Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.
Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Prometheus” and “Elysium”. These movies were badly damaged by inconsistency.
There are three big advantages to paying attention to internal consistency. The first is that your readers/audience won’t be facepalming, giggling or head scratching as they get halfway through your story. They won’t be saying, “Eh? You’re saying what happened?”
The second is that internal consistency will lead your story into new and interesting twists. The ending will be “Neat!”, rather than “Been there, seen that.”
And finally, readers/viewers will like going back. If the story is consistent it is readable over and over.
I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example. This movie had a lot going for it: Good actors, good effects, good franchise. Sadly, all that was sacrificed to a truly head-scratching story line. The writer seemed to be channeling Ed Wood and his low-budget sci-fi of the 1950’s.
Here are just three inconsistency highlights from Prometheus:
o starship lands on the planet
o no satellite surveillance before or during landing
o “The air is breathable,” everyone takes off their helmets
These are straight out of cheesy 1950’s SF movies. We know better now. Ever since the Enterprise we have known that starships don’t land on planets, they have transporters or send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality… well, the shuttle part.
The crew gets surprised by a wind storm. Neat visual effects but… why did they get surprised? What bozos!
And speaking more of bozoism, I guess none of this crew ever read War of the Worlds. Taking off helmets! The other-than-dying-from-disease-problem with this is that nowadays environment suits such as these are the “outer me” — they have a lot of monitoring and communication built in. Pulling off the helmet disables about 80% of the suit capability. Whew! Once again, how Ed Wood!
And the cumulative effect of all this inconsistency is to destroy story credibility: It can’t be a good story because it’s so silly!
Some people I have talked with about this reply, “But this is in line with how the original alien movie unfolded. This movie is an homage.” I reply to that, “In the first movie this hastiness was consistent because the crew was in a fish-out-of-water situation. They signed on to haul freight, not explore new worlds. That makes their situation quite different and explains their being clumsy. This crew was there to find something strange and expect trouble. Very different, and their hastiness and clumsiness doesn’t work.”
Why does this happen?
The inconsistency happens because the movie makers don’t think internal consistency is as important as other issues — it is low in the priority list, and low on the movie makers’ awareness lists. What is higher on their radar is issues such as getting in neat special effects, getting the right talent, and making it seem like a “regular” story — one that has already been a proven money maker. This is Important Stuff, yes, but if tossing internal consistency leaves the audience head-scratching, giggling or yawning, much has been lost.
Now let’s look at some good examples:
I present three examples of doing consistency well. I’m a sci-fi fan so all are science fiction movies — “Moon” (2009), “Limitless” (2011) and “The Cabin in the Woods” (2011). All have unusual stories and all have executed them well.
Moon tells the story of a lonely man at a mining base on the Moon. It becomes a mystery story when he has an accident, and is replaced in just a few hours by… himself!
In truth, the first time I saw this movie I was getting more and more upset through much of it. I was seeing inconsistencies such as: This guy was out of direct communication contact with Earth and had been for months to years — Earth isn’t that far away and there should be redundancy.
So I was delighted when in the end these inconsistencies turned out to be elements of a well-designed conspiracy. The protagonist is not a human but a clone, and that clone has a life expectancy of just three years. When one clone dies it is replaced with another, and all experience life in a fantasy where they are fully human and on the Moon for a three year contract. It turned out to be neat science fiction, and I was delighted!
Limitless is also about exploring new technology — in this case a pill which allows 100% of the brain to work, not just 10% or 20%. (This is an urban myth, by the way, the brain is a very busy organ all the time. But it is a consistent premise within this story, so that causes me no problem.) The satisfying part is we get to watch the protagonist go through triumphs and tragedies, uses and abuses, of this new invention. There are some inconsistencies in this story, but they didn’t bother me much because the underlying premise of exploring a new technology was so well handled.
One example: The protagonist borrows big bucks from a Russian mafia type and then forgets to pay him back. Given his smarts that made no sense. It was pure plot device so that the mafia guy would get curious about the pills, and start taking them too, and become a serious threat. But I forgave, and I particularly liked the ending where the protagonist shows off additional cleverness, which is what this invention is all about.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011), written in part by Joss Whedon, is another example. This movie confused its first movie goers because it starts as if it is yet another slasher flick. It’s not. Instead, this is an SF movie that speculates about why slasher flick stories happen so regularly, and that is to appease some very real world gods with blood sacrifice. What follows is a movie with a lot of internal consistency, and humor, about the sacrifice being a routine part of human existence, but one that goes wrong in this case.
An inconsistency that matters little
Since the time of Shakespeare and before, story tellers have paid little attention to getting time, distance and military scale right. Inconsistency in these areas seems to bother audiences very little.
People don’t get upset when…
A messenger walks into the King’s throne room and tells the king, “Sir! The Evil Duke as refused your offer.”
The King furrows his brow, then says to General Mayhem standing beside him, “This means war! General, I want your ten thousand men attacking the Evil Duke’s castle by…” checks his hourglass wristwatch, “3PM this afternoon.”
“Yessir!” says General Mayhem with an arm smacking his breastplate in salute, and he then walks out to make it so.
Up until World War One marshaling and moving ten thousand men took years of planning and at least a season of preparation. An example: The battle at Bull Run occurred seven months after the South declared it was seceding, and it was roundly criticized after the Union defeat for being such a hastily assembled campaign.
But people watching movies don’t seem to care when the next scene shows General Mayhem that same afternoon in front of rank upon rank of knights in shining armor at the Evil Duke’s castle. It’s odd, but true, and thus we have the term “Poetic License” to explain inconsistencies that audiences don’t seem to mind.
In general, the more familiar the story format and subject are, the more license can be applied. A contemporary example of a story with a lot of familiarity, a lot of popularity, and little internal consistency is the movie Frozen. Popular, but the new ground is simply to tell a fairy tale with very contemporary character constructions. That said, use your license sparingly.