Film Making: Willing Suspension of Disbelief

When writing a script, what liberties a writer can take depends on the genre in which he or she is writing.When writing a script, what liberties a writer can take depends on the genre in which he or she is writing.

Genre refers to the larger category in which a film falls like: romance, romantic comedy (Rom Com), Science fiction, fantasy, adventure, crime and so on.

One important element in writing a scene is how far can you stretch the actions and responses of the characters without losing credibility? How much can you make the audience buy of what is going on in a scene?

Many times while watching a film, there are moments when some things seem ludicrous. As an audience you may have turned off a movie because the plot was simply absurd. It was hard to believe the situations, the characters, what they said, how they responded and the flimsy lines along which the story went to keep some narrative going.

These are mediocre or bad films with no stories and bad writing.

However, even with a good story and good writing, a writer has to deal with situations, where a scene is important to move a story forward but to make it completely convincing, it would take up too much screen time or it cannot be justified in day to day life. Therefore, the writer and the director have to rely on what is called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on behalf of the audience to make some situations believable.

In most action thrillers, there is always a chase scene where the hero is faced with huge odds to get onto a moving car, chase a helicopter or a small plane about to take off. No matter how heroic he may be, short of being Superman, there is almost no possibility of his achieving any of these feats. If you watch closely, often the edit points are such, that they close the gap between the time when the action seems impossible and when it becomes possible for the hero and he hangs onto the plane that is taking off, jumps off the car just before it goes off the cliff and so on.

This is where when we talk of the ‘genre’ we talk about a category of films where the writers and directors can take such liberties: action flicks, fantasy and adventure, science fiction etc. The same would not be acceptable in a bio pic or an adaptation of Shakespeare.

Why is that? Because when writing for a genre, there are certain assumptions about what the audience will buy and what it will not because the audience too, watches these films with certain assumptions of what it will buy and what it will not.

This is different from writing absurd dialogues and absurd scenes believing that the audience will buy anything.

In the film The Mummy (1999), One of the many sub plots in the film is the introduction of Warden Gad Hassan who is about to hang Richard O’ Connell. The reason he spares his life is that within a few seconds, Evelyn convinces him that O’ Connell knows the way to Hamunaptra, the ancient Egyptian city (believed to be a myth) and that she will share 25% of the treasure they find with him.

In this, the audience has to believe the following:

1. Gad Hassan knows about Hamunaptra
2. He knows and believes there is treasure there
3. He believes Evelyn is telling the truth
4. Her word is an enforceable contract
5. They will actually find the treasure which till then, no one else has found
This is a large amount of information that the audience must believe for the story to move forward credibly.

In this case, given the context of the film, which is a fantasy akin to an Arabian nights story with ancient Egypt, desert, camels, treasures, it is not difficult to get the audience to buy this because the rest of the film also centres around highly improbable events. The audience already knows that they are in a make believe world. So while the sequence of events is logical within the world of the film,the writer and the director in this case, have relied on the audiences willing suspension of disbelief to move the story forward. The audience will suspend its unwillingness to believe some things because in the context of the story, those assumptions are acceptable.

A Bollywood example of this is the film TeesriManzil starring ShammiKapoor and Asha Parekh. While it is largely a crime thriller, like most Bollywood films, it has elements of a romantic comedy. The female lead Asha Parekh’s meeting with ShammiKapoorhappens on a train where she believes she is beingharassed by a fat guy whoshe hits with an umbrella and is then convinced by her co passenger, the hero, that she has actually killed him. For the moment she believes him and accepts his help in saving her from the police.

This is ridiculous given ordinary human behaviour that anyone who believes they have killed someone, would walk out of a train, onto a platform, hiding behind a complete stranger professing to save them from the law.

However, within the context of the film, where we know the hero is trying to get the leading lady to fall for him and we also know that the person has actually not been killed, the focus is not on how she responds to killing the guy but on how the action proceeds between the two till the discovery that she has been fooled. The focus is the comical aspect of the situation and the audience will willingly suspend its disbelief of how she reacted to the possibility that she may actually have killed someone.

The ‘context of the film’ involves not just the genre but how well told and well knit the larger story is. It does not mean writing a story in the name of fantasy or drama with illogical storylines where the film jumps from one scene to another without reason or rhyme, where characters are introduced at random and appear and disappear at whim or make sporadic appearances.

To summarise:

Willing suspension of disbelief is what an audience is willing to do, within the context of a film, when they are given an otherwise persuasive narrative within a certain genre. It is believable because the audience has by and large, bought the larger story and believes that the characters in the given situation can be persuaded to behave in a certain way.

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