Highly Illogical Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-11-02 14:00:00 No comments

Grit your teeth and give this article, about plot holes and film logic, by Film Crit Hulk at BadAssDigest, a read. The ALL-CAPS FORMAT gets wearying after a few grafs, but I'm an old hand at this sort of thing (it comes with cutting your teeth on a 2400-baud connection, I guess), and the points made in the article are worth a post here, because they hit me straight in the fountain pen.

As most any regular reader of this blog knows, I'm working on a big-ass science fiction epic. (Granted, it's a book and not a movie, but I think a lot of Hulk's points apply here in most any entertainment medium.) I know full well that I can polish this thing until I can see my own damn face in it, and people will still be able to pick holes in it big enough to drive trucks through.

It's not easy making peace with such an insight. You always want to know your story is not going to be riddled with stupid mistakes like all those other stories, and so you sweat and check your work and makes notes and research your ass off, and in the end someone still comes along and says, "But why don't they just shoot him?"

I think I sat down with most every plot development in this story and applied the Why Don't They Just Shoot Him test — or the Hey, Wait A Minute test, or the So What? Test, or any number of the commonsense-to-a-seven-year-old tests that go with any large, complex piece of work. And yes, I still expect people to say "But why don't they just shoot him?" and find something stupid I missed.

Hulk's piece helped me recognize such questions only go so far. When asked in the right measure, they are powerful and useful. They keep you from making wholly idiotic mistakes, and they give you a measure of creative opportunity to bind the story all the more strongly to its emotional undercurrents.

Because when you get down to it, we don't enjoy a story because it's watertight. It's a nice bonus, but a rare one. We also enjoy a story not because we really want to have the author describe for us a really neat new approach to magic or antigravity, which has been Thunk Through Real Good.

We enjoy a story because we want to experience something that we care about, and experience it through people that we care about. To that end, the most egregious plot holes — the ones most worth bitching about — are the thoughtless ones that involve human behavior: where people inadvertently look stupid, or behave in ways completely contrary to their established nature, or what have you. It's when people are being marched into brick walls, when they have no sense of being characters, that our emotional covenant with the drama breaks.

Every story has things which are glossed over for the sake of storytelling convenience. The presence of gloss in a story is not sloppy storytelling. If anything, it's a sign of precision and economy in storytelling. It means the author has decided to put the lion's share of his attention and effort behind the things that, in the long run, are most worth giving a damn about: who did what to whom and why, and what they learned from it.

From what I can tell, there are people whose appreciation for a story is somehow irreversibly ruined by the presence of gloss. They are more interested in something that "holds together" and "makes sense", as if the idea of being emotionally manipulated by a story was beneath them.

Digression. Some of this goes back into my theories about fandom. Fans are by nature obsessive compulsives. They don't just want to have their entertainments, they want to have them add up and make sense, because then they feel all the more validated for having invested themselves emotionally in them. They become not just enjoyable, but defensible. They're sick of being told how stupid the things they like are, and so they want to be able to stand up and say, no, it's not stupid, it makes perfect sense. (This theory is still under wraps, but that's the heart of it so far.)

If you want a story that makes perfect sense when dissected frame-by-frame, then I submit you are not looking to be entertained. Or, rather, you should look for your entertainment from a different hobby, because there isn't a single movie or book out there that'll satisfy you. We want someone to come along and suspend our disbelief, because it's fun to have that done in a novel way. We are willing to accept some things being glossed over for the sake of allowing that to happen, and it's satisfying to have that delivered to us through the lens of a human personality. As Dale Peck once said, "Real fiction doesn't 'discover' truth, let alone present it to readers ... real fiction invents and dispenses with truth as it sees fit. That's why it's called fiction. Duh."

Try this experiment. Take a movie you love that you know has plot holes, and a movie you hate that you know has plot holes. Put them side by side. Why do the plot holes of the former seem forgivable and the plot holes of the latter seem appalling? Because you're already emotionally invested in the first one, that's why! We forgive the worst of what we love and we are hard-pressed to accept the best of what we hate. That emotional investment comes through who we are shown and what they are going through. (The fact that some fans have at least as much emotional attachment to the Enterprise as they do any of its captains tells me that either the franchise in question is going about its business wrong, or the fans in question are.)

The fact that people get so emotional about plot problems makes me wonder if they fear for being played a sucker, that if they get in the habit of forgiving too many dumb things, they'll be all the more vulnerable to creators pulling a fast one on them. But again, that just smacks of being unwilling to let a story be, well, a story. Letting such a thing click with you is not a sign of weakness or stupidity. It's a sign you, too, have a heart.

Tags: movies storytelling