I can’t believe you


Here’s a phrase that gives me hives, gets my panties in a wad:

I can’t suspend my disbelief.

Usually when I hear someone use this — or one of its many iterations — they’re referring to traditional mysteries featuring amateur sleuths. So, of course, I’m irritated. To me, people often lob those five words to intentionally render one of my chosen genres worthless. Why wouldn’t I be irked?

But I’m not interested in self-analysis today, in my own petty responses and visions of revenge. No.
I want to go deeper.

You see, I think all fiction requires — at its very foundation — a suspension of disbelief.

That’s precisely why I read it.

I happen to enjoy escape. Tony Hillerman referred to his works as entertainments. That’s one heck of a noble goal. Let me tell you, if a book can pull me away from thinking about the economy or brutal crime or global warming, well, I’m grateful.

We’ve all seen the rise of the thriller, of one man or woman taking on evildoers in a world filled with creepy conspiracies. These individuals routinely end up saving the planet. Do I believe that stuff? Nah. But it’s fun to read.

Are you going to tell me you’re certain there’s a wizarding school in England? That vampires exist? That werewolves make good detectives? That Dexter would be able to get away with his doings week after week and no one would notice?

Come on.

I can’t suspend my disbelief.

Sure you can. Everyone does it every single day. I was talking with my husband about this and he said, "Every person who has ever been married does it." Ha, ha. But he has a point: we willingly and constantly embrace personal and cultural myths.

And, guess what? They’re just that. Myths, fantasies, lies . . .

To me what matters is the internal coherence of a piece. I don’t really believe that Discworld exists, but it’s tremendously logical within its context. Sookie Stackhouse isn’t real, but I love her nonetheless. John Dortmunder and his crew wouldn’t be able to pull off those heists, but that doesn’t diminish my pleasure in reading about them.

If romance isn’t your cup of tea, admit it. If you can’t — or won’t — wrap your head around the idea that your sweet little next door neighbor is Super Sleuth. Fine. Don’t.

What gets my goose is that this phrase is often used as a universal condemnation. It’s as if by saying or writing it, the person is distancing his personal responsibility in the equation.

It’s Traditional Mystery’s fault that the speaker can’t suspend disbelief.
It’s Fantasy’s fault and Science Fiction’s fault.
It’s Fiction’s fault that the reader is incapable of enjoying the read.

That’s baloney.

Fess up to it. Be honest, please. It’s not the suspension of disbelief that’s getting you; it’s that you don’t like the basic concept. For whatever reason, you’re choosing to write off swaths of literature as being invalid because of your own biases.

That’s okay. We all have biases.

Just stop with the BS.

I think what gets me even more about
I can’t suspend my disbelief is that it’s as empty a phrase as a rejection from an editor that claims something isn’t compelling.

It’s just plain weasle-ly. And even though there’s nothing there, the words are like invisible viruses and carry power anyway.

I don’t know about you, but I resent the infection . . .

Okay, I’ll step off of my soapbox now.
      1. Is there a common, but utterly empty phrase that drives you berserk?
              2. Do you use
I can’t suspend my disbelief and feel that it really does say something? (Convince me.)

46 thoughts on “I can’t believe you

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The phrase that drives me the most crazy is “quite frankly”. Every time I hear it i think of Newt Gingrich, who uses it about every other sentence and is about the least frank person on the planet.

    I don’t know why anyone would want to adopt that meaningless piece of chaff-speak, but people use it all the time.

  2. Miri

    “I can’t suspend my disbelief” as relating to entire genre areas? No one’s making you read that genre. I admit, this one makes no sense to me.

    However, “I can’t suspend my disbelief” as relating to a single work of fiction, especially in a critical setting, can be a pretty good reminder. All fiction might be suspending disbelief, but there is a point at which you’ve stretched even the most diligent escapist reader too far. Maybe your character gets every major plot point by overhearing others’ conversations. It’s fiction, so it could happen, but too many coincidences do start to wear thin.

    I think that makes a better specific comment than a general one, in any case.

  3. Ali

    Very interesting post Pari, and I agree and would add that the refrain “To be honest…” that people use in starting a statement really grinds with me, because what they are really saying is that most of what comes out of their mouths are ‘lies’ – hmmmmm.


  4. J.D. Rhoades

    There’s this distinction: In Discworld, Harry Potter, even the Sookie Stackhouse books, there are so many basic premises that are changed from our world to the fictional one that it’s easier to accept one more improbable thing, because you know going in that it’s a fantasy world. The world still has to have an internal consistency, of course, but it’s easier to accept something odd (like a telepathic waitress) in a world that’s already rotated a few degrees off our reality.

