Monday, 28 January 2013

Suspension of Disbelief

One of the great challenges for any crime writer is this: how do you ensure that readers suspend their belief so as to enjoy what you've written to the full? Some writers, of course, may argue that their work is so realistic that no suspension of disbelief is needed. This may be so in a minority of cases, but I'm part of the majority whose contemporary books are meant to have a surface authenticity, but which are nevertheless definitely made-up, with invented characters and incidents. (Mind you, I still include libel disclaimers, just in case anyone gets a very wrong idea.)

As a reader, I'm more than willling to suspend my disbelief in the right circumstances. Of course, the events in a book by fine writers such as Frances Fyfield, Andrew Taylor or Ian Rankin - who all write very different types of crime fiction -are not likely to be replicated in real life. But the quality of writing is such that it draws you into the world of the story, and you are happy to believe in the events that unfold.

The same principle applies when I'm watching TV or a film..For instance, Lewis, like Inspector Morse, demands that you accept that Oxford is crawling with ingenious killers. The homicide rate almost matches Midsomer's. Yet the shows are so well done, that it doesn't really matter that in truth, bicycle theft is probably more of a problem. Skyfall definitely requires suspension of disbelief, but it's so well crafted, that it's easy to accept the various improbabilities.

All this leads me back to the BBC TV series about Father Brown. I've watched all ten episodes of the series, which ended last week. Some were good light entertainment. One or two, however, were pretty unfortunate - the episode combining radiation sickness and paedophilia springs to mind: I didn't suspend my disbelief at any point during that story.

I was sympathetic, as I've said before, to the writers' wish to do something fresh with the stories so as to appeal to a modern audience. But G.K. Chesterton persuaded his readers to suspend their disbelief - not least in some remarkable "impossible crime" stories - by focusing very cleverly on paradox and some interesting observations about human nature. In some of these episodes, I felt not enough of an attempt was made to draw out these qualities in the originals, and what was put in place instead tended to be less than compelling. This was a pity, because it is good to see classic sleuths brought back to public attention. I must say I'm glad I watched the series, but I certainly concede it could have been better. With a bit more credit given to the watching audience's readiness to engage with a good priest's take on the failings of human nature, many viewers, I suspect, would have been more willing to go along with the less likely aspects of the show's premise..


Writer said...

I am currently reading a novel by a very successful writer who seems more interested in touting his "research," which may be helpful for plot but what is getting left behind is character development. I'd rather suspend my belief and be connected to the characters.

Anonymous said...

Martin - Fascinating question (as ever) and I think you're spot on about what encourages readers to suspend their disbelief. I've not yet had a chance to see the Father Brown series as it's not (yet) available where I live. So I'm in no position to comment on the series. But I will say that updating a series' setting without staying really true to the original author's skill, focus and intent is not a way to invite readers to come along for the ride.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Holly. Nice to hear from you. Getting the right balance is always a challenge, isn't it?

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, I quite agree.