Like most authors of fiction, I rely heavily on Suspension of Disbelief as a tool of the trade.
This is the unwritten contract between authors and their readers that states that even the most unlikely events, coincidences and plot twists are OK as long as they don’t take the piss.
In crime fiction it is particularly prevalent. As any real-life detective will tell you, most investigations are either painstaking procedural exercises lasting several weeks or else they are solved within hours due to the stupidity of the villain.
Neither translate particularly well to the cliff-hanging requirements of a 300-page novel or a three-part TV drama – which is why criminals are usually fiendishly clever, the detective brilliantly intuitive, and why the investigation usually ends in a blood-pumping showdown on top of a 200ft crane.
On a micro level, Suspension of Disbelief is required to accept that characters actually talk the way they do, i.e. in perfectly formed gobbets of racy dialogue. An interesting exercise is to record two people having a normal conversation and then transcribe it word-for-word. The result is invariably gibberish.
Suspension of Disbelief even soaks through to the very thoughts of fictional characters. Mine, for example, spend an inordinate amount of time pondering intricate plot developments when everybody knows all real people ever think about is sex and what’s for dinner.
But, as I say, it’s a contract that both sides enter into willingly and will tolerate as long as it doesn’t stretch credibility too much.
The moments when it does cross the line tend to be subjective. I still recall an episode of the 1990s Geordie-based cop show Spender in which Jimmy Nail, chasing a villain, set off on foot into the Metro tunnel at Jesmond only to emerge moments later on the other side of the river in Gateshead – a bridge too far indeed. Yet anybody watching who did not live in Newcastle wouldn’t have even noticed.
Ironically the greatest example of flagrant breach of contract is in a song that just happened to be on the radio the other day and got me thinking about the whole damn Suspension of Disbelief thing in the first place.
In Escape (The Pina Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes, a guy who is having problems with his wife answers an anonymous lonely hearts advert. He duly turns up for the rendezvous, expecting sex in the dunes and cocktails, only to see his wife walk in.
According to the lyric:
“Then we laughed for a moment/ And I said, ‘I never knew.’ ”
This is utter bullshit, of course. The mutual betrayal would have sparked an enormous row, with pina colada glasses smashing everywhere, blood on the walls, and the irretrievable breakdown of their already doomed marriage.