    With the “repeat” amateur sleuth, everything else is the same as the ‘real world’, it’s just that this one chef or cat groomer or whatever keeps getting into situations where people die and they have to solve the crime. That makes it tougher to make it plausible. Not impossible, but tougher.

    Amateur sleuth writers doing series set themselves a challenge that few are up to. But when it works (like Our Pari’s books) it’s a joy to read.

    Comedy writers (like Pratchett, Westlake in the Dortmunder books, and Our Toni) have it a little easier in this respect because people accept that in comedy, it’s already a different world. Real life isn’t that consistently hilarious. It’s good that this bit’s a little easier, because they have the much more enormous challenge to face: making it funny.

    There are a lot of phrases I can’t stand, but two stand out, one from politics, and one from the tabloids. From politics, I really never want to hear the words “blame game” again. Here’a a hint: the guy or gal saying “let’s not play the blame game” is most likely the one to blame.

    And from the tabloids, the phrase ‘baby bump’ sets my teeth on edge. Every time a female celebrity goes out in a bikini or short shirt and shows a little roundness in the tummy, it’s “Baby bump?” Or worse, if she even appears in loose-fitting clothing, it’s “Is she hiding a baby bump?” Auuugh.

  5. Gerald So

    Ali’s comment brings to mind my #1 semantic peeve: “Not to be ______, but…” (also “I don’t mean to be _____, but…”)

    This is nothing but a Get Out of Jail Free card for whatever the speaker wants to say. It should have as much value in real conversation as Chance cards have outside Monopoly.

  6. Ali

    Good point Gerald – whenever I hear the “But” transform a positive statement into something less so – IMHO is a cop-out, a bit like “With the greatest of respect, I would state…..” another cop-out as what the speaker is saying is straight from George Orwell’s ‘Double Speak’. Come to think of that, ‘double-speak’ is really insidious these days as predicted by Orwell. In the US we have The Department of Defence, while in the UK we have The Ministry of Defence, both of who actually are the Army and attack? And don’t get me started on the Department of Homeland Security…..

    Orwell was right, we live in dangerous days


  7. woodstock

    Interesting post, Pari! And of course, you’re right. I think Dusty’s comments about the distinctions with comedy and fantasy are quite accurate. The only currently available entertainment where I “can’t suspend my disbelief” is the CSI group of shows. And it seems to me that these dramas are presented as being accurate, and I know they’re not. And I can’t enjoy them, because I keep sitting there talking back to the TV, saying, “come on, you know that couldn’t happen.”

    But doesn’t this observation also have a flipside? I very frequently encounter people who enjoy mysteries, or romance, or science fiction, or – pick a genre – and then discuss their reading choices in very apologetic tones. “I know I shouldn’t, but I really enjoy a good murder mystery.” was one comment made to me once. Why apologize? If you pick up an escapist, romantic, spy thriller with an amateur sleuth whose six cats help him/her figure things out and save the free world, and you liked the book, enjoyed reading it, and would look for that author again – what on earth is wrong with that? Perhaps that type of book is not to MY taste, but why should my taste rule the world?

    I gobbled up every Harry Potter installment. I eagerly pick up the latest Stephanie Plum. I follow Jack Reacher here and there across the US. I know that most US National Park rangers never have even ten minutes of the turmoil that seems to follow Anna Pigeon. And so on.

    People who “can’t suspend disbelief” should instead say: “this or that sort of entertainment is not to my taste, I enjoy this or that instead.” And people who do enjoy genres of what ever stripe should just relax and enjoy them. And skip the apologies.

  8. neil nyren

    Speaking as an editor, I’ve often used “I can’t suspend my disbelief,” and what does it mean? Simply that the writer hasn’t done his or her job. Any number of extraordinary situations or characters can be made credible if the writer creates an internal logic so compelling that the reader is happy to go along with it. It’s not the “real world” that’s important, but the reality of the fictional world that’s been created. But if I find myself reading something and thinking, “Oh, come on!”, then the writer probably hasn’t thought it through well enough. And if it’s a manuscript submission, then that’s where I’ll probably stop.

  9. Allison Brennan

    I’ve used the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” with my kids so many times, they all (including my 7 year old) know exactly what it means. I’m sad for the people who are incapable of doing so, it means they have little imagination. I think of all the inventions over hundreds of years that came from imagination–an individual’s ability to suspend their current reality to think of something that no one knows is possible, then figuring out a way to do it.

