Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and right in the middle thought, “That would never happen!”? That is your “disbelief”. It is you, not believing. Maybe you saw a different movie, or read a book and consciously or unconsciously thought, “Yeah, I can see that happening.” That is you “suspending” your disbelief. Even if it is an unconscious act, it is you, “willingly suspending your disbelief.”
The term was coined in 1817 by the poet and 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 judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. It happens to us as listeners when hearing a story. We hear the description and “see” the images in our head. We “believe” that things happened this way, whether it is a personal tale, folktale or fairytale.
As storytellers, we need to do this too! We need to willingly suspend our disbelief in this process of storytelling. Can I merely use words and inflection to make people see images similar to the ones I have in my head? Can a gesture add to the impact of the story? Can my facial expressions and body movement change as one character speaks, then a different one responds? Can “less” actually be “more” in storytelling? How could all of this possibly make any sense?
In order for the audience to suspend their disbelief, YOU must do it first! You must believe in your story, real or fantasy. You must believe in your abilities to transform words into images. You must transport yourself to the time and place of the story, before your audience can. You must believe you ARE the characters that you present to the audience, so they can clearly see and hear them; and in doing so, experience the full range of their emotions.
In willingly suspending your disbelief, you will enter into a world where you believe, and the listeners will too. And that’s what storytelling is about!