Tolkien on the cardinal difference between good and bad story-telling (and movies!)

This is worth reading twice here. It is the difference between a so-so novel and a great one. It is the difference between a mediocre film and a great one. It the key ingredient, actually a combination of many many things, that determines whether you actually buy into the story or not. Or if you stay, how you continue to buy into it. If you go to write fiction or make a film and are not aware of this phenomenon, your work is pretty much doomed.

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. that state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: It accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe or when trying (more of less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the world of an art that has for us failed.

-J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

The best stories are ones you get lost in. When you have to “willingly suspend disbelief” to continue listening, then the story can continue and may still be interesting, but the magic is gone. When the filmmaker has to throw a wink to the audience and say, “OK. This doesn’t work, but just go along with it” then the effectiveness of the story-telling drops through the floor.

Last year, Avatar won the Oscar for best special effects. It’s hard to argue with that choice as it has got to be the most ambitious effects film ever. Nevertheless, I heard some keen critics argue that from a story-telling standpoint, District 9 was far superior. Why? Because the special effects were so subtle, YOU COULDN’T EVEN TELL THEY WERE EFFECTS. It looked like REAL documentary footage of aliens walking around slums in Johannesburg South Africa. There were effects shots everywhere, but they didn’t look like effects shots.

In the same way, fantasy works much better when the story-teller obeys their own rules about their Secondary World. If you say, for example, that wizards can perform magic but that mind reading is impossible and then later you introduce a character that can read minds, you’re dropping the ball. You are disenchanting your own spell.

The first Matrix movie set up a bunch of rules and stuck with them. The sequels broke rule after rule in an effort to be cooler and more extreme. Instead, it backfired and resulted in both films’ subsequent suckage.

The same thing goes for drama. When you have a character with an established history and temperament do something really irrational and out of character, it breaks the spell. Even if we can’t put our finger on it at the time, we intuitively disbelieve that said character would ever act like that. It throws up question marks in our minds. Questions that distract from the power of the story-telling. You don’t need a plot hole large enough to drive Optimus Prime through (ahem). Those are obvious and everyone can spot them. However, even the smallest inconsistency can be a miniature plot hole that breaks the spell.

When the spell is broken, we are outsiders looking down on or in at the story. We are inside the sub-creator’s world no longer and their power over us an our imaginations is minimal.