I actually meant to address the subject of this post last time, but as that one was long enough, I decided to wait until the next installment. What we’re going to talk about today is the subtleties of suspension of disbelief.
Probably my favorite movie of all time is Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner, a work he’s been chasing for the last 30-plus years yet never quite matched again. This is the greatest science fiction movie ever made, and if you disagree with me, well, dust off your pistols and we can settle things tomorrow at dawn.
Blade Runner, if you weren’t paying attention the first time around, is set a scant five years from now. It includes a variety of speculative elements such as extraterrestrial colonists, flying cars, street slang that has degenerated into an incomprehensible mish-mash of dialects, and, of course, self-aware androids. Even in 1982, some of these, especially the androids, seemed like reaches for a mere 37 years in the future. None of them are close to having come to pass—in that respect the movie was way off in terms of being predictive.
But that didn’t really matter, and it still doesn’t. I can still watch it knowing the Los Angeles of 2019 that Scott envisioned bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Los Angeles of 2014, and I expect I will still enjoy it when we reach 2020 and there are still no self-aware androids.
The philosophy behind suspension of disbelief is controversial in some quarters, but the general idea is that if a writer can create an internally consistent world, readers will ignore inconsistencies between that world and theirs. This is essential to enjoyment of fantasy, science fiction, much action and adventure, and even to some extent, romances. There is one element of this, however, that is not always recognized, and that is that, no matter how fantastical the setting, readers general expect the human beings in the story to behave like human beings they know, were they to exist as the author has described them.
It is on this point that a great deal of erotica falls down.
I am not here speaking of characters who don’t talk and act like real people; we’ve done that one before. Rather, I’m talking about settings that require ongoing, active effort from the reader to ignore the ways in which the story departs from reality, even if the reader accepts all the author’s premises.
Let me give an example to make this more clear. A common trope in erotica is the character who is kidnapped or otherwise coerced into some sort of sexual slavery, very often into some sort of Secret Bondage Society. This SBS, if you will, exists despite the author having set the story into Here and Now, everything else being what the readers are presumably familiar with. But the main character, having been spirited off into the SBS, has for some reason—despite being portrayed as unwilling and seeking to be free—somehow lost the ability to pick up the phone and call the police or otherwise seek rescue as a normal person in such a situation would do. No attempt is made to explain this—the main character continues to blunder around in (usually) her restraints, seeking nothing but her next orgasm rather than her freedom.
This is not terribly unlike the characters in the average low-budget horror movie who continue to avoid the obvious means of escape and instead keep falling into the villain’s traps.
Let me pause here, as I have often done in this series, to stress that there is a lot of very entertaining erotica that employs this particular trope; I have to confess to being a fan of it myself. Still, I can never quite shake off the feeling that the story I’m reading, however hot it may be, is fundamentally a bit silly.
So why complain? Because it isn’t truly necessary to fall back on this rather tired device.
It doesn’t really take that much more effort to craft a setting in which the SBS makes enough sense not to require ongoing suspension of disbelief. As just one example, I will refer again to Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series. Here we have a very large and complex, though not terribly S, BS. But set as it is within a fairy-tale world, it requires no suspension of disbelief beyond the first page. Rice has given us a setting that makes internal sense, and having done that, we can go merrily on our way following the naked Beauty through all her travails. At no point must we wonder why she is not doing this or that; she behaves in a logical, consistent fashion through the entire trilogy.
So, my point here? Must we say this again? Apparently so.
Don’t be lazy. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Take the extra effort to create something that works. Your readers will thank you.