Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #94: You Have to Make Rules to Break Rules

My reps once suggested to me that I take a boat-set thriller and re-do the same concept on a spaceship. I spent a week on it before I realized that it just wouldn’t work.

On the water, the audience already understands what can go wrong. You don’t have to explain the concepts of “sinking” and “drowning”. The audience, in fact, already has an innate terror of these dangers, just waiting for you to tap into it. But in space, nobody knows the rules. Before your story really starts, you need to explain to the audience everything that can possibly go wrong on this imaginary spaceship you just made up, and some possible solutions as well. As soon as you’re done explaining them, anyone can guess what will happen next.

This is a huge problem for sci-fi and fantasy, but also for any setting where the rules are arcane: submarines, nuclear reactors, stock exchanges… If you describe the possible solutions before you need them, then they’re predictable. If you don’t, then it looks like you just made them up. You’re screwed either way. The simplest solution is to stick to boats, or other places where you don’t have to explain the possible dangers, but if you want to pick a more ambitious setting, then you have to be tricky.

Inception spent a whole hour explaining all of its complicated rules, which was way too long. But once they’d slogged through all of that exposition, they were able to deliver a fairly thrilling second hour (and a half). They were even able to “surprise” us in ways that didn’t feel like a cheat.

They kept stressing how crazy it would be to go three-deep into dreams within dreams, until we understood the concept pretty well. Then, uh-oh, our heroes fail at the three-deep level. Suddenly they get a wild notion: let’s go…FOUR-DEEP! And the audience gasps. No one had mentioned that possibility beforehand, but we instantly understood what it would mean and what a big deal it would be. The endless exposition had paid off: we understood this crazy world well enough that we knew what the rules were and how to break them.


Swinefever said...

I'm writing an action/thriller set in space right now and I think the major audience fear is the same as drowning, namely suffocation, because everyone know's you can't breathe in space.

The other big fear is being cast adrift, because everyone understands that if you get pushed out into space you'll keep going forever, get lost, and eventually suffocate.

The two environments are not a million miles away from each other in that respect - that's probably why astronauts train in water...

Matt Bird said...

Yes, but it's tricky... A boat can slowly fill with water, and you can see that happen, while explosive decompression is more of an all-or-nothing thing. Even if it does somehow leak slowly, it gets replaced by vacuum, which is invisible. A read-out that says "61% oxygen left" is less thrilling than an engine room filled with water.

The whole prospect defeated me, but hopefully you'll crack it. There certainly are great spaceship-set thrillers (the middle hour of 2001, Alien, etc.) so it can be done.

James Kennedy said...

I'm with Rob here. THE BLACK HOLE is by no means a great movie, but even as a child I could understand what was at stake with airbreaks, and was terrified. As for visual effectiveness -- the spectacle of everything not nailed down flying towards a sucking hole beats a room filling with water.

The episode of BSG that were more nuts-and-bolts (we're running out of water! Starbuck's crashed on a planet and nobody can find her!) used the sci-fi conventions of the space thriller well.

I suppose spaceship problems are very much similar to submarine problems. If I were writing a thriller in space, I'd watch DAS BOOT again. Remember how terrifying it was when they went too deep, and the incredible pressures caused structural bolts to pop out and zing across the cabin like bullets?!

j.s. said...

I've never understood the false dichotomy between exposition and drama. One thing I admire about INCEPTION and many of Nolan's other films is his ability to make the exposition as exciting as anything else.

And there are a whole host of other talky stories set in arcane rule-based worlds where the exposition itself is thrilling: ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, HOUSE OF GAMES, RESERVOIR DOGS, PRIMER, THE SOCIAL NETWORK.

I'm almost tempted to say that if you have a screen story that needs a big chunk of exposition that can't be dramatized interestingly, then you should get another story.

James Kennedy said...

I agree with J.S. The exposition scenes in Inception were thrilling! Perhaps part of the thrill for me was the transgressive thrill of enjoying exposition. I kept thinking, "I shouldn't be enjoying this, I should be feeling that this is clunky exposition and poor storytelling, but I can't help it--it's great!"

rams said...

Hellooooo Apollo 13, where fixing a rising level of carbon dioxide with a tube sock and some duct tape is more satisfying than Titanic. (Granted, historic rather than imaginative, but that adds the additional difficulty that we KNOW they survived -- and are made to forget it.)

Anonymous said...

I agree, but the other side of the coin is that you can't change the rules half way through the game.

Example? Lost. Believe me, I haven't nothing against this show, but if you have paved the way during years with time travels, electromagnetic pulses, shadowy experiments and scientific jargon you can't solve the main misteries with magic, because you will piss off your audience! Sorry, but science and magic don't blend.

Simply. You. Can't. Change. The. Rules. Half. Way. Through. The. Game.

It's what it is.

Matt Bird said...

Okay, Apollo 13 is another good example. Obviously, it can be done, but it just takes a lot of work. It's a lot of set-up and pay-off.

j.s. said...

Hey Anonymous, what about THE PRESTIGE, where the ending [spoiler alert!] substitutes a science more mysterious than any magic? There was a big debate on Jim Emerson's blog Scanners a while back over whether this ending constituted cheating.

Then there's always that quotation from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"

Apollo 13, a gripping true story, a great idea for a movie, a decent script, but man the final finished film is Exhibit A in the trial of nicest guy in Hollywood Ron Howard for worst director in America. Handed a plum project like this, he manages to make it almost as boring and corny as all his other work.

Betty (Beth) said...

Good example with The Prestige. In that film, the real magic is science. The rest is all slight-of-hand, and in the case of the Christian Bale character, extreme discipline.

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