Archive for TV

writing, TV

The Supersonic Raven Fallacy

I’ve noticed that some writers have a tendency to get defensive when they’re called out about something that doesn’t quite work. There’s a particular tendency among some writers of fantasy to question “nitpicks” in a fantasy work — if you can believe in magic, why can’t you accept these other things? It seems to be more of a trend in TV writers than among novelists, which may have something to do with the way novelists approach worldbuilding. At any rate, this arose again this week, thanks to events on Game of Thrones, and I have now dubbed this particular argument the Supersonic Ravens Fallacy.

The argument goes: “You can believe in X, but you can’t believe in Y?” where X is “big fantasy element” and Y is “mundane thing that doesn’t quite work the way it does in the real world.” For example, “You can believe in dragons, but you can’t believe in ravens that had to have flown faster than the speed of sound in order to deliver a message in that amount of time?”

The defensive writers blame the audience for being nitpicky or unwilling to suspend disbelief, but I think it’s the writers’ fault. If the audience doesn’t believe in Y, it’s because the writers didn’t make them believe in it. They believed in X because the writers built it into the world. The disbelief comes when the writers fail at building something into their world or portray it inconsistently. The audience wouldn’t believe in X, either, if it was written inconsistently.

It’s a false equivalence because the big fantasy element and the mundane thing that don’t work right aren’t on the same level. The suspension of disbelief that allows the audience to buy into the big fantasy element isn’t transferable. It only applies to that big fantasy element. Writers have to make the audience believe in every single aspect of the story, and it’s usually the easy stuff that trips them up. You don’t have to explain “ordinary” things to the audience. They take those things as a given. If you don’t show us that these things aren’t the ordinary things we’re used to, then we’re going to assume they work the way things in the real world work. We get annoyed when they don’t work the way they work in the real world.

So, say there’s magic in your fantasy world. You’ll show us that magic is a part of this world, suggest who can use it and who can’t, show how it works and what it can do, and give an indication of what people in this world think about magic — do they know it exists? Do they like it? Fear it? If a character suddenly uses magic to get out of trouble when you haven’t established that magic exists, then that surprise needs to fit into your world. You can’t have a character with no magical powers in a world with no suggestion of magic just suddenly use magic to get out of trouble without that being a big deal — “OMG! I have magic powers! How did this happen? What do I do now?”

Meanwhile, if you have horses in this world and haven’t given us any indication that they’re different from horses in our world, then they have to act like horses in our world and have the same needs, abilities, and limitations. We’re going to assume they need to eat, have to have rest and water every so often, and they walk on land. If a horse suddenly flies when your plot requires it and you’ve given no indication that horses in your world can fly or are at all different from what we know of as a horse, then we’re not going to believe it, even if we believe that there’s magic in your world. You’d better have a good explanation, like the horse ate enchanted hay or someone did a horse levitating spell, and people better be surprised about the horse flying. Otherwise, if you need the horse to fly to get your character out of trouble, you’d better establish previously that horses in this world can fly, and you need to show how that affects your world — people carry really sturdy umbrellas, there aren’t as many roads, etc.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that you can’t change the rules of your world to fit your plot —especially not to get your characters out of trouble — whether it’s the magical elements or the mundane elements. If you can set up the fact that ravens serve as the messenger system, then you can set up the fact that maybe there are special ravens to be only used in dire emergencies or there are spells to be cast on ravens to make them fly faster, or there’s a special supercharged raven food. But if the ravens have acted like our ravens, other than the fact that they work as the Internet, then they need to keep acting like our ravens and not flying thousands of miles in a few hours.

TV

The Official Series of Knee Rehab

My main summer project, in addition to writing books, is rehabbing my wonky knee. At the moment, that means two therapy appointments a week, plus “homework” of exercises I’m supposed to do on my own every day. The homework amounts to just under 45 minutes, which is about the length of an episode of a TV drama, minus commercials. That makes it a good opportunity to rewatch a familiar series I have on DVD. I already know what happens, so it doesn’t hurt if I’m a bit distracted by counting reps or have to turn away from the TV to do a particular exercise, but it’s engrossing enough to divert me from all the work, and there’s enough curiosity about what happens next when I only vaguely remember to encourage me to exercise the next day so I can watch the next episode (or extend my workout to the rest of my body and watch a second episode). So, the official TV series of my knee rehab is Once Upon a Time. It’s thematically appropriate to a book idea I want to play with later this summer, if I ever finish the current book, and with the series going into a new phase in the fall, it’s interesting to revisit the beginning.

