The state is arguably an essential element when experiencing any drama or work of fiction. We may know very well that we are watching an actor or looking at marks on paper, but we wilfully accept them as real in order to fully experience what the artist is attempting to convey.
Don’t be an oxymoron. Know your literary terms.
In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise which you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen.
Few topics stimulate as much discussion in my workshops as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” What is it? Why is it important? Does it apply to animation or only to live action? It can be a tricky concept to grasp but is an essential element of storytelling and performance.
Examples in literature
I will add to Mr. Lund’s excellent answer with some comments about suspending disbelief related to film, rather than theater. The principle is the same, of course, but with film, given the mind boggling range of special effects available, there is a greater degree of disbelief to suspend, in one respect, but a lot more help to suspend it, if the special effects are high quality.
Suspension of Disbelief
Although we know a fair amount about the brain activity linked with reading, no one has isolated the mechanisms tied specifically to suspension of disbelief. Yet we can extrapolate how the brain behaves on a more general level.
JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.
Sometimes in daily life we would like to know what someone thinks at important moments. We really want to know how people have been affected by a situation. When we know more of what they are feeling, we understand them better. In drama, too, when we know more of what a character thinks or feels, the drama is deepened and the audience becomes more involved.
Suspending your disbelief isn’t as simple as not asking too many questions, or just taking things at face value. It’s actually a kind of hard work. And that’s why we enjoy it so much.
It’s a phrase we take for granted now, but the term “suspension of disbelief” was coined by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Typically, he uses a double negative where a simple positive (“belief”) might have done, but somehow this doesn’t quite capture the strange trance we are willing to enter when we watch a play.
A truly verisimilitudinous story can draw in the reader so much so that he or she feels sympathy for the characters, believes their dialogues could be real, and believes that what happens could really happen in the real world. Here are a few simple examples of verisimilitude:
“… that for above seventy Moons past there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.”