Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Story Logic

Nancy J. Cohen

The other night, I watched two recorded TV action adventure shows that gave me pause over their story logic. If I had written these sequences into a book, editors everywhere would have turned down my submission. What was wrong? Flaws in story logic jumped out at me. Whether the average viewer noticed, I have no idea. But as a storyteller myself, I couldn’t help but make note of them.

detective

In Show Number One, two female characters were attempting to steal a precious artifact from a security-tight room. They got around the fingerprint analysis in a plausible manner and entered the vault-like space where the artifact was kept under a glass case and surrounded by an electrified cage. Various obstacles were placed between the door and the cage. But wait—one of these woman was an acrobat specifically chosen for this impossible task. So she vaults up to a series of parallel bars conveniently strung across the room and swings from one to the next, while her pal waits by the door. Finally, our acrobat propels herself over a gap at the top of the electrified cage. Inside, she swipes the artifact. Guards are moments away from discovering them. Commercial break.

When we return, the thieves are outside with their booty. Okay, how did they get from Point A to Point B? When we saw our acrobat in action, she used her two hands to swing and jump from one overhead bar to the next. How could she jump at all holding the heavy, bulky artifact that looked as though it would require those same two hands to hold it? Illogical. Nor did she have her friend present again to give her a boost up.

My editor would have caught me on that one. My solution? Have her wear a backpack so she could stuff the heavy tome inside for the return trip. Give her a tensile line to shoot to the overhead bar from inside the cage. Or have her rappel down from a ceiling vent like in countless heist movies. Don’t just have the two women suddenly appear in the clear with their prize with no explanation as to how they got away and avoided the guards.

Story Number Two proceeded well until the very end, when a bad guy got his comeuppance. One of the main characters called him on his cell phone as he’s in the bathtub with a beautiful woman. The caller mentions how his turn has come right before his companion stabs him. How did this character know exactly when he’d be in the bathtub with the assassin? If it were my story, I’d have video cameras tracking him. Or the assassin could have sent the caller a signal. It was too much of a coincidence that this person called right then, although the dramatic moment worked to provide a sense of justice.

What does this prove? TV writers might get away with flaws in their story logic, but it won’t work for us when we're under an editor’s eagle eye.


eye

Make sure your story flows logically and smoothly, covering all bases. You don’t want to give your readers cause to put down your book with a derisive snort.

Do you recall any movies or TV shows where the credibility stretched?

28 comments:

  1. Nancy, I think part of the problem is that the story flows by pretty quickly on TV (and the movies, for that matter), while it's rare for a reader to digest a book in a short period of time. With a book, if a reader sees a glitch, they can turn back and check it, whereas there's no turning back with movies or TV (unless it's been recorded). But all that having been said, I agree with you--it seems that authors are held to a higher standard, which reinforces the importance of a good editor (whether the work is conventionally or self-published).

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    1. Editing is essential. Too bad the TV producers aren't as diligent as we are about filling in the plot holes. They use a commercial break as an excuse to hop from Point A to Point B without explanations.

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  2. I stopped looking for logic and consistency in TV writing years – no, decades – ago. The show runners are more interested in "clever" banter (which rarely is) and action action action. And they assume we'll never notice. The Ed Wood syndrome. The show "The Following," for instance, just reeks of "We're so clever," so much so that it's unwatchable. But my son has a small part in an upcoming episode, so watch it I do, 'cuz I don't want to miss him.

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    1. How exciting about your son's role! Actors who are big names might have more of a say in the plot line, if they care at all. I'm a fan of Downton Abbey, and that story moves along at a too quick pace due to its short seasons.

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  3. Your description of that first show where the acrobat girl slithers into a cage reminded me of the old Shirley MacLaine Michael Caine movie "Gambit." Shirley did exactly the same thing trying to steal a sculpture. She almost got away with it until Caine tells her that he loves her and, all agog, she runs into his arms setting off the sensors and alarms. But at least that plot made sense! I am with you on the logic issue. It is a common problem in bad books and something inexperienced crime writers struggle with. It really rots my socks when I read a book or manuscript that doesn't pay attention to police procedure...it's not that hard to get it right and readers are smart enough to call you on your lapses.

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    1. This is why I advocate writing a synopsis first. You can work out the story logic before writing yourself into a hole.

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  4. Agreed totally on the eyerollers in TV and movies. I had to abandon a scene in my WIP outline because it required the characters to execute a TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) maneuver. I pouted as I deleted it, but it had to die.

    Terri

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    1. LOL..I had a too-stupid-to-live moment in a book once. When I went back in rewrites and read it, I couldn't believe I thought I could get away with it.

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    2. I'm guilty of the TSTL moments, in fact, my editor almost expects them each time I turn in a manuscript. I have to work real hard to avoid these scenes.

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  5. This is why I so rarely watch series TV anymore. If I started to list all the shows I've seen with such plot holes, we'd be here all day, and the Internet would be full.

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    1. Yes, but if you watch them purely for the entertainment value and overlook the plot absurdities, it works for escapism.

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  6. My husband can't stand to watch NCIS or CSI because of the way they portray police work. An investigation isn't quite as convenient as they make it out to be.

