“This couldn’t possibly happen!”
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book, and the whole time you were viewing/reading, you kept telling yourself, “Oh, come on! How could that possibly happen?” A lot of ‘concept’ stories, especially science fiction or dystopian, are guilty of engendering exactly this reaction with an audience. I’m not talking about fantasy or supernatural effects, with possession by demons or ghosts walking through walls or vampires flying through the air without wings. I’m talking about the believability of the basic concept of the storyline. Many ‘concept’ stories get so hung up on demonstrating the extremes of societal flaws, they end up being flawed to the point that they are effective only as ‘think’ pieces. I happened to watch the movie In Time, starring Justin Timberlake, and that was exactly my reaction. “This couldn’t possibly happen.”
The movie itself was done well. The acting was pretty good. The script was certainly okay. The movie had enough action and suspense to keep viewers entertained. The futuristic dystopian society was laid out just fine. But one specific detail on which the entire storyline was predicated made me keep asking “Why would anyone agree to that? How could this situation have come about, and how could it continue?”
Let me explain enough about the movie to demonstrate without spoiling it for anyone who might want to watch it and hasn’t yet. In the near(?) future, it’s not “Your money or your life,” it’s “You’re money IS your life.” Literally. People live in different districts, based on their ‘wealth.’ No problem here. That’s the way things are now. The very wealthy live to excess in gated communities and have the cops in their back pocket. People from the ghettos are not welcome, and are sternly escorted out if not arrested and jailed. The problem comes with the concept of currency in this dystopian mirror reality. In this future, everyone has a ticking clock inside that counts down to the last second of time they have left to live. Everyone gets to live to the age of 25, but after that, if they don’t manage to earn more time, they die instantly the moment the time on their clock runs out.
The graphics of the bioclock were done very well in the movie, with a lighted string of numbers imbedded in one’s forearm counting down as every second ticks by. People work in factories or at other jobs for more time. Everything – food, shelter, bus rides – cost time. And the price of everything keeps going up. We all know how inflation works, but it’s much worse in this future. A simple bus ride across town could cost two hours of your hard-earned time. The concept is very clever because it actually does equate money and lifetime down to the last second. People can give away time to others, or it can be stolen – all with the twist of a wrist.
“How did things get this way?”
The problem with this interesting concept is that it was not explained in the movie WHY the whole of society would agree to this severe conversion from currency to time allowed to live. And I could not visualize any way that it would be possible. I kept asking myself, “How did things get this way?” and kept trying to come up with plausible answers the whole time I was watching the movie – which actually distracted my interest and focus from the movie. And still, after the movie was over, I kept trying to come up with some scenario that would explain how this way of life came to be, to a point that everyone would willingly submit their children at the time of birth to have a countdown clock imbedded in their arm and an instant heart-attack switch placed in their chest. I couldn’t. And so I finally realized that it was not my imagination that was flawed to the point that I couldn’t really enjoy the movie, it was a basic flaw in the logic that allowed the scriptwriters to base an entire movie on a clever concept that could not be explained in a believable and acceptable manner.
Because this one thing was missing from In Time, this background explanation of how people came to accept (or were forced to accept) the currency-to-time conversion, the movie left a nagging plot hole that detracted from the effectiveness of the storyline and the underlying concept.
The movie, The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon, was sort of like that as well, although there was more fantasy and allegory associated with that movie to help explain away the whole ‘magic door’ thing.
“Could this really happen?”
Because there is a limited number of story types available, writers are always looking for ways to put a new twist on that basic story, to make it innovatively different. Technology, fantasy, mythology, and history – and any mix of those – are all sources to use to add a bit of uniqueness to a story. And many writers draw from these sources hurriedly without thinking through just how they’ll make everything work together to demonstrate that major social issue they want their story demonstrate, or that moral they want to focus on and drive home to their audience. To make a story believable, it is extremely important to make everything work together – characterization, world-building, setting, plotline, and so forth – but especially the underlying theme or concept. It is the most important aspect.
The real test of whether a story can even be pulled off successfully is whether the concept is viable, and how it can be demonstrated believably. If a story loses believability somewhere along the line, the audience is lost. Maybe not everyone, but enough that there will be serious detractors for the story.
Before a writer can even begin writing a single word of a story, there has to be that nugget of what the story is about. Oh, sure, some writers get the inspiration nudge to start a story simply from a flash of a scene in their mind, or some snatch of a conversation between sketchy characters, but at some point the writer needs to think the story through logically from beginning to end and ask, “Could this really happen?” If the answer is, “No,” then the writer must either figure out some way that it could believably happen, or move on to another story idea. A writer who chooses, after some deliberation, to scrap a seemingly unworkable storyline concept, probably is doing himself and a lot of readers a huge favor. But even if he decides, against his better judgment, to pursue writing a story wherein he hasn’t quite figured out how it could happen believably, at some point he’ll have to figure that out or suffer the consequences. So, it’s better just to figure out the basics of the concept first, before wasting time writing scenes and building characters to carry the story forward. The writer who plans her writing journey ahead of time will get there eventually. Go forward without a clue, and who knows where a story will end up?
Do YOU have a pet-peeve movie or book you'd like to share? Or a story concept in general you think is lame? Let us know!
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing