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Let’s Hear it for the Rules!

My friend Marc Hirsh drew my attention to this article by Tasha Robinson which he thought hit on some of the themes explored on this blog. I agree with it wholeheartedly, and feel like a lack of attention to the ‘rules’ in scifi/fantasy/horror is one of the great weaknesses in the genre as it tends to be shown in film (and, as Marc pointed out in our discussion, in a lot of comic books, too).

I explore this problem partially in my critique of Dr. Who, as well, and it mostly boils down to the fact that, if you don’t handle things right, the audience feels cheated. This is uncommonly easy to do in a scifi or fantasy setting, since the rules are pretty much all subject to being violated. As a scifi/fantasy author, it is part of your responsibility to establish new rules and to keep those rules sacred, only violating them when something truly extraordinary happens (and in those instances it ought to be treated as something truly extraordinary). Dr. Who does a particularly bad job at this much of the time and, hence, I don’t particularly love the show.

It is interesting to note, however, that most of the stories cited by Robinson in her article are film or television iterations of the ‘speculative’ genres. The one she holds up as consistent is a book. Granted, she is writing for the AV Club, but I think the difference is important beyond that. Exposition in scifi/fantasy is, for me, the most challenging aspect of the story. I might know how I want my world to work and have my rules all laid out, but conveying those to the audience in a way that isn’t just a massive info-dump of soul-killing expository narrative is rather difficult. As a result, exposition takes time–it gets spread out over chapters, not pages, and it takes a while before you feel at ease in the world (this is something I’ve discussed as well, and as a chief aspect of the genre that I enjoy).

In books, laying out exposition over a significant period of time is fine–you’ve got the space and the time. In a movie or a TV show, you don’t have that luxury. You can’t easily spend 15 minutes of a film explaining the nuance of some minor point of an alien culture which comes up later. You can do it, sure, bit it’s often quite difficult and, for the purposes of TV/movie executives, unneccessary. They aren’t making movies so they’re internally consistent–they’re making movies so they’re exciting and will sell well both here and overseas. The screenplay or teleplay is a tightly paced entity, and only exceptionally clever writers are going to get their exposition onto the screen and not see it left on the cutting room floor. For every one of us who saw Transformers and asked ourselves ‘what the hell is going on?’, there were probably 15-20 people who answered ‘what do we care? Things are exploding! Yay!’

So this problem (and a problem it is) is partially economics, partially lack of skill on the part of the authors, and partially laziness. That doesn’t make it excusable, but that, in my opinion, is why it happens so often. We (or ‘I’, I suppose, depending on who’s reading this), as scifi/fantasy authors, need to be constantly aware of Chekov’s Gun. We need to create a world where the audience can follow along and understand the action, otherwise we’re just cheating. We’re using the opposite of Chekov’s Gun, which I might as well dub ‘Batman’s Utility Belt’.

I know I, myself, obsess over the consistency of my own work. I’m constantly finding tiny ways in which I’m violating my own rules, and it drives me crazy. I try very hard to remove them, but I think I’ll always find ways I think it could be better. That, I guess, is the burden I carry if I want to create new and fantastical worlds for my readers to experience.

I think, on balance, it is certainly worth it.