Critique Group

Do You Believe in Magic?

In Film, Genres, L.L. McKinney, Leatrice McKinney on March 6, 2013 at 10:24 am

I do. There’s magic all around us: books, movies, television shows, music, stories told around a camp fire. To me, magic is anything that takes you from the now, suspends reality if just for a moment, to a place words can’t describe, because it’s all about emotion. Do you have a favorite song that, whenever you hear it, you’re transported to time and place in your past thanks to a ‘feeling’ the song brings about? For me it’s Adele, and anything off of her CD 21. I used to work at Borders, and for the last few months the store was open, that CD played over the speakers. Now, anytime I hear that song, I feel like I’m back in that store, surrounded by the books and the people who love them, and it’s wonderful. It’s magic.

With books, movies, stories, etc, the magic is a little different. It can make you believe in dragons and knights who slay them, damsels and heros who rescue them, heroes and heroins with superhuman abilities that save the world. The key to this magic is the suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief “is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative”. Essentially, if you write about something that isn’t real, you need to inject a bit of truth so the fakeness doesn’t slap the reader in the face.

The ‘truth’ I speak of is a relative term. For instance, vampires are not real, so nothing about vampires can be true. However, this is accepted, so we move on to the truth that vampires drink blood, and burn in the sunlight. So, if you write about latte drinking vamps that like to take long walks on the beach at high noon then…well, you get the picture. Sometimes it’s okay to bend the truths/rules, say your vampires can go out during the day but cannot be caught in direct sunlight. Bending, not breaking, and suddenly, vampires are ‘real’. Magic, right?

Another way to suspend disbelief is to give your characters weaknesses. Vampires are supernatural, super fast, super strong, super sexy. Sunlight is their weakness, among other things, though it is a common one shared by most vampire lore. Superman and his powers are believable partially due to the fact that he is incredibly susceptible to kryptonite. It kills him. Steel melts and can be cut, right? Weakness make our inhuman characters more human. It sucks that flaws are what make people people, but hey, lemons to lemonade. There’s a term for a character who’s gorgeous, and perfect, with every power and every ability that can save the day all the time without it being difficult. Those types of characters are called Mary-Sues or Gary-Stews and no one likes them.

Being able to believe in the unbelievable is incredible, and as the saying goes “the devil is in the details”. Often times, it is the small things that throw a wrench into the believability of a story. And, often times, those small things are the truths I spoke on. Example, some friends and I were watching the movie Ice Age, the one with the mammoth, sloth and tiger taking the human baby cross-country to its ‘herd’. This movie is so funny to me, I love it. There is one scene where the animals have to cross a lake of lava, over a thin, ice bridge. One of my friends says “dude, that ice would be so gone!” and it would. But, the thing to notice is how the non-melting ice is the problem, not the talking animals or the fact that a carnivore is hanging with herbivores without chewing on them, or the fact that these animals are managing to care for a human infant over a period of days! Nope, all of that is accepted. Why? Magic.

Something else that can effect the believability of a story is setting. Take a dragon, a wizard and a knight with a magic weapon and place them in Middle Earth. Nothing strange there, right? Now, place those three things smack in the middle of suburbia. Now you have to explain how and why those things exist because they’re not supposed to be there. Jedi Knights on planet Omicron Persei 8? Believable. Luke Skywalker in downtown Kansas city? You’re gonna have to sell that, and sell it hard.

However you decide to cast your spells over your readers, remember this, the bigger the trick, the more complicated the illusion, and the harder it is to pull off. If you’re going to write about the unbelievable, you better cross your Ts, dot your Is, and make sure your ice bridges melt over lava.

I hope I’ve made sense in all of this. I tend to ramble about things I enjoy…

What movies, books, TV shows have done an excellent job in making you believe the unbelievable? Which ones sucked at it?


  1. […] again, I am posting over on the Novel Clique blog, about the Suspension of Disbelief and all that […]

  2. I think 24 did it. Everything from jack Bauer never peeing to the fact that he’d have never gotten by with half the stuff in the real world. We bought into it as fans.

  3. […] into movies is the ability to suspend disbelief. See my critique partner’s post on this topic here. People go into movies willing to leave reality behind and temporarily accept whatever is […]

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