mxpw's Scribe Theater Three Thousand

I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that most of you reading this right now are Chuck fans. We all know the very basic plot of the show, right? Underachieving nerd suddenly downloads a massive computer database full of the United States’ most important secrets into his brain. It’s like Johnny Mnemonic meets The Matrix meets James Bond meets Get Smart meets Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show meets West Side Story meets, etc… You get the point.

As a concept, it’s hard enough to swallow. A guy downloads a computer into his brain? Preposterous! Complete bunk, right? Everybody knows you can’t download a computer into your brain. It’s just not possible (at the moment…). And as an actual show, one that straddles many different genres, it really shouldn’t work. Jack of all trades, master of none comes to mind when thinking about Chuck. Regardless of how well you think the show handles this straddling currently, in theory, it should all be too incredible to be believed and too chaotic to really work.

Yet despite this, we’re all fans. The show has been on for four seasons. Why do we watch? Unless you’re like me and obsessed with, I mean, a great admirer of Yvonne Strahovski’s acting talent, you watch the show because you’re entertained, because for forty-odd minutes, the writers have crafted a story that has managed to suspend your disbelief and entertain you. This is quite an accomplishment for a show that a lot of people who aren’t already fans have trouble grasping. And why do they have trouble grasping things? It all comes down to their willing suspension of disbelief (for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to largely avoid the question of quality of presentation, as that’s a whole different kettle of fish).

Most people have, in the back of their minds, a little scale that weighs their suspension of disbelief against what they’re seeing onscreen (or reading in a book). It’s a scale that needs a delicate balance to maintain happy equilibrium. If it tips too far, most people will be yanked out of the story you’re trying to tell and throw up their hands and go, “Whoa, whoa, back up there. He said what? He just did what? That’s stupid. I don’t believe a piece of wood can talk.” Or, you know, something like that. Ahem.

Your goal as a creative person is to create a piece of art (and for the purposes of this discussion, we will classify Chuck as art, or at least a piece of creative expression) that allows your viewer, reader, whatever, to suspend their disbelief. This is no easy task as our scales are almost all different. We all have different tolerances for what we can accept and what we can’t. We all have different button issues that when pressed make us throw up our hands, but may not bother anybody else. In other words, being a writer can really suck a lot of the time because you just can’t win.

But that’s the burden you take on your shoulders when you try to create. It’s just inherent in the whole process. If you intend to be a writer, you MUST accept this. You WILL make somebody unhappy or turn somebody off because how you chose to do something just rubbed them the wrong way. It’s unavoidable and even the best writers will run into this problem. To make matters worse, sometimes, you will just have to do something absurd to tell the story you want to tell and you can only hope that the reader or your audience go along with you (and I will talk about this in a separate post—stay tuned!).

Which brings us back to Chuck. Most people suspend their disbelief automatically when watching TV, at least to a certain extent, especially for something with science fiction elements in it. You kinda have to, if you want to watch those kinds of shows. Television programs like Chuck and Fringe just assume that if you’re watching them in the first place, you’ve already decided to forgive or accept most of the biggest absurdities, like a computer that can be downloaded into a person’s brain or a war between alternate universes. So a lot of the time, they don’t bother explaining why certain things happen the way they do, or if they do try to explain it, it’s all technobabble (*waves at Star Trek*). Explanation is not really important. Yeah, most people might be curious, but if you’re watching one of these shows, you’ve probably already decided in the back of your mind that you don’t really care if they provide a reasonable explanation or not.

Not everybody is willing to accept this of course, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why science fiction shows traditionally don’t get very high ratings (there are exceptions, like Lost). Most people just aren’t willing to suspend their disbelief that far. By creating one of those shows, you’re automatically winnowing your audience to a special segment of the population. Of course, even science fiction fans have their breaking points.

I’ve seen or heard more than one person say they aren’t interested in Chuck because they find the whole basic idea stupid or that they won’t watch Fringe because it’s too weird. Sometimes maybe you’ve managed to get somebody to overlook the premise but lose them during the course of the show because a character acts too contrary to what they believe is understandable or rational behavior or a plot point is just too stupid or would never happen. Like my father, for instance, who I almost had interested in Chuck, but lost him during “Chuck vs. the First Date.” I’m sure many of you are probably scratching your head and going, “Huh? That was an awesome episode!” I know Frea is probably doing that. But my father, who was a military lawyer, just didn’t like or couldn’t accept that Casey, a Major in the Air Force Marines, would willingly agree to assassinate an innocent American citizen or that Beckman and Graham would order it in the first place. Bam—lost viewer. One of his buttons had been pushed and his willing suspension of disbelief was gone (this is true of most military matters in TV and movies for him).

So what does this all mean? Why am I writing this lengthy post about stuff most people already know? Well, you could consider it a good prep for Part Two of this extensive look on suspending your disbelief. In that post, I’ll go over how you get your audience to do it and go more in-depth into what happens when you don’t.

