A teacher recently emailed me a request to re-post this article so it would be easier for her students to find. Enjoy. But know this. I'm not qualified to teach writing. I'm just a know-it-all full-of-herself busy-body wannabe with a lot to say. Good luck, class.
JULY 11, 2007
We've all done this. We're watching a film or reading a screenplay, rockin' happily along in our la-la land, when "No way! That would never happen!" We're brutally yanked out of story land because our brain refuses to accept some fractured piece of logic the film tried to feed us.
Welcome to the land of broken magic.
Often, in the course of reviewing screenplays and critiquing films, reviewers comment about how a situation was too much of a suspension of reality to work for them or that it simply could never happen at all. Suspending reality is a good thing. That's what we do in screenwriting. Suspending it beyond recognition is something else. The trick is to to create an orderly and logical suspension of reality that can be followed and understood. That's, I suppose, what separates the masters from the apprentice writers.
In storytelling, reality is a product of the author's pen, not the reader's existence. One of my complaints about online peer review forums is that while writers certainly have a burden to create a reality that works in the imagination of the reader, too many of these reviewers, I think, are subjecting stories to litmus tests based on their own environments. That's not to say that there's no merit in arguing that something would never happen. But the argument has to be based in the story world, not in the reader's world.
That would never happen moments, for me, fall into three categories: legitimate screwups, spoofs, and misinterpretations.
LEGITIMATE SCREWUPS - These are genuinely messed up moments where somebody blew it and the magic was lost. In Swimfan, a male arresting police officer gets in the back seat of a squad car with a handcuffed female prisoner about to be transported. That would never happen. Sorry. It just doesn't. Officers don't ride in the back seat with dangerous criminals and they certainly don't ride with females. They call in their beginning and ending mileages when they transport women. Departure and arrival times are then recorded so if they're accused of something inappropriate, a time line can be established. Oh, and as for prisoners being cuffed in the front? Yeah, that happens when cuffing is a formality or the officer is really stupid.
SPOOFS AND COMEDIC BEATS - These moments aren't supposed to really happen. They're just there to make us laugh but some people have no sense of humor and take them entirely too literally. The result is a that would never happen moment. Of course, that would never happen! That's what makes it funny! Or, not if it the timing is off or it's poorly written.
MISINTERPRETATIONS - These moments are the ones that actually would happen in another time or place or culture or religion but maybe the filmmaker didn't do his job well enough to convey this to the audience. Or, maybe the reader or viewer has such a narrow outlook on the world that he wouldn't find the magic no matter how well the filmmaker did his job. But if the majority doesn't get it, the problem is probably not with the recipient.
SCREW-UPS, SPOOFS, MISINTERPRETATIONS, So, how do we keep our readers and viewers from doing that annoying Homer Simpson "DOH!" thingie when they look at our work? For you sophisticated non-Simpsons viewers (Mom), that "DOH!" is like the "Wow, I could have had a V-8" forehead thump but from a beer bellied bald guy who would only have a V-8 if he confused it with a teeny tiny Duff beer can. But to answer the question -- there is one back there some place -- I have a few self imposed rules.
The Roller Coaster Rule - Reality is organized chaos. Roller coasters look like a looping, twisting, mess but every turn, climb, and drop has been carefully designed and engineered. Whatever reality we create in our story worlds has to be planned, purposeful, and organized even if it looks like chaos and feels like chaos to passengers along for the ride.
The Pluto Rule - Reality isn't for Indian givers. Don't establish a reality and then yank it away (unless that's the story itself). There are still a few questions left unanswered and a place or two left to explore in this universe. But the boundaries of the unknown are shrinking with every book published and every film released. Whatever I create, readers and viewers will probably still accept regardless of how fantastic it may be but they have little patience for situations where it's obvious the writer didn't establish a cause and effect that's logical within itself. Once a story contradicts itself, even commonplace facts lose credibility among the suspect ones.
Huh? What did she just say?
Okay, try this. I've never been in outer space. I've been accused of it, but alas, no. However, for as long as I can remember, nine planets have orbited the sun. Nine. I accepted this because there was scientific proof. My teachers said so. My text books said so. Plus, I made a mobile out of Styrofoam balls and tempera paint so it had to be true. If you had told me two years ago that one day in my lifetime, there would only be eight planets orbiting the sun, I'd have said that would never happen because Pluto isn't just going to disappear or get blown to bits by a meteor. But it happened. There are only eight planets now. Pluto has been voted off the island. Reality as I once knew it has been yanked away from me and now all astronomy is suspect in my mind. They're Indian givers. They can't take that away from me. I will ALWAYS think of Pluto as a planet. Always. Pluto has to be a planet. Come on. We named a beloved Disney character after it. It's a planet -- the people's planet.
The point is - don't do that to your viewer mid-movie. Don't establish a reality in your story and then contradict it or erase it. Or, if you MUST for artistic reasons, then make sure you're a genius and can craft the story so that your reader/viewer doesn't cling to the original reality the way I cling to Pluto.
I've mentioned before that one of the most annoying suspensions of reality in film for me is the "disturbance of nature" theme in Failure to Launch. The film sets up a certain romantic comedy kind of reality. We get comfortable in it and settle in for a light hearted Nora Ephon-esque romantic story. Suddenly, we're jerked into various Chevy Chase-ish skits where animals attack the main character. In this case, it's because he's is a freak of nature still living at home and it just doesn't work with the reality already set forth in the film. If this was Caddyshack, it would work. If this was Mr. Deeds, it would work. But the reality established by Failure to Launch doesn't support angry chipmunks.
