(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Star Trek (2009). Page image is TNG, but I’m using it because holy shit, “star trek yoga” actually gave me an image result. Wasn’t expecting that.)
Okay, I’ll admit, using “yoga” to describe this concept is a bit of a stretch, twisting what I have (an idea for a blog post) into the not-necessarily compatible position that I need it to be in (a tricky letter in this alphabet challenge). But that makes it quite a perfect metaphor for the topic at hand, really. The trope of the day is Contrived Coincidence. You all know this one: the plot gets stuck in a corner, and some outlandish, utterly improbable occurrence comes along to get it moving again. This is mostly an acceptable break from reality as long as it’s not too egregious. After all, insane coincidences happen in real life all the time, and depending on the tone of the story, the audience is frequently willing to just go along with it to keep things moving. Hell, sometimes it gets explained by there being some force within the story that’s manipulating events to its liking (instead of it just being, you know, the author doing exactly that).
Still, it’s kind of a lazy technique, frequently the mark of a writer with two preconceived story points and no reasonable way to connect them who just said “Fuck it” and moved on. It’s laid out in one of Pixar’s rules of storytelling: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” Once you get past a certain point in the story, the audience wants things to connect, to pay off the setups and tie everything together.
The Star Trek reboot is a prime example of cheating coincidences. Of course having every leadership position on the ship vacated just in time for the familiar characters to step in is a bit of a stretch, but it pales in comparison to what happens after Vulcan gets ‘sploded. Spock dumps Kirk on the nearest planet, where he almost immediately finds… Spock Prime! And naturally, the elder Spock has information to impart that’s critical for moving the plot forward. Naturally.
I know, dude. I can’t believe it either.
That would already be a pretty staggering example, but it gets worse! Because only a few miles away from the Ice Cave of Destiny, there’s a Federation outpost, staffed by none other than Scotty. The fact that it’s Scotty is not that huge a stretch; this is an origin story after all, so he’s not a main character at this point, just a random dude. The fact that said random dude has just invented exactly the technology that Kirk needs to get back onto the Enterprise? Less forgivable.
The worst part of all is that there’s no explanation. This goes back to what we discussed earlier this month about lampshade hanging: when you’re giving suspension of disbelief that rough a buggering, there desperately needs to be some sort of acknowledgment to keep it from breaking entirely. In this case, you could have had Kirk dropped off actually at the Federation outpost, or have Spock somehow mention that he’s purposefully dropping him not too far away, which solves one Scotty conundrum. As for the transwarp beaming, perhaps a throwaway line earlier in the movie about some dude who was working on that technology would have softened that blow. And with Spock Prime, well, any way you slice it, that’s still going to be one hell of a coincidence. But having it piled atop the other whoppers pushes things from “That’s rather unlikely” to “Look, if you’re not going to take this seriously…”
Willing suspension of disbelief relies on trust. It’s the writer being able to credibly say, “Yes, I know what I’m doing. This is going somewhere worthwhile. Just stay with me and we’ll have a good time.” But leaning too heavily on something like coincidence jeopardizes that trust. Like an inexperienced yoga practitioner attempting a pose that’s way beyond their level, the whole thing is unstable and likely to fall over if you look at it funny. The foundation of a good story is a logical progression of events (even if that logic isn’t readily apparent the whole time). Life can rely on coincidence sometimes, but as a writer, you should probably think twice.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Book of Mormon, Wicked, The Lion King, and The Music Man.)
We got the soundtrack for The Book of Mormon pretty much as soon as it was released, and I was utterly engrossed. But one thing bothered me quite a bit. The song “You and Me (But Mostly Me)”…
…sounded awfully familiar.
It kind of stuck in my craw. The rest of the songs are great, so why rip off something contemporary and distinctive? But the more I listened, the more I realized that it’s supposed to sound like Wicked, because they do the same thing throughout the show.
The thing is, it’s not a straight copy so much as a quote. The difference is that they’re doing something with it, using the musical similarity to make a distinction. With this and with the other similar songs, they’re using the same familiar music to accompany a polar opposite situation.
Let’s look at this pairing to start. “Defying Gravity” sees both Glinda and Elphaba realizing that while they’re choosing to walk different paths, they’re still joined together as friends and equals. However, in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” Elders Price and Cunningham are acknowledging that they’re being forced onto the same path, but they’re not so much with the friends and equals.