    It’s the job of the author to enable a reader to suspend disbelief. If we fail in that most basic requirement of fiction, then that’s our fault. But if someone is immediately closed to even TRYING to suspend disbelief, that’s their fault.

    This is why I can forgive some things in fiction (usually the movies) because the story is so dang good.

    For me, I recently heard “I don’t have time to read” from a mother in front of her kids. Great lesson, mom.

    Someone on an online group had the following quote under their signature: “The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.” — Tom Clancy. I love that 🙂

  10. Allison Brennan

    Woodstock, I love your comment! You are so right. I hear from romance readers all the time (honestly–I’ve heard it more than 100 times), “I love reading trashy novels.” Drives me insane.

  11. pari

    Gahhhhhh! I’m realizing how I must drive you all insane with the phrases I use in my posts: “Quite frankly” is one of them.

    Forgive me, Alex. I meant no harm . . .

  12. pari

    Miri,I buy that. I think in addition to having an internal logic, stories must also play fair with the reader.

    The example you cite is a good one. It gets into whether something makes sense — or whether the writer is taking the lazy way out.

    Thanks for the comment; it’s making me think.

  13. pari

    Well, to be honest, Ali . . .

    You’re right. I suspect that we say that one (and I do use it sometimes, argh) because we’re not quite ready to commit. And you’re right, that preface to any phrase brings up more questions than answers.

    It’s kind of like the word “Like” which can negate any sentence.

  14. pari

    J.D.,You bring up many good points. But I still am not convinced about the whole amateur sleuth thing. Why do we have to suspend disbelief that a scrapbooker or doll collector would run across a murder in every book? I guess I wonder why we hold these books to a different standard.

    Is it because the worlds aren’t quite different enough? I think that’s what you’re saying.

    But why is that important? What does it matter when we know when we start with an amateur sleuth series that this is the reality for that character’s world?

    Just asking . . .

    As to the phrases, I’m with you on both of them. But I’d say that the whole “blame game” schtick is said most often by people who only yesterday played it very vigorously themselves.

    “Baby bump?” Oh, pleez.

  15. pari

    Gerald,Hah! I laughed at that one. You’re absolutely right.

    At this point, I’m keeping a running list and am so red in the face. There are several of these phrases that I’ve used or do now.

    Not to be silly about this, but it’s a wonderfully humbling experience.

  16. pari

    Ali,Orwell was right.

    I think I might tackle a post about double-speak at some point. In our culture today, we have such a rich source of ideas for that one.

    I wonder how much double speak we encounter in the lit. world?

  17. pari

    Woodstock,You’ve hit on a big one with the whole apology issue.

    We authors do it too. I think that’s the reason I so appreciated Tony’s comment about writing “entertainments.”

    That’s what I do. My themes are usually deep but (Yes, Ali, I wrote “but”) but at their core, my books are meant to entertain first.

  18. woodstock

    Allison – your comment about the mother with “no time to read” reminded me of a common annoyance of mine. I’ll be on a plane, in a waiting room, on the bus; or where ever; with a book, of course! and the person next to me will say: “Oh, I just love to read, but I can’t find the time. I envy you that you are able to sit here and read, I think it’s just fantastic, blah, blah, blah.” When i’m thinking – “Look, this is a perfect opportunity to find time to read, and I DID find the time, and if you would just be quiet and LET me read, it would be great!”

  19. billie

    I don’t have all that much disbelief to suspend, so … I don’t have issues with books and stories that ask for that.

    Sometimes it feels like we expect too much from books and movies. I’ve never been one to get into heavy critique mode – either it resonates, or it doesn’t, and what strikes me as quite fine might not be in the least so to anyone else, and vice versa.

    I dislike the use of “lingo.” I am trying to come up with some examples but not being very successful in the moment.

  20. pari

    Neil,Thank you for your explanation. I think we agree on this.

    I come back to the whole idea of playing fair with the reader. The internal logic has to work as well as the structure of the story.

    As a reader, I’ve often hit those “Oh, come on” moments and usually stop reading.

    The only exception to this is when the writing is so fabulous that I fall in love with how the words are put together. If that happens, I’m no longer reading for story. My pleasure comes in the sentence structure and the glory of poetic prose.

    That’s a rare experience indeed.

  21. pari

    Allison,Yeah. If we can’t pull a reader into our works and have them believe within the context of our works, then we’re not doing our job.

    As to that mother? What a disservice she’s doing her child.

    The Clancy quote is interesting. Life often makes no sense. Yet we demand it in our fiction. I wonder why?

  22. pari

    Woodstock and Allison,We’re treading into pet peeve territory now because I’m going to give a PO’ed shout out to televisions in public places!

