The Audience Doesn't Know, But They KnowComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The audience doesn't know, but they know. That's because reality is shaped weird.

When I'm working on a fictional story, especially in speculative fiction, for a game or a tv show or a movie, there is often pressure to make the story simpler, more streamlined, more concise, more symmetrical. When I say, "Okay, but that doesn't make any sense," or "that's not how that works," or "I don't think he would do that," or "that sort of violates the laws of physics, doesn't it?" I get the response, "Alex, it's a gaaaaaaaame!"

Or, "... moooovie!" Or "teevee show!"

Writers generally care more about the reality the characters are living in than, say, directors, who want everything to look cool, or level designers, who want the player to be able to do cool stuff.

But here's why those arguments are sometimes worth having: reality is shaped weird. Most real things are not that simple, streamlined, concise or symmetrical.

So when we come upon a story that is too simple, too symmetrical, we are not sucked in as much as we are by a story that has a few weirdnesses. The latter feels more like reality.

That's how the audience doesn't know, but they know. If you have too many characters doing things because it simplifies the story, or that violate the internal rules of the universe that you have set up, or (in a naturalistic setting) that violate the rules of physics and biology, the audience may not know exactly what you've done wrong. But they will sense that the shape of your story is the shape of a made-up story, not a real one.

If you have the occasional character taking the story on a detour because dammit that's who they are, the audience feels more like they're in reality.

And that increases engagement, with that character, and with the story in general.

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What are your favorite examples of "weirdnesses" that make stories seem more real and more engaging?

By Blogger phillcalle, at 7:31 PM  

At random: in The Americans, the spies failing to get a transmission from Central because it's the 80s and it's over a crappy ham radio and their kids are screaming. In The West Wing, the Republican Speaker of the House becoming President because the Democratic President has invoked the 25th Amendment, but has no current Vice President. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen's character refusing to acknowledge to his own superiors whether he has or has not assassinated someone. ("Sir, I am not aware of any such operation or mission, nor would I be disposed to discuss such a mission if it did in fact exist.") It becoming a problem that Daenarys's pet dragons are eating peasants, because, you know, why wouldn't they? In Valkyrie, the German signals department forwarding messages for both the coup plotters and the loyalists, because picking the wrong side could be fatal, but following orders literally is always safe. Could have been a big dramatic moment if they chose sides, but they wouldn't, and in the event, I am willing to believe that they didn't.

Examples of convenient BS: space marines never being able to call in artillery or air strikes. Cops not calling for backup. Civilians not calling the cops. Arya Stark falling into a sewage-filled canal with a wound and not getting an infection.

Basically, I get pulled in any time a character refuses to do something that would forward the plot or provide spectacle or create a big dramatic scene, because of some reason having to do with how the world is. Any time the writer is thinking, "If this is true, then what else must be true?"

Hewing to the shape of reality often means throwing out your first impulse and, often, coming up with something more interesting.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:23 PM  

Those examples are great, thank you!

By Blogger Unknown, at 1:48 PM  

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