Deja Vu Blogfest Entry - Cognitive Estrangement

Welcome to those of you who are dropping by because of the Deja Vu Blogfest! This weekend I'm reposting a blog I ran in September that didn't receive many comments - which surprised me because I find it a fascinating subject. Let's see how it does this second time around.

It was entitled Cognitive Estrangement.



This mouthful is used to explain what happens when someone experiences a scene or idea that is different from his/her own reality, but similar enough that they can see it being plausible.

In other words…the suspension of disbelief.  

Now that is a phrase everyone recognizes. It explains a person’s willingness to interrupt his/her critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of pure enjoyment. The term was 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 judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. The concept often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres. But in reality any genre could have issues with this because a characters motivations and actions often come under fire as being unrealistic, especially when his/her/it arc resembles the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

What’s so interesting about this topic is the literature implies the burden is on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it.

Really?

I guess subjectivity does include how willing (or unwilling) we are to accept something we might normally reject. That a love for a character or characters could override the concern for a faulty plot-line. There have been a couple of very popular YA series published over the past decade that I have read the first novel to, but chosen not to continue on with the rest of the series. Why? Not because they were terrible reads, they weren’t. No, I was unable to suspend my disbelief regarding the basic premise of the story. (No – I’m not talking about Harry Potter)

But still, the author bears some responsibility, right?  We shouldn’t take the castle on a chessboard and move it diagonally, because that’s against the rules and therefore unbelievable. Or is it? We all flirt with that line in some way or another, which is funny because everybody has a different idea of where that line should be.

What are your thoughts? How much does your work depend upon cognitive estrangement? What books have you read that went to far in that regard?

16 comments

  1. Oh, I think the burden of responsibility for suspension of disbelief falls squarely on the writer. It's actually the topic of my upcoming blog post at WriteOnCon in February!

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    1. Oh...definitely writing that on my calendar! :)

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  2. I think one purpose of writing is to enable the reader to engage with the writer's world. If the reader's response is 'that couldn't happen' then something is wrong with the way in which it is presented. If the reader thinks 'that's impossible - how could that happen?' they're on their way. The writer's job is almost done. How much the development of the disbelief continues is part writer, part the imagination of the reader. Just thinking about the first Lockwood & Co (the Screaming Staircase) as an example here.
    Great post - glad you repeated it!

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    1. At some point it does become a shared responsibility - but the writer has to remember that he/she won't be able to convince everyone. Believability is a large part of subjectivity. :)

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  3. Hi Don - I don't want to read or continue reading something I can't relate to ... so definitely the author has to give us the handle to read on ... it's definitely possible to suspend belief. Interesting to read about Dianne and her topic for February ... cheers Hilary

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    1. I'm wondering now if it is easier for established authors to stretch the limits of believability because their committed audience will go wherever they are taken because of that relationship?

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  4. This is really important.
    I'm always asking my 'editors' (a few family members) if certain scenes are believable. Would you believe if these things all happened to one person or in one town.
    I think readers can only drink the kool-aid for so long.
    Great post, DL. I'm glad you put it up again.
    Thanks for the great blogest!
    Heather

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    1. I'll repeat my previous comment - do you think it is easier for established authors to stretch the limits of believability because their committed audience will go wherever they are taken because of that relationship?

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  5. I agree that that burden is on the writer. The reader does have to embrace the "willing suspension of disbelief," but she can only do that if the writer has created something that has an internal logic that works. That's why we can read and accept good fantasy, but a contemporary romance in which the girl falls totally in love with the guy whose been a total jerk, suddenly making him a perfect man gets a big thumbs down.

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    1. I've struggled with believability in mysteries & thrillers just as much as I have with fantasy. Mostly with character motivations.

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  6. Hello from the Blogfest, DL. I believe that a credible story, regardless of genre, comes from good writing. Sometimes stories do seem too incredible to believe, but in them, I sometimes see that what the author is providing is a means to escape.

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    1. It is a gift when a writer can lift us out of our day-to-day and take us on an amazing journey. The ability to suspend disbelief isn't something to be taken lightly.

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  7. The burden can't fall solely on the reader. Yes, a reader needs to be willing to play along, but if the world building is mishandled or a character's actions make no sense, the reader isn't going to be able to make that leap.

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    1. Excellent point. Just because a reader is predisposed to enjoy fantasy, doesn't mean the author can rest on his laurels and assume anything he puts on the page will be accepted.

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  8. I have read books along those lines. They were in a genre I NOW know as Steampunk. I was unaware of the genre at the time, and thus couldn't grasp the clothing from one era and tech of another and it threw me right out of the story. It's better now that I know.

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  9. Cognitive Estrangement is a beautiful term for it. Somewhere in grad school, I took a linguistics course that was, in part, about how reading works. Reading isn't something that happens solely on the page, solely in the intentions of the author, or solely in the eye of the beholder, but a complex interaction between several things. That's why a book might not work for you at one point in your life, but might really speak to you at another, because each time you come to the page, you are different and your part of the context is different.

    As a writer, I need to work to bring my readers in, but no matter how well I work my craft, there will be readers who aren't drawn in for reasons other than my skill. As a reader, there are books that just won't work for me, no matter how skillfully they are written.

    I like to think of the interaction we call "reading" as something almost alchemical, taking disparate elements and bringing them together to make something magical, something more than the sum of all these parts.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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