The Sin of Inconsistency

I don’t watch videos online.  When I’m dicking around the internet, I’m usually in skim mode, and I’m usually multitasking.  Neither of these lend themselves well to stopping on one thing for 2-5 minutes.  Occasionally a one-off will get my attention, but there are only two channels I watch regularly: Zero Punctuation, a hilariously vulgar series of video game reviews (NSFW), and Cinema Sins, which is rather as it sounds.  Breaking down point-for-point everything wrong with a particular movie is not only entertaining, it’s a critical part of developing the instincts of a writer.

In addition to pointing out laughably bad line readings or failures to understand basic scientific concepts, CS’s stock in trade is inconsistencies, the bumps in the road that can throw you headfirst out of the story.  Examples include:

  • Visual continuity errors: Cigarettes that unsmoke themselves, shirts that magically change color from shot to shot, people who teleport around the room with each cut to a different camera
  • Wild shifts in tone: Deadly serious moralizing in a comedy, awkwardly comic moments shoehorned into serious dramas
  • Out of character behavior: Someone acts in a way that doesn’t quite fit with, or even wholly contradicts, their character as established, usually for the sake of moving the plot forward
  • Breaking your own rules: Perhaps surprisingly, the CS guys rarely quibble with the rules a movie establishes for itself (unless it’s ostensibly realistic but has characters who are basically indestructible or supernaturally talented).  But if the movie then breaks or changes those rules on the fly, oh, there will be quibbling, yes there will.

All of these are issues that plague all writers, no matter the medium.  Visual continuity might not seem like a concern for a novelist, but have you ever read a novel where the redheaded heroine suddenly becomes blonde halfway through with no acknowledgement or explanation?  What about the sex scene where someone magically sprouts an extra hand?  The dude who just disappears out of the party because there were too many characters for the author to track?  If anything, maintaining the visuals is even more difficult for the fiction writer; it’s much easier to make sure your hero is wearing the same color shirt the whole day when you have to go out and buy it for him.

It’s fairly easy to look at a bad movie and see how these problems can add up to making it a complete mess:

But CS’s tagline is “No movie is without sin,” and while a good movie will certainly minimize these issues, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid them entirely.

It comes back down to that all-important willing suspension of disbelief.  Sure, every story has plot holes and cheats, but if the audience is sufficiently entertained or engaged, they won’t care.  It’s only when they’re not enjoying themselves that they’re paying attention to what’s gone wrong.

Still, it’s best to catch these issues when you can, especially when they can be fixed without doing too much damage to your planned story.  The necessary skill is spotting these issues in your own work, which can be tricky because you’re so close to it that your brain fills in the details whether they made it to the page or not.  Editors, beta readers, and critique partners are all indispensable in this regard, but it’s possible to train yourself to be aware of these things.  As I said earlier, it’s an instinct, a bone-deep understanding of structure, character development, and the other nuts and bolts that make up a story.

If you haven’t gotten to the point where you can spot this stuff on your own, it can be helpful to have it pointed out to you.  That’s why Cinema Sins is so useful, especially for a developing writer.  Try watching a few of the videos for movies you’ve seen.  Did you notice those problems before?  Do you understand now why something is a problem?  Is a given sin something you think you could fix, or something that gets to slide because it’s still effective?  These sorts of questions can help you develop a critical eye for the work of others, which you can then use to strengthen your own stuff.