It goes on like this. The Ugandans’ song “Hasa Diga Eebowai”…
…actually references its doppelganger:
In the latter, Simba has left his home in terror and shame, only to discover that his fate isn’t nearly as unpleasant as he feared. In the former, the missionaries leave their home in triumphant expectation, only to discover that their situation is far worse than they could have imagined.
One more! “All-American Prophet” kicks it old-school:
Harold Hill doesn’t remotely believe the things he’s saying, but the townsfolk are all over it. Kevin Price believes what he’s saying body and soul, but the townsfolk are decidedly unimpressed.
Sure, the writers could still establish the story beats on their own. But by invoking these familiar standbys, they subtly set up audience expectations, which can then be subverted to add another layer to the joke. There’s an old saying about knowing your audience, but it’s not just about what they’re likely to find funny or offensive or what have you. If you have a good idea of the works your audience is familiar with (someone who sees one musical has probably seen others, for instance), you can use that knowledge as a sort of springboard to let you build something new.
The important thing is to make it new, mind. Just pointing to something familiar and saying, “Hey, here’s a thing you should recognize!” isn’t going to get you many points. But if you can provide a twist to it, that’s when you’ve got something special.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to… well, anything by Robin McKinley.)
I read voraciously as a kid and teenager, although I had a tendency to stay in a comfort zone of familiar books and authors. One of the most influential authors, both on my writing and on my general outlook on life, was Robin McKinley. In fact, she wrote pretty much my favorite book of all timekee. Here, I’ll describe it for you:
We meet a young woman who’s something of a misfit, although she has strong family ties. She gets swept up against her will into a new exotic world and befriends its brooding, magical ruler (who’s quite a bit older than her). In this new world, she discovers that she has position, power, and purpose: to save her new home and its prince.
I am referring, of course, to Beauty, though you may have been forgiven for thinking I was referring to Rose Daughter. Or The Blue Sword. Or The Hero and the Crown. Or Chalice. Or Sunshine. Only the first two are actual retellings of the Beauty and the Beast legend, but the others all pretty much riff on it. This basic format can be seen in her other retellings, of Sleeping Beauty and Donkeyskin and even Robin Hood. For nearly forty years, McKinley has been coming back to this same well.
And it works.
See, there are multiple elements that go into making a unique story. Plot is just one of them, and it’s probably the one most likely to get regurgitated. Though theories differ about the exact number of original plots in existence (one difficult to confirm quote goes as low as two), there are certainly common structural threads that run through the tales we tell. If you demand pure originality in your plots, you’re going to be sorely disappointed (and it’s a fairly new concept anyway).
What keeps McKinley’s novels distinct from each other is the details. The characters may be filling similar roles, but as individuals they’re quite different, and the dynamics between characters vary as well. And, of course, the world-building sets each apart; Damar looks nothing like Willowlands looks nothing like Sherwood. The stories may hit the same beats, but they get there by different means and provide different experiences along the way.
Sometimes I worry that, as an author, I’m repeating myself, since I see a lot of common themes and situations in the manuscripts that sit in various stages of completion on my shelf. But you know, that’s okay. There’s nothing new under the sun, and some people might call the use of such pet tropes “consistency” and “good branding.” Just because one component is familiar doesn’t mean that the whole thing will be. It’s about finding a fresh take, leveraging that familiarity into a unique spin.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Avengers.)
You know, scene changes are kind of weird if you think about it. Most stories don’t lend themselves to a contiguous telling, because there’s all sorts of little details that would drag the story down if dwelt on. So the story just stops and skips ahead to something more interesting, and as a reader or viewer we absorb this and go with it. It’s just not something we really tend to think about, although perhaps we should.
The Avengers features a few rather clever transitions worth examining. First, we have Fury talking to the World Security Council:
SHADOWY DUDE: War isn’t won by sentiment.
FURY: No. It’s won by soldiers.
Then at the end of the same scene:
STEVE: You should have left it in the ocean.
The first act of the film has the potential to be a little disjointed, as it jumps from character to character so that they can be brought into the story. The link between dialogue and the subsequent image helps smooth out the transition, showing one way that the scenes fit together before the primary narrative connection is clear.
