Guns, Carrots and the willing supension of disbelief

Authors of fiction have an advantage that we often don’t realize we have:  Our audience wants to believe us.  They know we’re lying, but in most cases they’re willing to accept anything we want sell them in the name of the story, and ask only that we’re honest about what the story is, and we remain true to our premises.  When the willing suspension of disbelief snaps, it is usually not because the event triggering the snap was something that in isolation is inherently more implausible than other things in the story,  it is usually because the event doesn’t fit with the story’s world as set up by the author.  We’ll accept things in the Saw movies that would never fly in CSI.

The implausibility effect also has  to do with tone.  If you’re watching an action flick, the tone sets the level of realism that the audience expects.  If a action sequence from a Jackie Chan movie broke out in the middle of The Departed, something would be wrong.  Rambo is not Reservoir Dogs.

Then you have Shoot Em Up.   Of which Roger Ebert said, “I may disapprove of a movie for going too far, and yet have a sneaky regard for a movie that goes much, much farther than merely too far.

Not one scene in the film is remotely plausible even by the standard of your average 1980’s Schwarzenegger movie.  But it is brutally honest with its audience, making sure that before the credits roll, everyone has a clear picture of the movie’s warped universe.  The first person (of literally dozens) to be killed by Clive Owen’s character is dispatched by the use of a carrot.  A carrot.  As in our protagonist brings an orange root vegetable to a gunfight, and wins.  By shoving the carrot through the guys head.  Through the guy’s head. A carrot.

The scene does many things, like making every subsequent gun battle more plausible by comparison, but it primarily tells us  all that the rules in this story are not the rules of the real world, and if anyone is worrying about that sort of thing after the head-piercing carrot, it isn’t the story’s fault.

Four More Things Lost Can Teach Us About Storytelling

Back a couple of years ago I wrote about “Five Things Lost Can Teach Us About Storytelling” and I thought I’d add to that list now that the series is complete. Here’s a few more things I think Lost did well:

  1. In writing a prolonged series, keep in mind how long your plot arc is: There is a world of difference between shows like Lost where each episode plays out as part of a larger plot arc, and a series like CSI or where the episode is a story unto itself. Many times if the writers shift gears and impose longer story-lines on a prior episodic series, it goes badly (cough—X-Files—cough), and when a stand-alone story is inserted into a show with multi-episode or multi-season arcs, that episode often feels unnecessary and pointless.
  2. Related to above, keep in mind if the story arc is closed, or open-ended: Is there an end to all of this? If so, you should know where it is and write toward it. It doesn’t mean that an open-ended series can’t mess with the status quo, but the changes wrought in the universe simply establish a new status quo, rather than build toward a climax. Lost shifted gears every season, but each time we were moving toward something, which contrasts with the other J.J.Abrams show, Alias, which while it reinvented itself every season, didn’t develop toward any overarching plot until near the end.
  3. Theme is a great way to unify a long series: One thing Lost did very well was to use various themes and motifs to connect a sprawling story over many different locations, characters and time periods. The themes of light vs. dark, faith vs. reason, paternal betrayal and or abandonment, all played out through every episode, culminating in the climax.
  4. Mix the beginning into the ending: In a long series, when you reach the end, it can help with a sense of closure if you echo patterns from the beginning of the work, not simply answering questions raised at the start, but also mirroring themes or situations. Lost did this explicitly, the final shot of the series mirrored the initial scene.

If you’re thinking about TV writing. . .

There’s a marvelous post over at Io9 that you really must read.  It’s titled, “Inside the writers room: Top scifi TV writers reveal tricks of the trade,” but it really isn’t about genre writing, and it really isn’t about tricks of the trade. What it is, is an in-depth exploration on exactly what the working environment is like in a scripted TV show. To anyone unfamiliar with that environment, especially someone with a connection to writing outside that realm, it’s an eye-opener. I already knew, from my few screenplay attempts, that the mechanics of writing were very different between scriptwriting and prose. But I had no idea how different the working environment is in TV.

I might share a job-title with the writers on Lost, but we are actually doing two very different things.

So, Tropes. . .

