Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Do you believe it?

One last post about the idea of “truth in fiction” and then I’ll move on.

When I was writing last week’s post, I remembered something I’d read in The Playwright’s Guidebook by Stuart Spence about the idea of “believing” a story.

Spence says the phrase “I don’t believe it” is the enemy of art. He says that when you set out to have an artistic experience, you need to decide that, no matter what, you’re going to believe it: “We suspend our disbelief, and we do it willingly – because if we don’t we’ve locked ourselves outside the room where the art is happening.”

By using the phrase “I don’t believe”, he’s referring to a reaction in which we don’t believe in the truth of a character’s actions or a story’s twists, turns and resolutions. “I just don’t believe anyone would do that … I didn’t buy it when he decided to… that’s just ridiculous - Lassie couldn’t possibly give precise directions to Timmy’s well…” etc.

Spence says that when people say they don’t believe a certain plot twist or character action, what they actually mean is they can’t accept it, or it’s offensive, off-putting, difficult or even dull.

It’s not even about whether or not you like the story. It’s about accepting the story is true and then reacting subjectively to those “facts”. How could you enjoy Lewis Carroll if you didn’t believe Alice really fell down a rabbit hole?

Spence’s point is that if a writer tells you a character is thinking this, doing that, planning such and such, it’s true. After all, the writer should know: it’s their story. As a reader, our job is to believe it, and then decide from there how we respond to it, whether it be annoyance, joy, relief, disdain, repulsion, etc.

“Any of these feelings are perfectly valid responses to art. But they are purely subjective.”

I must admit there were moments towards the end of Tim Winton’s Breath I wasn’t particularly comfortable with, but I certainly believed them.

Spence summarises his lesson about believing thus: if a story is interesting enough, most people won’t give any thought to whether they believe it or not.

Do you agree with this idea?

Have you ever read a story or plot twist you didn’t “believe” - regardless of what Spence says?


Anonymous said...

I think being interesting helps, but it takes more than that to make a story believable. An out-of-character decision can be interesting and still be frustratingly implausible.

I was watching Night at the Museum tonight and was annoyed by the implausibility of Larry "brushing up" on a massive amount of history in just a day or two. Museum displays coming to life because of an ancient tablet - no problem. :-)

Bec said...

I don't think being just interesting is have to be able to enter the world of the story, rather than just being a detached spectator. And it is - to an extent - the believability that allows us to do this. Otherwise it's like reading an interesting text book rather than a novel. When you're 'involved' in a story you will stay up late at night reading just 'one more page' to find out what happens next. No matter how interesting a text book is, it rarely gets this sort of a grip on a reader (or maybe that's just me!)

I can see what Jennifer is saying, in that it is often more the 'out of character' stuff that makes something unbelievable than the 'out there' stuff. You don't read a Sci-Fi novel and start thinking "*snort* aliens and ray guns...yeah right!"

That said, I think I have a fairly high tolerance for believability. I'm gullible. I tend to believe most things. In fact, the subject of this post, and your mention of Lewis Carroll at the start, put me in mind of my favourite quote (which I like as a 'philosophy' really):

“There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

- Lewis Carroll

Gustav said...

My view is that a work of art is a holistic piece whether it is a play, a novel or a painting.

There are so many factors that go into the believability, or willingness to believe an art work, but in the end Spence is right.

A great work takes us somewhere special because we allow the artist to take us there.

They build up their credibility or believability even before we get on their bus for the trip. They can also lose us on that journey.

"Brothers Kasmarov" by Dostoyevski was a bus ride I wanted to get off about a third of the way. I just lost interest in the whole thing, partly believability, partly I just didn't care anymore.

Anyhow a great story does take us somewhere and the author needs to gain the trust and interest of the reader and keep them there.

Believability is one of the key factors in my view.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

Believability is one thing, but what about authenticity?

It's authenticity that gives a story credibility. Believability is, to me anyway, only one aspect of authenticity.