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Cognitive Estrangement

This mouthful is used to explain what happens when someone experiences a scene or idea that is different from his/her own reality, but similar enough that they can see it being plausible.

In other words…the suspension of disbelief.  

Now that is a phrase everyone recognizes. It explains a person’s willingness to interrupt his/her critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of pure enjoyment. The term was coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative. The concept often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres. But in reality any genre could have issues with this because a characters motivations and actions often come under fire as being unrealistic, especially when his/her/it arc resembles the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

What’s so interesting about this topic is the literature implies the burden is on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it.


I guess subjectivity does include how willing (or unwilling) we are to accept something we might normally reject. That a love for a character or characters could override the concern for a faulty plot-line. There have been a couple of very popular YA series published over the past decade that I have read the first novel to, but chosen not to continue on with the rest of the series. Why? Not because they were terrible reads, they weren’t. No, I was unable to suspend my disbelief regarding the basic premise of the story. (No – I’m not talking about Harry Potter)

But still, the author bears some responsibility, right?  We shouldn’t take the castle on a chessboard and move it diagonally, because that’s against the rules and therefore unbelievable. Or is it? We all flirt with that line in some way or another, which is funny because everybody has a different idea of where that line should be.

What are your thoughts? How much does your work depend upon cognitive estrangement? What books have you read that went to far in that regard?


  1. The author definitely bears a responsibility to the reader, but the willingness to suspend disbelief is a mystery that varies from reader to reader. I'm a great audience for fiction as I am usually willing to buy into any story as long as it's not overly absurd or skewed with an agenda. I put myself wholeheartedly into what I'm watching or reading if the material is interesting at least to some degree. Not all people are like that--they become overly analytical and look for problems in a story and its presentation.

    I'd say a writer needs to follow the rules to a reasonable degree and when they decide to break those rules than make crossing that line plausible.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    1. Ahhh...plausibility. Is it plausible to stick a round peg in a square hole? Sure...but it's how you go about making that happen that will determine how successful your book will be.

  2. I have a very high threshold in this regard, but I actually met it in the plot of one fantasy story a long time ago. I was actually experiencing stress because I couldn't cope with the extent of the concepts the book portrayed. That was an eye-opening moment. Disbelieving character motives? That one's easy. It happens all the time. As long as the author isn't being lazy and there's a real motivation for the action (not just a "the plot needs to move this way" or "I couldn't think of anything better), I'm totally good with it.

  3. I write fantasy, so I'm all about suspending belief. But even with fantasy and sci-fi, you have to have a logical plot and characters need to behave consistently. That's where spec fic can go awry.




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