Fast forward to 1977. I went to see Star Wars with anticipation. The characters, the plot, the setting, the many creatures somehow both strange yet familiar, engaged me. But as the story took us into space, each and every ship could be heard in the void. Explosions were loud. And I spent the whole time screaming (in my head), “There’s no sound in space!”
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the movie well enough to see the two sequels—but the sounds in space continued to bother me. It threw me out of the story each and every time.
John Scalzi calls this a flying snowman moment—named after a moment when his spouse was thrown from a children’s book’s story when a snowman flew. It’s the moment when you tell yourself, “I’ll buy into the world of this story, but this here just doesn’t make sense.”
The thing about flying snowmen moments is that they are as varied as people—a flying snowman might bother one person, me it’s seeing a snowman eat soup (which, in the book, he does sometime before he flies). Whatever the trigger, the reader (or watcher or listener) is no longer in the story.
My role as a writer is to try and prevent flying snowmen moments from occurring in my stories. After all, I create worlds where fairy godmothers are real, where crows are friends of fairies, where an immortal man lives in the Quebec Laurentians. And so I develop characters, settings and plot, as convincingly as I can, so that readers won’t see the leap into the new and strange that I present. I lead them into a suspension of disbelief, and I do my best to keep them there by making my worlds whole and consistent.
Yet something may jar a reader. Even if, before publication, my story is read by trusted readers, editors and copy editors who make it their jobs to find those flying snowmen, no one can catch every trigger of disbelief. My goal has to be to get readers to roll with it.
Think of the recent Muppets movie. From the get-go, the audience knows that the Muppets’ world is impossible, yet we roll with each and every absurdity because the movie revels in them. It’s the point of the show. And we agree to suspend disbelief not because the Muppets’ world becomes any more believable as the movie progresses, but because we are invested in a cast of characters whose actions and roles we love.
It’s why I watch Star Trek even while the Enterprise hums in space. Or why we believe Wily Coyote isn’t dead despite explosions, being crushed by anvils, and repeated falls from deadly heights. Or why we agree to let Harry Potter survive (or revive) even when he shouldn’t.
We want a riveting story to reach a satisfying conclusion. And so an audience will suspend disbelief, even through flying snowmen moments, if the plot, setting and characters carry us through. No small task.