    And the phrase, "get the crime scene team out here pronto" really? What team? When my husband served 3 years as an agent, he had to process everything himself! There was no special team! lol

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    1. It all depends on the size of the town, I suppose. My imaginary small town has crime scene techs. At least I try to verify any forensic details and wait a realistic amount of time for results.

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  7. Nancy, I think the answer to the problem in Show Number One is pretty obvious. The acrobatic thief obviously took a "leap of faith." ;-)

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  8. Unfortunately, TV and movies seem to rely more and more on special effects and gimmickry to dazzle audiences. Maybe H-wood thinks everyone out there is stoned out out of their mind or something. Or maybe everyone in H-wood is, too. In our written stories we attempt to fire the reader's mental triggers. At least we don't have to spend half a million dollars to simulate something spectacular. On the other hand, we're held to a high degree of plausibility by readers. And that's an all-around good thing.

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    1. Does that mean movie goers and TV watchers are less discerning than readers, or are the studios dumbing down their stories and hoping viewers won't notice?

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  9. I now suspend disbelief for almost every TV show as there are too many of the moments you describe! In books I am a much harsher critic - go figure.

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    1. That's because we watch TV and movies to escape from reality while we hold a much higher standard to the works we read.

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  10. Nancy--
    I think Richard Mabry (comment #1) has it mostly right: viewing is different from reading. TV editing's sole function is to keep the viewer's thumb off the remote. Jump-cuts, flashbacks, constant shifts of one kind or another have the effect of diluting the need for rational or even plausible connections. Add to this the simple truth that thriller/mystery readers tend to be experienced in reading such books, and you have a much more "grown-up" set of demands on the writer.
    And if you didn't know where my loyalties were, you do now.

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    1. Yes, mystery/thriller readers are much more discerning. Thank goodness for that! We want them to care about what we write.

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  11. So you're a Person of Interest fan too? :) There's very little in that show that's truly believable, so I consider that a given going in. Yet I'm hooked on the show because I love the theme (basic good triumphing over evil), and I love the characters. Plus, they added a dog. For me, those elements are strong enough that I overlook the absurd.

    As we all agree, that's so much easier for TV to get away with, and I believe much of that is due to the fact that in TV and movie viewing, the visuals are in place, so we don't need to create the entire scene in our imagination. With books, obviously, the reader depends on the words to help craft the visual image, which leaves little room for error.

    Not drastically different from videotaping yourself putting together a piece of furniture with 50 different pieces vs. having to sit down and write out the manual for someone else to it. Different animals, different challenges!

    Great discussion, Nancy!

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    1. Yep, the first example is from a Person of Interest episode. It's true that you have to suspend your disbelief for this show. Reese has almost superhuman capabilities, as does the all-seeing computer. But this particular episode frustrated me because the producers/show writers so obviously ignored the viewer's sense of logic.

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  12. Great points, Nancy.
    I think I give TV more latitude in this department than I do novels because of the time constraint they are under in which to present their stories. So important matters that are conveyed quickly when there is no possible way someone can know the information in such a timely manner. Like when we see the medical examiner on a crime show make some outrageous statement at a crime scene about things they could not possibly know without a full autopsy or a toxicology report or DNA that would take weeks or more to run in real life. Or how fast a crew is flown halfway around the country or the world.
    But some have caused me to stop watching altogether (there's only so much leeway I can give them). The Following and the Black List for me are two.

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    1. I think most of us take these crime shows with a grain of salt. I love Castle, mostly for the romantic banter rather than the murder mystery that can often seem bizarre. But even shows like Downton Abbey have flawed logic. Remember the supposedly drowned heir or his imposter who showed up for one episode?

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  13. Good points and examples, Nancy. I catch plot holes, discrepancies, and inconsistencies in almost every novel I edit. And I'd probably make some myself if I wrote fiction and I'd need an editor or beta reader to notice them!

    The writer is so caught up in the moment and thinking ahead to the next scene that they often miss obvious gaffes others would catch. Or time sequence or other problems result from cutting or rearranging scenes or changing character details, then not checking back to make sure it all makes sense after the changes.

    I edited a great story years ago that unfortunately had so many logic issues that after I'd pointed out the 5th or 6th one, the author joked, "Sometimes you must think I just jumped off a turnip truck." I had a great chuckle over that! ;-)

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    1. This is all so true, Jodie. And critique groups cannot help in this regard because they read our work piecemeal. We need beta readers or editors to read through the novel in its entirety in order to catch these types of problems.

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  14. It's not just plot points but even simple things like dialog. In my upcoming novel, I wanted the dialog between two friends to lead a certain direction. Which meant it came off as stilted & awkward. Every time I went back to it, I hated it but wasn't sure what to do with it.

    Finally, I did what I had to do & rewrote that section. Once I had something that was more organic to the story & situation, it sounded much better!

    BTW: I had the same problem with that ep of PoI myself. In fact, I rewound it to back before the commercial break, thinking I must have missed something. Nope. They just suddenly morphed from inside a cage with security on the way to outside the building. And weren't those bars placed perfectly?!

    But since Hollywood likes to have its Jason Bourne-like characters standing on a street talking to someone one minute & completely gone the next, I just chalked it up to that. Or Finch did something brilliant but they didn't bother to show us what. Or the writers simply had no idea what to do & hoped we wouldn't notice.

    We are definitely more forgiving when we're being entertained. And PoI definitely entertains.

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