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Dramatic Convenience Vs Realism (The Idiot Ball Again)

orphan-blackJust finished watching Season 2 of Orphan Black. I like the show pretty well, but there are a couple things that frequently seem off. Specifically:

  • Everybody always seems to be an hour’s drive from everybody else. (no matter how far away they seem to want to flee)
  • All the bad guys know Felix’s address, yet everybody keeps treating Felix’s loft as safe.
  • For a kid that tends to do things like wander outside at night with random strangers, Kira is left unattended way, way too much.

There are other problems, too, but they’re a little more conceptual than this stuff, and I don’t think Orphan Black is unique in any way, here. Lots and lots of books, stories, shows, and movies do stuff like the above. They are choices made by the writers for narrative convenience, and they are necessary in many ways, but there is a point at which they become silly. Sussing out exactly where that line is strikes me as rather important, so let’s talk about it.

First off, there is a lot of boring things that happen in daily life. You take the train to work, you eat breakfast, you go to the bathroom, you wait for a

But it was lembas-poop, so it was actually quite pleasant.

But it was lembas-poop, so it was actually quite pleasant.

bus, you read through a bunch of random e-mails, etc., etc.. People sitting down to watch a thriller don’t want the pace to get bogged down by the details. So, when the DA slaps down a plea deal on the table in front of a suspect, we don’t sit there for half an hour while the suspect’s lawyer goes over it and then discusses it with her client – that’s dull. So, instead, we just sort of gloss over the fact that those things happened. Yeah, they read and discussed the deal at some point. James Bond has to eat occasionally. Yes, Frodo and Sam pooped in Mordor.

It is frustrating, for a writer’s perspective, to have people point out these little gaps. Stuff like “When does he change clothes?” or “Why didn’t she get change for her coffee?” or “I never see this guy ever cash any of his paychecks!” Had a friend of mine kindly agree to critique a story of mine once in which two survivors of an apocalypse were riding their bikes down an empty interstate highway and his question was “what happens if they get a flat tire?” So, okay, yeah – that could be explained (lot of abandoned bicycle shops out there!). All of this stuff could be explained and pretty easily. The question is, though, whether you want it explained and whether that would be a good use of limited space and time. Do we want to have a pee break on the way through Mirkwood? Do we have to watch Bruce Wayne spend his days popping in and out of charity fundraiser after charity fundraiser and shake hands and make nice and so on and so forth? Or, you know, would you rather we just skip past a lot of that and get to the Batman part? When faced with the choice, a lot of these so-called “important” questions suddenly look like the hair-splitting silliness they are.

He does it with style, too.

He does it with style, too.

There is a point, though, were streamlining can go too far. Getting back to Orphan Black for a second: Sarah knows Dyad is after her and her child, so she goes on the run. She hops in a car and drives…not very far, as it turns out, since when she decides to come back again she’s back in less than a few hours. Now, okay, okay – if Sarah drives clear to the other side of Canada, she’s basically left the sandbox of the world the writers have set up and she can’t be part of the story anymore unless she pulls a Varys and basically teleports across oceans and continents with ease. Viewers don’t really want a whole sideplot for half a season where Sarah tries to start a new life in a new place with new characters, etc, etc.. She needs to be close by so the plot can advance.

But, at the same time, having her stick around that close makes no actual sense. Nor does Felix spontaneously bursting into tears and going back to his deathtrap apartment (sweet a pad as it is). Sarah’s primary priority has always been her daughter above all else and Felix knows going back to his place endangers everybody (chiefly himself), otherwise he wouldn’t have gone with them in the first place, and yet they all do these silly things anyway because, if they didn’t, the plot wouldn’t work. This is sloppy, because it shows the authorial hand too nakedly in the unfolding of events. It’s pulling back the curtain on a magic trick. It’s the writing equivalent of a missed note in a recital. It maybe doesn’t crash the whole thing (as mentioned, I do like the show), but it knocks you out of the dream for a second.

Now, we can argue about how bad an offender this or that story is in this sense, but the fact is that stories often use the Idiot Ball to control action. They make characters stupider or less competent than they should actually be in order to force the plot to fit. This is a different problem than just cutting out the boring bits, but it comes from the same place: things need to be streamlined, to connect, or otherwise you wind up with a crazy unwieldy plot that you can’t handle anymore (hat tip to a lot of epic fantasy authors out there). Streamline the wrong parts, though, and you wind up with Orphan Black‘s tendency to have everyone they meet to be part of some conspiracy of some kind to track, capture, or destroy clones (which, while understandable from a structural point of view, starts to get a little silly after a while).

