Why we suspend disbelief

Last night I binged Russian Doll. The recursive structure, nested plots, and multifaceted characters make it a philosophical thriller as much as a psychological one. As each thirty-minute episode slalomed across the finish line, I fumbled for the remote to inform Netflix that “YES! I’m still watching! More! Now!”

I woke up this morning thinking about how the story never reveals the mechanism behind its premise. It shows us what happens but never explains how any of this is happening. We eat the sausage without ever visiting the factory. That lack of explanation seems like it would threaten the show’s verisimilitude. Why should we believe in a story that doesn’t even pretend to be plausible?

And that’s where things get really interesting. Realism and suspension of disbelief seem like they should go hand in hand, but actually operate on independent axes. We don’t believe in stories because technical footnotes justify every leap of faith. We believe in stories because the characters believe in them, and we believe in the characters.

Russian Doll‘s cast doesn’t understand why reality is shattering around them, but they act, react, fight, love, laugh, aid, and betray in ways that are true to themselves—a fundamental human truth that lends credence to the fantastical narrative dreamscape they traverse. In fact, we identify with their existential confusion precisely because the real world far exceeds our ability to understand it.

Complement with what is a story?what it feels like to write a novel, and how the creative process reflects our evolving selves.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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