As far as narrative elements go, scene transitions probably aren’t major stumbling blocks, a minor point that doesn’t require a great deal of thought from either reader or writer. But points like that are great opportunities to add a little extra oomph, to take something standard and make it something special, something more. It’s that sort of attention to detail that can take a story from good to great.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Rocketeer and Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
The Rocketeer was one of my favorite movies growing up, although I was never a big fan of the love interest, Jenny Blake, who always seemed kind of like a sexy lamp to me. (If you didn’t follow the link, the “sexy lamp” test means that if you could replace your main female character with a sexy lamp and the story would still basically work, you have a problem.) But the more I try to pin it down, the more I think it’s not that simple. She may not be your standard strong female character (a nebulous phrase my loathing of which is well-established), but if you were to remove Jenny from the story, it wouldn’t just be different–it wouldn’t exist at all.
In hanging around writing groups and forums, I’ve encountered a lot of writers who struggle to figure out the genre they’re writing in. My advice is always to look at the stakes–what’s the worst thing that will happen if the hero fails? That tends to be the main thing that defines a genre. So in a comedy, the stakes are personal happiness and success. In epic fantasy, it’s stopping the forces of darkness. In dystopia, it’s breaking free of the corrupt institution. And so on and so forth. After repeated viewings of The Rocketeer, I’ve come to realize that while we may be dealing with Stupid Jetpack Hitler, the primary thing at stake is Cliff and Jenny’s relationship.
No, seriously. This movie is a rom-com with gunfights and Nazis, also known as the best possible kind of rom-com.
Although Jenny’s not present in the first act, Cliff keeps a picture of her in his cockpit, even risking himself to rescue it from the fire. After a bunch of setup about the rocket, the two go out on a date, a scene which gets a fairly substantial amount of screentime (the whole sequence takes about 10 minutes). They have a fairly contentious meal, highlighting the issues in their relationship: Jenny wants a change of pace and doesn’t feel like Cliff respects her career or trusts her with important news. It’s because of this and in the hopes of making amends that he seeks her out on set the next morning, revealing to her–and to the eavesdropping baddie Neville Sinclair–that he’s found the rocket. That directly leads to Sinclair moving in on Jenny in the hopes of getting to Cliff.
Then we’ve got a couple of action sequences, and the escalating danger is enough to prompt Cliff to call it quits and turn the rocket over to the FBI. That is, until one of the mobsters spots Jenny’s phone number, and we see Cliff’s look of horror as he realizes that the guys who murdered his boss and are trying to torture his best friend are also after his girlfriend. From that point on, protecting her is the only thing that matters to him, more than even his own safety or that of anyone else. And this concern is mutual, as evidenced when Jenny goes back into the club to save Cliff from Sinclair’s goon (without which the third act wouldn’t happen). The crisis makes them both realize that, despite their quibbles, they’d do absolutely anything for each other, and they end the movie in a much stronger place.
So what makes this the primary stakes? Well, let’s compare to another similar film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In both movies, the hero realizes that rescuing his kidnapped girlfriend will further the Nazis’ goals (which is a rather specific parallel, come to think). Indy’s response is to promise Marion that he’ll return for her after he’s secured the Ark. Cliff’s response is to fight his way out of FBI custody and go to the hostage exchange anyway. Even knowing what else is on the line, Jenny’s more important.
There’s still the issue of her lack of agency, which tends to be a major sticking point with female characters. After all, she’s reactive rather than active, and her choices aren’t really what drives the story. She also doesn’t really have much of a character arc, ending the story more or less where she started.
But here’s the thing: You could say basically the same about Cliff.
See, context counts for a lot in these sort of situations. The Rocketeer is a very conscious throwback to the adventure serials of the 1930s, and those pulpy plots are usually driven by the villain. The bad guy is the one who has a plan and takes steps to achieve it, and the good guy has to stop it, generally staying a step or two behind the whole way and only prevailing due to a last ditch, desperate gamble. Really, the only choice Cliff makes on his own is to try using the rocket pack in the first place, and even that is in reaction to their financial situation after the crash of the Gee Bee test plane (which was shot at by a bad guy because… the plot wouldn’t happen otherwise, pretty much). Everything else he does is in response to someone else being in trouble. Agency is the wrong yardstick to use in a case like this, because the only one who really has agency is Sinclair. These stories also tend to trade in stock characters, which is why no one really has an individual character arc, but Cliff and Jenny do go through an arc as a couple.
It’s easy to write her off as just another damsel in distress, but part of what consistently fascinates me about that trope is how rarely it’s played purely straight anymore. The standard damsel will run off with the hero she’s only just met once he’s proven himself by saving the day, but Jenny and Cliff are in an established relationship, one that seems fairly serious from the start, so them getting together at the end makes perfect sense (and, as previously established, is kind of the whole point). She’s also crafty, deftly manipulating Sinclair and doing pretty well at escaping until she gets sidetracked by the whole Nazi discovery. Oh yeah, and when she gets handed over to a random mook, she stone-cold kicks the dude through the window of the zeppelin.
Seriously, I’m pretty sure Cliff doesn’t have any confirmed kills in this movie (I only give him partial credit for Sinclair, personally), but Jenny sure as hell does.
I think it’s important that, as scholars, we don’t give into our first knee-jerk reactions about a character and look deeper, and that as writers, we seek out ways to add that depth. The Rocketeer may be working with a fairly established formula, but they manage to take a role that’s often marginalized and make it an intrinsic part of the story. With no Jenny in the picture, Sinclair never gets on Cliff’s trail, and he returns the rocket to the Feds as soon as things get hairy. With her, we have a much more interesting film.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Gravity. This post is revised and expanded from my original review/rant.)
It’s always a weird feeling to dislike a beloved prestige film. I have to wonder what everyone else saw in it that I didn’t, and sometimes it’s hard to even pin down the problem that I have with it. Of course, with Gravity, I didn’t just dislike it, I despised it, and I know exactly why. Part of it might just be my being a misanthropic jerk, but I have science to back me up. And I’m not talking about the film’s horrible excuse for astrophysics, either.
The film starts out on a space walk where George Clooney’s commander is a genial chatterbox, there’s a redshirt who’s just thrilled to be there, and Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is slightly ill and completely wooden, no hints of a personality at all. Then shit goes bananas, right then and there. Everyone’s instantly thrown into mortal danger, which okay, but I don’t know who any of these assholes even are and thus have no vested interest in what happens to them. Yeah, people die. It happens. Oh, some people inside the shuttle died? Might have been heartbreaking if I knew they existed before that second.
Like I said, I’m probably kind of a bitch to think this, and I won’t deny that. But see, there’s this concept called Dunbar’s number, also colloquially known as the monkeysphere. It posits that there’s a limit on how many people you can actually conceive of as people before your brain starts looking for other ways to label them, and there’s quite a lot of research to back it up. You know the saying, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”? That’s the monkeysphere. Your brain is not physically capable of scaling empathy without cutting corners, because your brain is a lazy son of a bitch.
This might not be the case for people who don’t consume as much media, but heavy readers–like, for instance, agents, editors, reviewers, and everyone else who’s critical to the creation and success of a novel–get introduced to a lot of characters in their lives. Since that’s not exactly the same as a close, personal relationship with a non-fictional person, it doesn’t quite tax the brain in the same way as defined under Dunbar, but there’s still an upper bound. That means that the characters in a new work all start outside the monkeysphere, and something has to bring them inside.
This is why three-act structure exists. You don’t have to hew to it exactly, but it’s common because it’s effective, because it lines up with how our brains work and respond to things. One of the major established beats is the inciting incident, the moment where everything changes. But see, you can’t recognize change if you don’t know the original state. That’s why experiments need control groups and baseline data, and that’s why you have to be extremely careful about opening with the inciting incident. Even in novels where it does work (The Nightmare Dilemma springs to mind), that moment doesn’t happen on the very first page, so there’s been some time to introduce the character and the world, to start cracking the shell of the monkeysphere.
Now, movies will try to get around this by trading on your familiarity with an actor so they don’t have to work as hard to create a connection to the character. That’s clearly what Gravity is going for when it gives only a cursory introduction to its characters, that we’ll be rooting enough for Sandra Bullock that we don’t notice that Ryan Stone is pretty much a non-entity and only the object of our concern because protagonist. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had that kind of connection with Ms. Bullock, which might not have been a problem were this not a castaway movie where 100% of the tension is based on concern for her survival. Combined with the repetitive tedium of the dangerous setpieces (Hey, we escaped the destruction of one space station! Let’s celebrate by escaping the destruction of a second one!), by the end I was actively rooting for her to die.
(The character, not the actress. Despite the title of this post, I’m sure Sandra Bullock is a lovely person and I wish her no ill will, and please don’t sue me.)
It’s tempting to just dive in and get to the good stuff, but give us a glimpse of normal before you throw us into chaos. Remember that your audience is going to be filled with jaded misanthropes like me, and you have to put in the work to make us care. “Because protagonist” is not sufficient.