So what to do? Well, that’s the trick – there’s no easy answer here. The fact is that you, the writer, need to come up with plausible and reasonable ways to make sure the story doesn’t spin off its axis or mutate into the wrong kind of story. I’m struggling with this myself in the next Saga of the Redeemed novel, and it is no cake walk. However, I recognize that I need to do it and do it well if I want my story to transport and be acceptable. I don’t want to knock people out of the dream, if you follow my meaning. I have to separate the important parts from the unimportant, the easily plausible from the implausible. And I don’t ever need to explain to you when and where and why my main character needs to take a leak.

Physics is a Harsh Mistress

There are those who think that writing science fiction or coming up with fantasy settings is easy since you can ‘do whatever you want.’ The thing is, though, that this isn’t really true at all. You can do whatever you want in the same sense that you can do whatever you want in any genre, from upscale/literary fiction all the way through bodice rippers. Yeah, you can write your entire novel without proper nouns. Certainly you can exclusively write in present tense using a second person POV. Yes, you can stop your novel halfway through, leave an ellipsis, and call it a cliffhanger. You can do all of those things.

That doesn’t mean doing those things is a good idea.

The trick with science fiction and fantasy is this: you suddenly have to care much, much more about realism than you would in a different genre. You have to care about it more because you are willfully and knowingly violating it on a regular basis, but must do so in such a way that the audience accepts such a violation as reasonable.

Now, fantasy and science fiction do this in different ways. Specifically, fantasy is involved in making the impossible seem possible (Magic? Goblins? Fairies? Sure, I’ll buy that!). The whole world needs to be constructed so that nobody looks sideways at the surreal and/or if they do, there is documented reasons why. You, essentially, create your own history, science, mathematics, and physics to go along with everything. In scifi, however, you are involved in making the possible seem plausible. In other words, science fiction is obligated to extrapolate upon known scientific concepts whenever possible. It doesn’t create its own laws of physics; it takes the existing ones and imagines their theoretical applications beyond what we can currently achieve. You can’t break the rules without spending a good amount of time explaining how.

You are, furthermore, in both genres, obligated to explain how, no matter how obliquely. Fantasy can often get away with the whole ‘it’s a different, alien world’ angle (though not always), but science fiction is held to a higher standard, since it’s operating in the ‘real’ world. Works of speculative fiction that don’t do their due diligence in justifying their concepts suffer for it, since the audience has to work pretty hard at suspending their disbelief all the time. If you want to say, I don’t know, that all electricity has ceased to function (a la Revolution), you need to make sure things are internally consistent.

I’m reminded of a pitch workshop/session I attended wherein the group was going to have the opportunity to do a group pitch to an editor from Del Rey books, one of the big SF/F publishing houses. The editor was not sparing in her critique of each author’s pitch, but one guy got raked over the coals so hard it made the rest of the room blush to hear it. He was a kid (still in college) pitching an Arthuriana scifi epic in which the descendants of Mordred took over the world and rule the earth from what would have been modern day New York City, save for the altered timeline. The editor proceeded to ask him a couple mundane questions:

Why did they move to New York? Why not London?

What happened to the Native Americans in this timeline?

Were there ever Nazis in this world? Did World War 2 ever happen?

So, it’s been a thousand years, right? Why do they still use swords?

The guy could supply no satisfactory answers to any of these questions. His world crumbled around his ears when placed under mild scrutiny. At the end, the editor said “I don’t think you have any real idea what’s happening in your own novel,” and left it at that. Harsh? Perhaps. But I think she was right.

Please don’t try to explain to me how this thing works. Just don’t. We all know it’s a ‘magic amulet’ and it pisses me off.

This, of course, brings me to Revolution. I watched the pilot last night; the characters are good, the acting is okay, the action is fun, and the conflict seems engaging. The premise, though, makes no damned sense in the least. It would be one thing if somebody destroyed the grid (somehow), or if the earth were bombarded by EM so intense that it consistently scrambled all electronics. That, though, isn’t what is shown as happening. Electricity is just gone, as though by a David Copperfield illusion. One character remarks ‘physics went haywire’. This elicited a grunt from me – yes, it would have to. However, you aren’t allowed to do that. This story takes place in the really-real world, man; physics just doesn’t ‘go haywire’. I’m not a physicist, but I have a serviceable grasp of the basic concepts, and nothing they portray in that show pass basic muster. No electricity doesn’t mean no cars, it just means cars that need to be cranked in order to start. No electricity doesn’t mean the permanent collapse of infrastructure, it means a reversion to steam power. Guns still work; there is no godly reason you’d revert to muzzle-loading muskets and crossbows. Colt invented his revolver and Maxim perfected the machine gun in pre-electrical times, folks. In short, the world portrayed isn’t the one that seems likely to develop fifteen years post-blackout, even if we do accept the nonsense idea that electricity ceased to function (as though the movement of electrons were some kind of ‘technology’ and not a basic physical property of existence).

Nevertheless, I might still watch the show. That was a reasonably cool swordfight, after all.