I saw some great movies* over the weekend. We borrowed Swing Vote from the library and watched it Friday night, and then on Saturday, Honey Bear and I got a babysitter--wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!--and went to see Super 8. Even though these films were very different, the thing that stuck out to me about both of them was how easily they got me to suspend my disbelief.
I used to think of suspension of disbelief, or the willingness of readers to set aside their doubts and go along with a less-than-plausible storyline, as something that only fantasy and sci-fi readers had to do. But as I watched Swing Vote, I realized that, at least to some degree, readers--or watchers--of every genre must suspend their disbelief.
Swing Vote features Kevin Costner as the sloppy Ernest “Bud” Johnson and Madeline Carroll as his determined, go-get-’em daughter, Molly. Molly spends the month before Election Day learning about the electoral system in her elementary school class, so she really wants her dad to fulfill his social contract and cast his ballot. But Bud, of course, forgets to vote, and by the time he remembers, he’s too drunk to even turn the key in the ignition. Molly takes matters into her own hands by sneaking past the sleepy polling volunteers, forging her dad’s signature in the voter registry, and feeding his ballot into the machine. The power cuts out just before Molly makes her selections (understandably spooking her), and she runs away before the process is complete.
Molly’s little mess-up probably wouldn’t have come to anything had one of the candidates won in a landslide, but in fact, with only one state left to report, the presidential race is in a virtual tie. Thanks to the electoral college, whoever takes New Mexico will take the election, and New Mexico comes down to one county, one city, one vote--Bud Johnson’s.
If you know anything about the American electoral system, you’ll know this scenario is wildly unrealistic. Elections, especially presidential ones, never come down to just one vote. And yet as I watched the story unfold, I was willing to go along with it. Even though there was nothing fantastical about Swing Vote, I still had to suspend my disbelief.
Good moviemakers--and good writers--never trust their audience to willingly suspend their disbelief; they force them to do so through top-notch storytelling. So what was it about Swing Vote and Super 8 that so thoroughly engrossed me? THE CHARACTERS. That seems to be the answer to pretty much every writing question, but that’s because your characters are king. If you want me to suspend my disbelief, just make your characters enchanting and unforgettable. I will believe just about anything enchanting, unforgettable characters tell me. I will follow them to the end of the world and back.
*I loved Swing Vote and Super 8, but I ought to warn you, they both have quite a bit of language. Bud Johnson curses at the slightest provocation, and the tween boys in Super 8 sound like a junior high boys’ locker room. (Or so I’m told. I’ve never been inside a junior high boys’ locker room, mind you, but Honey Bear informs me that it’s pretty bad.) We’re talking multiple S-words in both films, and one character in Super 8 takes the Lord’s name in vain every other sentence, so that’s something you should be aware of, especially if you’re thinking of showing either of these movies to your kids.