Humor Assists Suspension of Disbelief

Humor assists the suspension of disbelief.

Humor plays an especially large role in assisting the suspension of disbelief when reading or watching works of fiction. You write just about anything in a book or put it up on screen and your audience will accept it if you invite them to laugh at it. Sadly, some screenwriters don’t seem to have figured this out.

For example, last night while flipping through the channels, I happened across a movie (Dante’s Peak) about people fleeing an erupting volcano somewhere in the northwestern U.S. I don’t usually watch horror or disaster thrillers, but this caught my attention because I’m old enough to remember the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Humor Assists Suspension of Disbelief: Dante's Peak is a fictional location. In the absence of a real volcano, I've substituted this image of a South American volcano erupting.

Dante’s Peak is a fictional location. In the absence of a real volcano, I’ve substituted this image of a South American volcano erupting.

I had mixed feelings watching this movie.

  1. I was relieved they didn’t call the movie “Mount St. Helens.” So many people horrifically lost their lives when Mount St. Helens blew. While I share the fascination with volcanic eruptions, memorializing them in a disaster thriller would be a totally sick and twisted thing to do.
  2. I couldn’t help comparing the action and plot to the Sharknado movies. (The Sharknado movies don’t really fall into this category, but for the purposes of this comparison, please humor me). Despite having better things to do, I’ve seen some of them more than once, and all (or most) of each sequel. What makes the Sharknado movies so epic is the humor of being asked to believe that randomly spawned tornadoes can pick up huge schools of sharks and wreak havoc with them. The Sharknado movies laugh at themselves and invite us to laugh along with them.
  3. In contrast, there is nothing humorous about being asked to believe that a mountain could erupt. It’s horribly believable.
  4. I kept comparing the footage in the movie to the documentary footage I’ve seen of volcanic eruptions. Aside from the scenes containing people, it came off as believable.

The first few minutes that I watched were especially believable.

Ash rained down from a smoky black sky and frantic people ran around yelling for each other. And then–the house caught on fire from lava.

After that, it got weird. They tried to cross the lake in a metal boat, but the “water” leaking into the bottom of the boat hissed and bubbled. Then they observed lots of dead fish on the surface of the lake. And–the guy says, “The lake has been turned to acid.” Really? Just like that? Um. Okay… So now they’re all afraid, the acid is eating their boat and they’re in danger of sinking–and–the engine sputters and dies. He pulls the propeller and it’s gone. Totally eaten off the prop shaft by the acid.

It was at this point that I experienced a serious problem with the suspension of disbelief that stuck with me through the rest of the movie (the parts that I watched).

What caused me difficulty with this progression of unfortunate events:

  1. Lava flows create high heat and huge amounts of toxic gas. Before the house caught on fire, the actors should have been dead.
  2. Nothing natural in the processes of the volcano erupting reinforced the belief that a previously benign lake could go from water to acid in less than ten minutes flat (according to the internal story timeline). Nothing hinted at the contamination and alteration of the water right up until they got into the boat. There was no bubbling, no upheaval of the water as there would be if chemical processes were actively changing its composition.
  3. Acid strong enough to kill fish but not dissolve them wouldn’t be strong enough to dissolve a prop or a boat.
  4. The skin of the boat was quite thin. There is absolutely no way that a prop could have dissolved before the boat sank.
  5. The guy tried to row using his jacket to avoid touching the “acid” directly. How did his jacket not dissolve immediately on contact with the “acid” water?

More horrible things piled on till finally the grandma died of shock and pain from superficial acid burns (also unbelievable) before they reached their first point of dubious safety.

If you make me laugh, I’m more likely to let the holes in your story slide by without serious examination.

But–absolutely none of this was funny. They even misplaced their dog, or, being smarter than the average character in the story, the dog ran away from the eruption.

The stress built and built with almost no relief. The dog eventually reappeared just as their truck was in danger of melting its axles in more too-fresh-to-be-survivable lava. Between the lack of humor and the unbelievable progression of events, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief long enough to appreciate the story. So, I dipped in and out of it on commercial breaks while watching other programs.

If there had been more humor, if this had been the kind of movie that invited the viewer to laugh at its hubris, I might have been able to overlook the discontinuities. Apparently, I’m not alone in having difficulty with this movie. You can read more here.

On a lighter note, children’s author K.A. Ramstead runs a MeWe group named The Floor Is Lava, Come Play. It’s a fun group where kids and adults can exercise their imaginations. I encourage you to check it out with your kids and have some fun.

While there are no volcanic eruptions (yet!) in my books, there is a dragon and a shape-shifting squirrel sorceress. Check them out!

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