    Airports, restaurants, waiting rooms — they’re all noisy now with electronic media.

    I just want to read in those places, too.

  23. pari

    Billie,I think you’ve brought up another good point: some of us are willing to go further with the author from the outset than others. As you say, we don’t have much belief to suspend.

    But if you’re someone who wants facts, facts, facts, please, don’t hide behind the phrase that drives me mad.

    And “lingo?” I know Sasha uses that one every once in a while. I don’t ;-).

  24. JT Ellison

    Another rant! Whee!

    I have my issues with amateur sleuths, but it’s always because the character has done something so wholly dumb that I want to slap them. The same thing goes for cops who dive in without backup, or forensic novels that adapt the most gruesome methods when simple, straightforward applications are readily available. You have to sell me the story, put me in an environment that I can believe.

    Harlan Coben often has an amateur sleuth, and it always works because I believe the character’s actions. I’ve read cozies where I believe the character’s actions, and thrillers where I can’t wrap my head around the point.

    It’s all relative.

    And I’ll bet THAT is someone’s annoying catchphrase.

  25. Tammy Cravit

    First of all, back to the suspension of disbelief: I think that what’s important to me isn’t that the overall totality of the story be 100% factual. Realistically, as many have pointed out, that’s not going to happen. And stories exist in all kinds of worlds, real, semi-real and otherwise. No, what kills it for me is when a story becomes implausible _in the context of the world the author’s created_.

    An example: my spouse and daughter and I were watching the movie Nim’s Island on Saturday. The overall story was very enjoyable and pulled me right in. Right up until the storm that nearly sank Nim’s father’s boat. You see, my spouse and I both sailed when we were young, and we both know enough about boats to know that a wood-hulled sloop-rigged sailboat simply would not behave that way, given what happened to it. In the absence of anything in the storyline to justify those inconsistencies, it was hard not to get knocked out of Nim’s world by them.

    As for phrases that I personally despise, I hate “no offense, but ___”, since anyone who says it is simply pre-emptively excusing something they know will be offensive. And people who say “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but ___” usually *do* mean to hurt your feelings.

  26. Louise Ure

    Pari, I think you’re falling on toothpicks rather than swords here. I’ve never considered the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” to have anything to do with subgenres. Like Miri and Neil, my take on it is that the writer didn’t fully capture that world or character or situation. They just didn’t do their job. And that’s just as fair a criticism as “not compelling.”

  27. pari

    J.T.,Yes, it felt like a rant, but it’s been bugging me for awhile and I figured people here could give me a broader perspective.

    So far the conversation has been interesting and illuminating.

  28. pari

    Tammy,I agree with you on all of your points.

    As to “no offense, but . . . ” Oh, baby, that’s a killer, isn’t it? I’ve tried very hard not to use that one anymore precisely for the reasons you state.

  29. Fran

    I can suspend my disbelief with the best of ’em. I don’t suffer from “Jessica Fletcher syndrome”. I’ll stay with her to the bitter end, even though I joke about not wanting to be in the same city as she is (and she “came” to SMB in one novel, and we all survived! Yay!), so I have no problems here.

    My disbelief stays suspended right up until the third or fourth convenient coincidence happens, or some knowledge comes to the hero/ine that seems implausible. When I get dumped out of a book or movie by something that obviously forced, then all my logical, analytical, cynical senses come slamming down. I can wrench my brain doing that.

    Otherwise, I’m in it for the long haul. Talking rabbits moving their homes? I’m there. Caterers who keep tripping over bodies? Bring ’em on. If the story’s good, I’ll buy it every time.

  30. pari

    You see, Fran, I’m with you on this one.

    If I’m knocked out of a story, that’s it. Finito.

    The other day I was reading a manuscript written by a man with two female protags. The POVs were so improbable — how many women do you know that look into the mirror at themselves and admire their “plump, rounded breasts”–that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t stay in the story.

    It was that same reaction, the “Oh, come on,” that has been talked about today, that hit me hard.

  31. J.D. Rhoades

    “Is it because the worlds aren’t quite different enough? I think that’s what you’re saying. “

    Pretty much. It’s something like the phenomenon a Japanese scientist named Masahiro Mori described in the 70’s that’s known as “the uncanny valley.” It’s that disturbing feeling you get when looking at an animation that’s almost, but just a hairsbreadth shy of, completely human looking. Think Polar Express and Beowulf and you’ll get the idea.

    A Slate article on the subject puts it like this:

    “When an android, such as R2-D2 or C-3PO, barely looks human, we cut it a lot of slack. It seems cute. We don’t care that it’s only 50 percent humanlike. But when a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike—so close that it’s almost real—we focus on the missing 1 percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward.”