If you’re a writer populating these here interwebs, and you don’t know about the site TV tropes, you should do yourself a favor and rectify that right now.  What is it?  It is a wiki that deals with, well, tropes in fiction: character types, situations, plot devices and so on.  And, despite the name, it does so for all media.  While at first blush it might seem a bit fannish, it provides a rather exhaustive deconstruction of just about any narrative device you can think of, and probably a lot more you haven’t.  It is as if the Turkey City Lexicon achieved sentience and spawned a new species that is slowly attempting to take over the internet.

One of the better ways to play wit it is to search for a book/movie/tv series you happen to like (or are just familiar with), and scroll down to the section listing what tropes it provides examples of.  Here are some choice entries to get you started:

Write to the hand. . .

I go on about plot and worldbuilding a lot, because those are my strengths.  Both are similar in that they’re largely exercises in logic— taking a premise, either in the environment or the story itself, and just following the consequences to an inevitable conclusion. I tend to deal with most writing issues, from characterization to theme, the same way, taking some first principles and building, methodically and logically out from there. It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but that isn’t the only way to do that. In fact, because logic is a rather distant and high level way to engage the reader, it does have at least one particularly obvious flaw, in that it is easy to write something that doesn’t engage the reader on an emotional level.

But, there’s a flip side to that flaw. If you engage the reader on some level other than logic, you can leapfrog gaps in plot or worldbuilding or character. This was brought home to me during the last Hamsters’ workshop where we did two very different stories that illustrated the need to be able to sidestep the whole left-brain logic thing because the story is about something else. The first story was a more traditional sfnal piece in terms of structure, but it relied on a central conceit that was improbable to say the least. The second was a exercise in surrealism. Both stories would have died if an attempt was made to impose logical worldbuilding on the setting.

So how do you deal with that?

You hand wave. You write something so engaging on a visceral emotional or aesthetic level that the reader either doesn’t notice the logical gaps, or more likely, doesn’t care. You make the other parts of the story too shiny to ignore. You can do this with lyric prose (Catherynne Valente) or with humor (Terry Prachett) or with horror (Steven King) or with surreal imagery (David Lynch) or with prolonged action or explosive set-pieces (Me).

Yes, left-brain writer as I am, I hand-wave over plot holes all the time. I do it consciously, and I’ve done it ever since my first book. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself, “how did the rats find out about that hotel?” Since the revelation came in the middle of the climatic action sequence, I bet the question never occurred to you. And by the time Nohar found Angel hanging in the shower, the question didn’t matter any more. Oh, and don’t bother asking me, I don’t know either.

I finally saw the Lost finale

I can see why a lot of people would hate it.  But then, again, there are certainly arguments for what they did end up doing.

Me, I teared up during the episode, had a bit of a WTF when Christian opened up his mouth at the end, and spent a good long time afterward thinking that was so weak.  Originally, I was going to write a blog post about how I would have ended the whole thing better. . .  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t giving the show and the writers enough credit.  This ending was telegraphed from the start.  After all, with the constant visitations by the dead, one of the commonest theories about the island the first few seasons was that it was some portal to the afterlife.  The sfnal trappings only really appeared in the middle seasons— the first season, like the last, was much more supernatural in feel.  It’s also obvious in the motifs they used; remember Locke staring down into the light in the first season?  As well as the faith vs. reason battle that began with Jack and Locke (which became more and more faith vs. nihilism) which was repeated throughout the series with Ben vs. Whitmore, Dharma vs. the Others, Jacob vs. Smokey, and ended with Jack and pseudo-Locke in mirrored roles.  The last season mirrored the first even by reversing the original fan theory by making the Island the “real world” and “flash-sideways” the afterlife.

Love or hate the ending, this is where Lost was going from the start.  And, while I may have some issues with how they ended, I don’t think I could do a better one.  Not without re-writing most of the whole last season.

And the more I think of it, the more I think they did a pretty good job with what might have been an impossible task.  (I mean, when some of the more strident complaints are “Sayid and Shannon?  You’re kidding me.  They ruined it.” methinks there’s not a lot of deep thinking going on.)  It probably would have been a first magnitude error to whip the curtain completely away, because whatever explicit reveal you did on the nature of the island would never have lived up to the mystery in everyone’s head.  In fact, if there was a fault, it was probably going into the light cave.  After thinking about it, the one change I might do now would be to rewrite things so that we never see exactly what’s going on down there.  Just have Desmond describe it when they pull him back up.

That, and I’d rewrite Christian’s speech.  I still think it was kind of lame.