Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 1

I’ve posted a few serious pieces in recent months—marketing, editing, etc.—so thought it was time for a bit of light relief; something more frivolous, a little tongue in cheek. What follows are my random musings on the believability, or not, of the stories I enjoy reading, watching and writing.

Most of the stories I write are utter bunkum. Complete tosh. They are, at best, highly unfeasible. If readers took me to task and claimed that some of the scenarios in my tales are totally impossible, quoting scientific evidence to support their position, I’m not going to argue with them. Why would I? They’re right.

But then, we don’t expect horror or fantasy tales to be necessarily possible, though there are still unspoken rules to do with internal consistency and logic. On the other hand, many readers of science fiction expect stories labelled as such to at least be possible if feasible technological advances were made, or if certain conditions pertained that don’t exist here but that might exist in a solar system or galaxy outside our own.

The human brain is marvellously complex. It operates on many levels. (That’s got me thinking about Shrek, insisting to a sceptical Donkey that ogres have layers, like onions.) When we settle down to read a horror novel, or to watch The Walking Dead or a Harry Potter film, we do so in full knowledge that what we are about to read or watch is, from a rational viewpoint, a load of nonsense. Utter bunkum. Yet we lap it up and go back for more.

Yes, it’s known as suspending our disbelief. Although on some level we are fully aware that the storyline or plot device is far-fetched, that it ought to make us pull a face like the cat in the photo above, we’re willing and able to believe in it for the purposes of being entertained. Or, at least, we’re willing to not so vehemently disbelieve it that it would prevent us from continuing to watch or read.

I think there’s a line, the placement of which will vary from person to person, beyond which our willingness to suspend disbelief becomes stretched to breaking point. At that moment, what we are being asked as readers or viewers to swallow becomes too much, it becomes too ridiculous, and we’re no longer willing to play along. The best fiction writers and screenwriters, the best TV and film directors, are those with the ability to embroil their audience in the work so completely that the line is pushed farther and farther away. Perhaps so far away some of us may never reach it.

And there’s this: no matter how incredible something may be, it can be exciting to allow yourself to imagine it’s possible. We all realise that dolls can’t be possessed by evil spirits, that immortal humanoids living off blood don’t exist, that aliens don’t live among us waiting for a signal to trigger our extinction. We know that people who have died don’t get up and walk around—the thrill lies in supposing, but what if they did?

Not sure what you’d call that level which allows us to be enthralled by fantastical stories. Fanciful? Imaginative? Whatever you want to call it, it’s the part of me I most cherish. It’s the part that takes over when I pick up a Stephen King novel or turn on the TV for Game of Thrones. It’s also firmly in control when I sit at the computer to write.

When I allow my imagination free rein, I picture my rational side shuffling off to a corner to sit with arms folded, pretending to sulk. But really he’s watching what I’m up to, ready to leap to his feet like a lawyer in an American courtroom drama and yell, “Objection! That’s too ludicrous even for you!” When that happens, I usually take notice. Usually.

That’s one of the good things about being a writer. Particularly a writer of the sort of speculative fiction usually pigeon-holed as horror or fantasy or science fiction. It’s make-believe taken to the extreme. If I want to have my characters able to travel beyond the speed of light, or journey through time and space in an elevator, or encounter ghosts or zombies or a vampire masquerading as Father Christmas, I can. It’s fiction. It’s made up. It’s utter bunkum.

The aim for us writers is to spin the yarn in such a way that the reader is willing to come along for the ride and is able to overlook the bunkumness (is that even a word?) of the story. It’s what makes successful authors successful. Especially in the speculative fields I mentioned earlier: horror, fantasy, etc. I mean, when you strip them back to the bare bones, many celebrated novels of those genres are, at their core, utter bunkum. Yet, they’re massively popular, and rightly so because they’re so well written and entertaining.

In Part 2, I’ll take a look, for a bit of fun, at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum.

Till then…

6 Replies to “Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 1”

  1. This term, ‘utter bunkum’ is new to me, but I like it! Good piece, Sam Kates. I love the mental image of Rational Side sulking in the corner while slyly watching for egregious bunkum. I eagerly await part 2.

    1. Thanks, Nina. Your comment had me wondering so I Googled it. Apparently, the word ‘bunkum’ has its origins in the United States Congress in the early nineteenth century. It’s an altered-spelling reference to a county in North Carolina. Who knew?

        1. In the UK, we’ve traditionally used words like ‘poppycock’, ‘piffle’ and ‘balderdash’ – that is, when we’re trying not to swear. If we’re less concerned about being uncouth, we might use ‘bollocks’ or ‘shite’, as in ‘what a load of…’ Decorum forbids me from repeating what we might say when throwing all caution to the wind.

    2. Sam, I don’t think bunkum is the right word. It means insincere or foolish talk, nonsense. That’s not true of fanciful stories. That’s too strong a term.

      1. Mike, that’s kind of the tongue-in-cheek point of the article. When we strip down a piece of speculative fiction to its bare bones and examine it with our wholly rational side, many stories are, from that limited viewpoint, complete nonsense. For instance, my rational side refuses to entertain the possibility of blood-sucking immortals – it considers such a concept too outlandish to give house room – yet I love tales of vampires (at least, of the non-sparkly kind). It’s why I say I cherish the irrational side of my nature that allows me to suspend my disbelief.

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