    But, paradoxically, if the robot becomes completely lifelike, empathy zooms back up. Thus the “valley.”

    So, if there’s just 1 percent out of kilter, the work rings false–unless you can get past that 1 percent and make it seem completely real. Like I say, not impossible but a challenge.

    Oh, and y’all have reminded me of another phrase that flies all over me: “I know it’s not politically correct to say this, but….” This is the surest sign that someone is trying to make being a bigoted asshole seem edgy and daring.

  32. pari

    Brouhahaha, J.D.

    I think my husband had the same reaction to that line about the women and mirrors.

    You’re right about the “I know it’s not politically correct to say this, but . . .”

    I hear that and I run the other direction.

    Another one:”I don’t play games.” Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!

  33. Fiona

    Pari, I’m with you on the “electronic” noise. I always have a book with me. There are so many times that I have to wait somewhere.

    I have instilled this in my kids, too. Family trips require a trip to the library (or bookstore, if they’ve been VERY good) to stock up. If we have dr, dentist or orthodontist appointments, the kids know to bring a book.

    I still can’t understand the DVD players in the the vans/suvs. Why aren’t those kids READING? on listening to a book on CD?

  34. pari

    . . . or looking out the window at the world?

    Fiona,Even my child with a vision impairment looks out the window when we’re driving somewhere new.

    Okay, here’s another one:

    Kids who text message each other when they’re right next to each other. I GET that they might want to have secrets, but worry that people are forgetting how to communicate in person, that they’re missing the subtle cues that make communication effective.

  35. Jake Nantz

    I have a lot less trouble suspending disbelief if the writing is REALLY good, or the story is something right up my alley. For example: I can suspend disbelief much easier in a mystery (even a cozy, which I think was your issue with those who couldn’t, Pari) than I can a fantasy. Because Fantasy isn’t my thing. My wife was stunned that I couldn’t schlog through Eragon, and still swears I’d love it if I’d just keep trying. I still swear she’s batshit nuts if she thinks I’ll ever try.

    And a phrase I hate…oh yeah…”Anyone can teach.”999,999 times out of 1,000,000 the person saying this means, “Anyone can stand there and lecture, and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference if there were students in the room or aardvarks.” Because saying what you want to get across, and involving the students enough that it GETS across are two ENTIRELY different things.My personal runner-up is, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Yeah. I quit a higher-paying job to do this because I love it, and I’m damn good at it. To the person who says this one I say, “Come do my job SUCCESSFULLY for a week, sport.”

    Yeah, not on their best day.

  36. Allison Brennan

    Jake, I’m one of those who doesn’t believe everyone can teach. I can’t. My husband, if he wanted to, could. I’m the person who can’t explain how to do things, but I can give you the answer. (I was also the kid who didn’t know how to “show my work”–I thought that was stupid. If I got the right answer, why did I have to show how I got there? Why? Because how I got there was not how I was supposed to, but I couldn’t do it any other way. Or I was too stubborn to . . . )

    My husband can explain complex scientific facts to our kids, no matter what their age. Our year old son? He knows exactly what to say to him; ditto for our teenager. He adapts well to the age and knowledge of the person he’s explaining to. He even explained to me how a car engine works when I was writing THE HUNT–so I could disable it. But then I forgot after I was done with the book . . . .

    On the flip side of the “Anyone can teach” . . . “Anyone can write a book.” Or, I think my number one biggest pet peeve statement . . .

    “I could write a book too if I had the time.”

    I can’t believe I didn’t remember that earlier.

  37. pari

    Jake,I love fantasy, but didn’t like Eragon. What would your wife say to that?

    As to teachers . . .Boy, there’s a profession I respect tremendously. I’ve done it myself though I haven’t had formal training (my degrees are in Chinese and Social Work).

    I keep going back to that poem by Taylor Mali: What Teachers Make. It says it all.

    Thank you, Jake, for teaching and caring about it enough to do it well.

  38. pari

    Allison,I was teaching about editing at the Tony Hillerman conference recently and brought up what you’re talking about. I said, “Writing is difficult and don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.” Then I brought up the example of a doctor who told me she thought she’d do something easy for a change . . . like write a book.

    I responded to her, “Hey, that’s a great idea! I think I’ll chill out for a while and do some surgery.”

  39. Jody

    Little late saying anything, but around our house, when I’m having trouble with a plot of something I’m watching on TV, or reading, my husband says, “But it’s not real like Buffy.” Shows how much we suspended our disbelief for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


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