Co-imagination of fictional worlds in film viewing

Eduard Sioe Hao Tan*, Valentijn Visch

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The typical experience of narrative film is characterized by a remarkable intensity as to absorption and emotion. Current explanations attribute the experience to the realistic perceptual impact of the film. This theoretical article sets out to explain the experience as the result first of the film-viewer's acts of imagination of fictional worlds. More specifically, it seems suitable to conceptualize the film experience as arising from pretense play. Pretense play can afford room for free imagination leading to intense emotion, as well as restrictions to the imagination "quarantining" (Leslie, 1987) pretended fictional worlds from the real world, thus safeguarding the enjoyability and adaptiveness of the experience. Applying the concept of joint pretense for the first time to film, we follow Walton (1990) in his account of fiction as an institutionalized form of pretense play enabling intense emotional experiences in the cinema, including unpleasant ones to be appreciated by film-viewers. Thus, the model of co-imagination has as components (a) the generation of fictional film worlds-the acts of pretense in the narrower sense; (b) the participation in; and (c) the appreciation of these. We argue that the account of the experience can be improved if it is conceived as the outcome of joint pretense, in which film-viewers in their imagination activity team up with filmmakers-experts by eminence in prompting the viewers' imagination. Finally, in our model of co-imagination in popular film joint pretense acts are layered (Clark, 1996) as to the contents of the fictional worlds, with the lowest layer representing the collaboration for imagination between filmmaker and film-viewer in the actual world and the higher ones representing fictional worlds of increasing depth of imagination. Because of asymmetric access relations among layers, returns to the actual world in advanced pretense are difficult, which helps quarantining and the sense of absorption.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)230-244
Number of pages15
JournalReview of General Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Co-imagination
  • Emotional participation
  • Film experience
  • Layering in discourse
  • Pretense play


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