in a book, we would be pushed to throw the book across the room in frustration.
I understand how some compression or sleights of hand might be required in a screenplay. Sometimes they’re needed in a novel or short story, too, to keep things moving ahead and not get bogged down in the weeds. But the writer needs to respect the reader and the reader’s abilities and inadequacies to follow the twists and turns in the story, and not to over-extend the reader’s ability or willingness to suspend disbelief. It can be a fine line to walk. Done well, the technique of leading readers to suspend disbelief can add tremendously to the effect of a story. Done poorly or overdone, it turns the story into a caricature of itself. And that’s something writers don’t want.