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Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

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.

Bad example

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.

Good examples

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.

 

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Technofiction review of Zero Dark Thirty

Summary

The story of how Osama Bin Laden (OBL) died is well-suited for legendary story telling. The big questions surrounding it are “when they will start” and “how many will there be”.

Zero Dark Thirty does a good job for a first try. It dodges the neo-circus action sequences that are so common in spy movies these days, there is no love-interest sub-plot. It does a good job of living up to its “based on a true story” aspirations.

It is well filmed and kept my attention throughout.

That said, it did have some Technofiction flaws.

Details

Disclaimer here: This topic of how to handle OBL is one I have written a lot about and have strong feelings about. This story does not match my feelings.

These movie makers faced a big problem: This story is, in reality, a complex tale. There was a whole lot of diplomacy among four nations involved — Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. None of this shows up in the movie. The first half is about interrogating people in secret places and the second about showing the mission itself.

So, in the interests of keeping the story simple, and centering it on the total dedication of Maya, a CIA caseworker, the movie spends most of the first half on how to interrogate vicious terrorists. Ouch! This implies that doing this was the heart of finding OBL. The rest of the wide web cast by the CIA and other allied intelligence agencies was irrelevant.

An example of the internal consistency errors this leads into was questioning one of the terrorists about the specifics of an upcoming terrorist act months after he was caught. “Give me a date!” says the interrogator with meaningful menace.

…Eh? Plans don’t change? Dates don’t change? People don’t change? Especially when one of your inner circle gets caught? The point is that interrogation information gets stale, this was not at all brought up in the movie.

In the middle of the movie Maya feels dead-sure she has located OBL and gets impatient for action. She is writing days on her superior’s window.

What the movie doesn’t bring out is the huge diplomatic implications of going in and snatching OBL. The Paki’s were our allies! …at least some of them.

To give you a similar scenario based on the US environment:

o Suppose Bernard Madoff got outed, but slipped off to become a fugitive. Years are spent looking for him. The most common rumor is he’s hiding in Honduras somewhere.

o Suppose a dedicated Canadian caseworker reviews interrogations done on other people working in Madoff’s company. This case worker determines that Madoff is actually holed up in a gated community near Baltimore, and only a thirty minute drive from Annapolis!

o OK… Do the Canadians:

a) Launch their SEALS in choppers to land in Baltimore and “off” Madoff, then carry the body back to Canada?

b) Launch a big enough missile to crater the gated community? Then look for DNA afterwards?

c) Do a wee bit more research on the network of people owning the properties and coming and going, then discretely inform trusted elements in the US government that a rogue CIA group has been harboring Madoff… and how soon will they clean up their own dirty laundry?

This diplomatic element is completely missing from the movie, and, sadly, most thinking about this spectacular and emotionally-pleasing end to the Great Osama Bin Laden Hunt. Pleasing in the US, but this ending was a loud, very public, face-slap to our friends in the Pakistan government and communities.

So while the movie is well composed and interesting to watch. It sadly goes for intimate story telling rather than showing a big picture. In this, it shares a lot with Argo (2012).

A couple of smaller issues:

Even quietized choppers are noisy and windy. Yet after they disembark, and one chopper crashes, the SEALS go slow and quiet. This seems incongruous, but I make no claim to expertise in this issue.

The choppers while they are flying in to the target are flying real, real close to each other, especially considering this is nape-of-earth flying and at night.

Other than these issues, I found the house assault scenes quite interesting and believable.

In sum, the movie had a lot going for it, but it did a poor job at revealing the big picture these events unfolded in.

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The SciFi Inspiration

I started writing science fiction back in the 1980’s for a very practical reason: I couldn’t find enough new science fiction that I wanted to read. So, I took the “If you want something done right…” attitude and started hammering away on the keyboard. I hit stride on this endeavor in the 2000’s. That’s when I fleshed out the Technofiction concept that became the heart of my writing. The basic concept of Technofiction is that science fiction story telling should be about how science and technology change how we humans live. Stuff makes a difference. Today we aren’t living in caves and carrying clubs because what we now know and what we now have make a difference.

I have loved science and history since I was a teenager in the 60’s, and I loved 70’s-style Dungeons and Dragons — a style where interactive story telling was much more important than consulting lists of capabilities. (I was one of the first one hundred people to play D&D, and an interesting story there.) The mix of these two over the years made me more sensitive to internal consistency in stories.

My friends and I would be working through a D&D story one of us had created and someone would say, “Yes, but what about…” and be pointing out a plot hole or world inconsistency which we would then address before we moved on. I say “we” with good reason, these stories were interactive so the DM (Dungeon Master) and the players were on the same side in getting these issues worked out.

With hours and hours of practice my scenarios got very consistent, and I got quite flexible in presenting them. These are traits that have carried into my story telling and story experiencing these days — these are the heart of my Technofiction reviews of books and movies I have in the Tales of Technofiction section on White World.

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