The Equator Rule - Reality is because I said so. My pen is the final answer. How much inaccurate information did we all learn about dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? I'm sure more than one paleontologist said "that would never happen" during that film but does that make it a flawed film? Or, does that make it a film that established a reality that viewers could feel engaged in even if it took liberties with prehistoric animal behavior? The important thing about Jurassic Park is that most viewers didn't sit there thinking "that would never happen". They were too busy marveling, screaming, laughing, and enjoying the ride in an open jeep while experiencing the terror of being pursued by a T-Rex.
If my story establishes that the temperature is twenty degrees below zero at the equator and the abominable snowman lives there, then that's the reality of the story. It's as much the reality of that story as a talking droid in Star Wars or a hobbit living in middle earth in Lord of the Rings.
Somebody mentioned on this blog that the wedding scene during Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End was too much of a suspension of reality to accept. I found that odd considering the myriad of outlandish characters and inconceivable events taking place in the film. We've got dead people in boats, ghosts floating under water, barnacley and shell-headed fish people, a titanic squid, an undead monkey, a live heart beating in a chest, a tentacle-faced guy walking around with a gaping hole in his chest, a sea goddess who turns into a hundred thousand crabs, and a pirate licking the brain he just removed from his own skull but it's a wedding amid a swordfight that bugs ya?
Still, most men I've asked said they didn't like the wedding part in this film. The reality established in this film wasn't stretched or suspended for a swordfight wedding on a ship in a spinning vortex. I think the problem with these guys is the REALITY of marriage. Period. A wedding is still a wedding and men in the audience don't want the cold, hard reality of marriage to momentarily wreck the adventure. They aren't annoyed because that would never happen. They're annoyed because they know darned good and well it could.
The Aunt Lizzie Rule - Reality isn't stagnant. It changes with time and culture and continents. My Aunt Lizzie cleaned house in a dress and apron every day. She got out of bed an hour before my uncle to put her make-up on so he wouldn't see her without it. Even when she was in the hospital dying of Cancer, she begged my cousin to help her with her face and hair before my uncle arrived to visit. If I was writing a devoted immigrant housewife from Austria, my Aunt Lizzie would be it. A modern 2007 woman wouldn't do any of those things but Aunt Lizzie's characteristics would work in a spoof, a period piece, or a 2007 story if my character is old and set in her ways, daft, senile, caught in a time warp or suffering from Alzheimer's.
Events that happened twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago may not happen today but they work in stories if set in the proper time and context. Too many writers put today's behavior, statutes, standards, and environments in their period pieces and vice-versa and then wonder why people say that would never happen. They might even point to my equator rule and say if they write it that way, it must be so. True. But that doesn't mean it's logical or that it will work. Remember the roller coaster rule.
My high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Hooper, who went by Hoop because it was more newsroomy than "Mrs. Hooper" and less masculine than "Boss" or "Chief", took me aside one day for what I assumed would be her customary "go get 'em, Tiger" speech before a writing competition. She pointed out a young honor student from Highland Park High School who had transferred from Austin and said he was a brilliant mind by all accounts, the son of a former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson himself. A press secretary's son! Oh, my gosh! She was surely about to warn me that he was my toughest competition. Nope. She told me not to talk to him or make him angry in any way. He was a killer.
No way. That would never happen! I was in competition with a killer? It was all very hush hush. The teachers weren't allowed to talk about it. He was a minor. But they were terrified of him so the teachers secretly talked about it anyway.
Hardly two and a half years had passed since John Christian had walked into a Murchison Junior High School English classroom and shot his teacher three times with his father's .22-caliber rifle in front of 30 students. He had been only thirteen at the time. Now here he was, barely sixteen, and his slate was technically clean even though he had supposedly been found schizophrenic and suicidal and even though a judge (Hume Coker) had ordered him to a Dallas psychiatric hospital until he was 18 years old.
Whether it was privilege or family ties or his age or his father's connections, I don't know. Nor do I have all the facts. But John Christian appears to have spent a short time at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital and then lived under the foster care of a Dallas physician while he finished public high school and went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas.
Can you even BEGIN to imagine a child today strolling into school and killing his teacher and then going on to graduate from a public school as if nothing had happened? That would never happen today but I was there. I sat in a desk three feet away from him as if he was just any other student because he WAS just any other student even after killing Wilbur (Rod) Grayson, Jr., a 29 year old first year teacher, in front of his entire class.
If I wrote a character in a 1981 story who had been a teacher killer and for whatever reason managed to get back in public schools and graduate, who is going to read my screenplay and NOT say that would never happen? The cruel reality of our daily existence with recurring violence in schools will certainly affect the way anyone receives a story like that one.
So, if people are going to draw conclusions based on their own lives anyway, is there really anything we can do?
Reality is organized chaos
Reality isn't for Indian givers
Reality is because I said so
Reality isn't stagnant
Okay, okay already, so I'm not McKee. But the reality of story reality is that even with our best effort, there's a limit to what we can do to prevent the that would never happen moments. No amount of engineering prevents roller coasters from breaking down, Pluto really isn't a planet anymore and charming aunts who once vacuumed in checkered dresses will eventually lose their battles with Cancer.
Unless somebody finds a cure.
That may never happen.
But it doesn't stop us from making the effort.