Why The Suspension of Disbelief in Fiction Works Like Magic

It is a quiet night, and I am on a magical adventure. You (and my mom) may not think so, as I just look like a little kid “hiding” under the covers, with the glow of a flashlight exposing my secret. I am in my room, but in my mind I am in a castle. I flip through pages at an impressive speed, because I need to know if the Beast will turn back into a handsome prince! As I devour the chapters, I read the line “beauty is found within”. I am eight, so I don’t spend too much time interpreting the meaning of this, but it’s too late! The message has already been received. I have been taught a world truth hidden amongst magical roses and talking cutlery. 

 If you are anything like me, and have spent your child and adult years yearning for secret glances into the magical world, you are a pro at the suspension of disbelief. You also are probably a pro at reading fiction and fantasy literature. The suspension of disbelief follows the idea that our minds respond to an illogical or unbelievable situation with a purposeful dissolution of our normal truths. This intentional avoidance of day-to-day critical thinking lays the foundation for a full engagement with fiction and fantasy stories. Fantasy fiction that requires the suspension of disbelief should not be deemed “childish” or “unacademic”- of course, these stories are entertaining to us readers, but they also have the ability to teach us more about the “real world” than we may know. 

There have been some fascinating studies done in search of why we can benefit from allowing ourselves into the world of make believe. One conducted by John W. Rosenbaum found that fiction, more specifically fiction that involved illogical or unrealistic aspects, is more emotionally and morally stimulating than nonfiction is. This could be the case due the idea that, “the moral truths in question are those assertions made by an author in a fiction that the reader initially believes are false” (Rosenbaum). Moral or social rules against things like stealing, for example, can be blurred and contradicted (such as in the fairytale of Robinhood) in a way that expands the reader’s mind in new ways. Accepting the magic in stories helps us accept their embedded lessons and truths. 

When storytelling and fairy tales are mentioned, titles such as: The Ugly Duckling, The Frog Prince, Beauty and The Beast, and David and Goliath come to mind. Author John Plath explained the beauty of fantasy fiction, “they embody archetypes–original models that help to explain and illustrate human behavior–and are therefore ripe with human interest” (Plath). All of these stories have a purpose, a moral lesson to impart, and the suspension of disbelief allows for the reader to rekindle a child-like sense of hope for the world around them (which I think is pretty magical). 

It is a quiet night, and I am on a magical adventure. You may not think so, as I just look like a young adult under the covers, with the faint glow of my lamp lighting my page. I am in my room, but in my mind I am in a castle. I flip through pages at an impressive speed (though I already know that the Beast will turn back into a handsome prince). As I devour the chapters, I read the line “beauty is found within”. I am twenty, so I spend too much time interpreting the meaning of this, but it’s never too late! I will always suspend my disbelief in order to believe in both the meaning and the magic within my favorite stories.

Sources:

Rosenbaum John W. “Poetic License: Learning Morality from Fiction in Light of Imaginative Resistance.” Teorema: Revista Internacional de Filosofía, vol. 35, no. 3. July 2022.

Plath, J. “What You Can Learn From Parables, Fables & Fairy Tales.” Writer’s Digest, 1998, p. 28. July 2022. 

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