Spoilers for the series to-date are possible.

I remember being very skeptical of the concept when it was first announced. I remember the sitcom “The Charmings.” There would definitely be a temptation to go overboard into camp, but on the other hand, there would be the temptation to take a cynical approach. However, I love fairy tales. I love fairy tale retellings and mash-ups, so I was intrigued enough to set my VCR (yes, I was slow to jump on the DVR train) when it premiered, since I had to sing in a concert that night. They pretty much hooked me from the opening shot of Prince Charming riding to Snow White’s rescue. Basically, this was a show made for me, with contemporary fantasy, fairy tales, and portals between worlds. Then they made Snow White a sassy bandit fighting a one-woman rebellion against the Evil Queen instead of spending all her time keeping house for the dwarfs, and I was hooked.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the series ended up living up to the promise of what they set up in that first season. In some ways, it went badly off the rails, and that makes for frustrating rewatching. The continuity is terrible, as they kept contradicting themselves. Worldbuilding was never these writers’ strength, but somehow their world because weaker and less defined over time instead of becoming richer and more detailed. Storybrooke in the first few episodes of season one really seemed like a magical place, a small town that someone how managed to be both an idyllic “typical” American small town and a place right out of a storybook. The residents didn’t know they were fairytale characters while they were under the curse, but there were still little details suggesting their true identities. Somehow, all that was lost when the people remembered who they were later and the town seemed a lot more “normal.” They also apparently lost the budget to hire extras, so that there were other patrons in the shops, people walking up and down the streets, and cars driving by in season one, but by season six, the town felt deserted, like only the main characters lived there, and there were no buildings other than the diner, the library with its clock tower, and the houses where the main characters lived, with no buildings in between. There are a couple of lovely CGI shots of the rooftops of the town, as seen from the windows of some of the characters, that were used in the first couple of episodes, and they seem to have forgotten that there’s a whole town out there.

Meanwhile, the fairytale world seemed a lot stronger in the early going, where it really seemed like a place where all the characters lived together. In later seasons, it felt more like silos, or like the characters only ran into each other for that one event. We saw that most of these other kingdoms were in walking distance of each other, and yet none of the rulers seemed to have heard of each other.

I think there was also some waffling about the premise. The writers mentioned in interviews that they were telling the story of the place where the Evil Queen could get a happy ending. There was also a scene in the second episode of a bunch of villains gathered and learning that the curse that was going to be cast would take them to a world where villains could win. That seemed to be setting up the idea that the fairytale world was black-and-white, where the odds were strangely stacked against villains — you were either a villain or a hero, and if you were a villain, no matter how good your plan was, you just couldn’t win — and our world had more shades of gray, with the possibility that the villains might be able to come out ahead. They didn’t take that route at all. We never saw those gathered villains again and don’t know what became of them when the kingdom was transported to our world. The villains don’t seem to have done too badly in the fairytale world — the Evil Queen managed to rule for some time and probably could have remained in power if she’d been content with where she was instead of unable to be happy if Snow White wasn’t happy. I don’t think the writers every really figured out how their world worked and what they meant by heroes and villains, in spite of devoting an entire story arc to it.

Plus, when you think about it, transporting the entire kingdom to a small town in Maine, where they lived frozen in time with no sense of their true identities, was a pretty lame revenge scheme. The Evil Queen still wasn’t happy because she’s the kind of person who’s never satisfied, and she spent decades just watching her enemy lead a mildly dissatisfying life while still being more or less content and happier than the Evil Queen was. She didn’t use the different rules of our world to really come out ahead, didn’t really do anything to make her enemy suffer all that much until the curse was weakening and people were becoming more like their true selves. I kind of feel like the curse and the rationale for it were mostly just a handwave to get the fairytale characters to modern America rather than something that was given any thought or development.

Still, it’s fun to see which modern people are which fairytale characters, or what the fairytale characters are doing in our world. I love the nonlinear storytelling in the flashbacks in the first season, where we start with the curse being cast and work backwards to find out what was really going on, with other parts of the story being a bit mixed up, so seeing a later part puts a previous part into a different context. It was this kind of stuff that got me hooked, for better or worse. I’m done with disc one of season one, so we’ll see what other thoughts I have as the story continues to unfold.