I watched a comedy sketch recently that voiced some criticisms about Home Alone — specifically the crazy loops the family jumps through to make leaving their son home alone believable. The skit was fairly funny and the inconsistencies were certainly worth pointing out, and yet… almost no one does.
Home Alone is a beloved Christmas classic that people watch year after year, with hardly a thought to question how unlikely it is for the family to accidentally leave their son home alone. If someone had tried those sorts of tricks in another movie, it would have garnered unending criticism. Not to mention, it would have deflated the entire plot. Many people can’t enjoy a movie that opens with a series of unlikely events to get them to their inciting incident. It makes the entire story seem contrived.
Stretching the viewer’s suspension of disbelief (their willingness to believe impossible things for the sake of enjoying a story) has wrecked far too many movies. And yet somehow, Home Alone doesn’t seem to be a perpetrator.
So what makes Home Alone different? How far can you stretch your readers’ suspension of disbelief? And what tools can make it seem less contrived when we do?
Kevin McCallister is a nine-year-old boy lost in the shuffle of a chaotic family reunion as his entire extended family prepares to board a flight for Paris to spend their Christmas vacation. When a storm rages through the night, a power line goes out in the wee hours of the morning, and they lose power, the family awakes long after their alarms were supposed to go off. Panicked and desperate as they attempt to make it out the door in time for an airplane shuttle, they quickly mistake a neighbor for their son, and arrive at the airport minutes before their flight lifts off. As the adults settle down in the first class compartment, a thought finally hits Kevin’s mom — she hasn’t seen him all morning.
As they search for Kevin among the passengers, they come to realize that they’ve mistakenly left him home alone, setting the stage for one of the most well-known holiday classics to date.
Suspension of Disbelief
When you lay it all out, the amount of unlikely events that must happen for Kevin to be left behind does come across as a bit unbelievable.
- There must be enough family members for him to become lost in the shuffle.
- He must fight with his cousins.
- That fight must result both in him being sent to the attic for the night and
- His ticket being discarded.
- A storm must happen that night.
- That storm must be strong enough to knock out the power.
- The family must sleep deeply enough that none of them notice.
- None of the family members must wake up around or before the time their alarms were supposed to go off.
- Kevin must sleep deeply enough that he doesn’t notice the chaos going on once they do wake up.
- A neighborhood boy that is the same age as Kevin must show up just as the kids are being counted.
- The adults must make it to the airport without thinking to check for all of the children themselves.
- No one must think about Kevin until the flight lifts off.
That’s a twelve-step plan, not counting the things that Kevin does afterwards to prolong the situation long enough for his parents to make it to France and back without contacting him. Each step is highly unlikely, and each of them compounded leaves the plot hanging on a very unlikely thread. Yet few people point this out. Why? There are two very specific things to keep in mind when stretching your readers’ suspension of disbelief.
The first is that readers are far more forgiving in the beginning than they are at any other point in the book. When you’re setting the scene, your readers are willing to accept some things that simply wouldn’t work in real life. Think about how you’re able to accept magic, or dystopia, or that elves exist when a book opens. But if a writer were to throw it in half way through, it would come across as painfully forced and unrealistic.
We don’t question why Cinderella’s father could ever dream of remarrying to such a horrible woman. We don’t ask if Middle Earth is a planet in a different solar system or simply in a new universe. We don’t have to know how a four-year-old Matilda can walk herself to the library without any adult supervision. This is because that’s just the backdrop for what comes next.
But this effect diminishes quickly as the work goes along. By the climax, almost any suspension of disbelief is hard to pull off. Your readers begin to look for satisfaction, a conclusion, and an answer to their questions. They don’t want more questions raised, and they become especially sensitive to both satisfying conclusions (which they are looking for) and unexplained elements (which can wreck the entire work). So while in the beginning, they’re willing to accept some unanswered questions that aren’t huge plot holes, introducing a brand-new element or unexplained occurrence after the midpoint rarely goes well.
The other big thing to keep in mind is that suspension of disbelief is directly correlated to payoff. Readers will put up with a lot if it means they get a sequence as hilarious as the one that takes place at the McCallister house. Similarly, they’re willing to believe some pretty incredible things if it lets them cheer on characters through an incredible climax or top-notch suspense.
Here’s an example: What if Kevin had only been home alone for a quarter of the movie? What if he had gotten a few funny antics to himself before his family arrived home and they had to defend against the thieves all together? The opening would have been less believable because it was worth so much less.
And this last technique is widely used. From Harry Potter to It’s a Wonderful Life, we’re willing to believe some unlikely things to enjoy the world. We sit through wizards wielding completely overpowered abilities that grow to feel like each wizard has a nuclear arsenal at their disposal, but we’re able to enjoy the elaborate plot and amazing twists because to get there, we had to have some magic that didn’t quite make sense. We’re able to believe that a man could go from contemplating suicide to dancing through the streets in just a few hours because the theme that it demonstrates is so powerful.
So don’t be afraid to stretch your boundaries, as long as you have an awesome payoff to back it up. Readers are willing to put up with a lot if you do it to show them an awesome truth, a fantastic plot, or some amazing characters. No story is perfect, and every writer has to stretch a part of their world for us to fully enjoy their work. Don’t be afraid to stretch yours, as long as you know you’ve got something worthwhile in store to show your readers.
What stories have you read where they stretched their suspension of disbelief too far? Did they attempt either of the two techniques above? What stories have you written where you have to suspend disbelief to reach a satisfying conclusion? And how was the article? Too sweet? Too sour? Just right? Comment below and let us know!
Hi! My name is Mara, and I’m a Christian artist, violinist, and blogger. I remember the day that I decided that I would learn something new about what makes a good story from every book I picked up — whether it was good, bad, or a mixture of both. I use this blog as a way of sharing some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned, and highlight which books, cartoons, and movies have taught me the most about writing an awesome story.