I hope you found this article interesting and informative. And if not, don’t hesitate to tell me why not. I will try my best to get the second part of this article out as soon as I can.


  1. Anonymous5.3.11

    As you state it's relatively easy to suspend your disbelief with respect to the sci-fi aspects of various shows. The premise is usually a little absurd to start with ("inertial dampeners" come to mind), so some absurdity in its use is usually acceptable. All this works (only) when the characters we are watching are engaging and compelling.

    As an aside, if we have to suspend disbelief for the characters themselves (you know which character I mean) well that's just a mess.


  2. Suspension of disbelief is really where show vs. tell comes into play the strongest for me, personally. You can tell me a guy is a good spy until you're blue in the face, but I won't believe you until you show him not checking his support and tripping off the slowest oxygen-depriving vault on...the planet...wait a second, something about this isn't right...

    But even so, that bit of snark proves my point. None of us liked S3 and we all have differing-if-similar reasons (not entertained, Chuck was a douche, Sarah was a pod person), but for me, the suspension of disbelief was so far beyond what I considered acceptable levels even for this show, and then it killed most of my goodwill toward suspending that disbelief in later arcs. If they hadn't shown Shaw being a complete and total idiot from the first moment he was on screen (really, he couldn't have told the guy about to shoot him he was on medication that would prevent it from outright being a murder?), I still wouldn't have liked S3 at all, but I would have accepted it better because I would still have my respect for the writers for keeping it within their already-established belief barriers.

    The laziest thing an author can do is push the boundaries of suspension of disbelief and then not bother to explain it or to give a poor payoff. Most valuable lesson in writing: if you're going to do something, anything, COMMIT to it. Make your reader believe that you're fully behind this change or idea, and do everything you can to make it work. Introducing an idea just because it's cool and then not giving it proper resolution because you didn't think that far ahead is lamesauce. I'm lookin' at you, S3. Or the Intersect-less arc. Or Mary's 20-year-mission to explore new worlds (Russia) and seek out new lifeforms (Volkoff). Or... you know, I'm going to stop because Tooth makes my cheek twitch.



  3. mxpw5.3.11

    Actually, S3 will be getting a lot of focus in the second part to this article, so I'm glad you brought it up, Frea. It's a perfect case study on what happens to your audience when they lose their suspension of disbelief: they disappear. Will also discuss Fates a little bit, fanfic in general, and a bunch of other good and interesting stuff.

    I hope people find it informative and as interesting as I do, though probably not as interesting as I do. I'm weird like that.

  4. Ayefah6.3.11

    really, he couldn't have told the guy about to shoot him he was on medication that would prevent it from outright being a murder?

    No, because he's a control freak who gets off on withholding information and using that to manipulate his supposed allies. That just became clearer in retrospect, with episodes like "Final Exam". The real puzzler was that he pulled that crap over and over and no one punched him in the face.

  5. mxpw6.3.11

    @Ayefah - Heh, thank you for that last line of your comment. I will be quoting you in my next article. That is, if you don't object. It's perfect.

  6. Ayefah6.3.11

    Quote away. :)

  7. Mxpw - look forward to Part 2.

    Season 4 is the season that dimmed the Chuck passion pilot light for me.

    Its lack of an clearly defined narrative thrust, Chuck MIA for the most of the first 13 episodes in a storyline straitjacket, and the dropping of his hero journey arc have made watching the show an exercise in finding moments without enjoying the big picture.

    Some Season 4 analysis in part 2 of your article about the disruption of suspension of disbelief would also be worthy of being noted:


    - Ellie still in the dark about Chuck
    - the whole MamaB being a kept woman for 20 years and being unable to affect an escape
    - the unexplained, and contradictory, PSP / laptop plot contrivances

    Fiction is about crafting a lie, which is where suspension of disbelief comes into play. Once the parameters have been set then the best stories are the ones that adhere to rules of the fabrication or make them very, very hard to break with a commiserate price to be paid.

    It all comes down to telling a story honestly.

  8. Addendum: And the coin of honesty is character integrity.

  9. Anonymous6.3.11

    It was never Shaw for which I had to suspend disbelief. It was Sarah, and that's sad.


  10. I can very much relate to your dad's button with Chuck. While I haven't served but I'm building a career studying and or working with or for the military/intelligence communities. Trying to ignore the absurd things things they throw out there about the way the military works has been a constant struggle. Which is why (and I'm sure Frea might take issue with this as I think she has before) I try to think of Chuck as a sort of 21st century Get Smart or a (very) poor mans attempt at what a Peter Sellers spy show would've been like.

  11. Since the S3 problems have been covered, I'd like to bring up the major S4 one. Its Chuck and his reactions to the way other characters treat him. I guess it goes back to S3 too but I just can't buy into him not getting angry. So many times this season people have just cut him down or did things to him that would make anyone get pissed off. I know they write him as forgiving but like a lot of things on the show they've taken it too far.


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