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Writer’s lessons on story consistency

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One of the things I love about the Star Trek Universe is how every story is absolutely consistent provided you understand how alternate realities and multiple timelines work.

One of the reason I get turned off of many movies and tv shows is this lack of consistency.

Alias for instance, a tv show featuring the beautiful (At the time) Jennifer Garner when she actually had personality – features some of the finest in character inconsistencies around – where every character who is a good guy turns out to be a bad guy and vice versa.

Other shows did this too.

Heroes.

The more recent Agents of Shield.

Character inconsistency’s one thing, and if it’s dramatic enough and irritating enough, I just quit watching.

But another irritating inconsistency which totally removes the ‘suspension of disbelief are story inconsistencies.

Now anyone who knows me knows I regard television shows as peeks into alternate realities and not strictly as fiction. And sometimes, when I see story inconsistencies – things that break the immersion of me in the world I am watching – most of the time it becomes a quick reason to flip tune out.

Take “Supergirl” for instance. Supergirl’s boss, Kat suspects that her employee is Supergirl. She confronts her on it. And while she’s presented direct evidence to the contrary, living in a world where weird shit happens frequently and aliens with superpowers are the norm, she’s dropped any and all suspicions of her employee being Supergirl.

This is just plain weird. Humans, in my experience, don’t act like this, particularly people who lead major multinational conglomerate news corporations who pride themselves in investigative journalism.

Yet. After she’s presented direct evidence, she stops completely in her tracks and no longer raises an eyebrow.

I call this in part – a story inconsistency – where something – whether it’s in the plot, in the scene or setting, or in the situation which so steps out of bounds of normal behavior it makes the show practically unwatchable afterwards.

There’s other more glaring examples of story inconsistencies.

Take the replacement of “The Oracle” between Matrix 1 and 2&3.

While this is indicative of the origins of these movies hailing from different universes, this glaring replacement made the Oracle completely unbelievable in the 2&3 movies.

Why? We’d established credibility with the first Oracle. Then a second one comes around who while she looks black, she doesn’t have quite the depth the other one does and certainly doesn’t have the rapport established by the first Oracle. As a result, the entire production suffered. Well, in part, there was more to the overall failure of these movies and the focus on fighting rather than philosophical storytelling for the first versus the second and third.

But there’s less obvious story inconsistencies that break the illusion.

Gilligan’s Island is a classic example. Everyone’s angry with Gilligan for fucking things up in the last episode. And then, in the next episode, there’s no trace of any anger with Gilligan. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

South Park even made fun inconsistencies like this with Kenny dying in every episode by saying “Oh my god they killed Kenny, You bastards”, and then in the next episode he was alive and no one was any the wiser he’d ever died.

On one of the forums I saw this posted about King Of Queens, perfect examples of story inconsistencies:

  • For a long running, major network series, King Of Queens has to be near the top.
  • Both Doug and Carrie had sisters who were part of the cast and disappeared with absolutely no explanation during the show’s run.
  • They had a dog that must have died overnight and was never mentioned again.
  • Doug’s best friend Richie, who was over at the house every single day for the first couple of seasons, was apparently abducted by Ted Bundy’s little niece, while none of the others ever noticed or commented on his vanishing act.

Another person says this about Happy Days:

  • Well there is Chuck Cunningham from Happy Days, the oldest son who mysteriously just disappeared in Season 2.

Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy many of the inconsistencies, it keeps me paying attention in many cases and I enjoy spotting them. Most of the time I just ignore it and move on, as it doesn’t break the ‘spell’ of immersion, but with cases like Alias and the more recent Agents of Shied – the glaring inconsistencies in behavior is so far out of normal behavior patterns the inconsistencies make the show unwatchable and me as a part of the audience tune out.

Quickly.

But here’s the thing.

IF these inconsistencies were framed better.

They can be made to appear necessary.

So much so – it’s hard not to question – was this intentional?

Star Trek provides the greatest example of this with their record of time keeping called Stardates.

Every episode tends to have someone logging something into the computer and tagging it with a Stardate, which seems similar to Earth based mechanisms of record keeping with date and time.

However. There’s a glaring inconsistency which occurs with stardates – which are not ordered in consecutive linear order and not consistent between the series and movies.

Now you would think the stardates would appear relatively consistent and parallel with the Earth date we’re watching – unless time travel’s involved.

But they’re not.

There’s a reason for it. An extraordinary reason.

I’ll let you figure it out on your own.

But what I have learned in life is this:

While I have resolved every movie inconsistency in my own way. Whether it’s the replacement of the Oracle in The Matrix, or the topsy turvy twists in Alias, I have gotten over thinking it’s a result of bad writing or actor choices alone.

Being sincere. That’s a horribly overused, unimaginative and boring story that’s being used too much.

The truth is.

I know there are alternate realities.

I’ve seen them. Been seeing them. Throughout my life.

And with this. Time flows differently in some.

Now for me as an individual – I’d lived a life playing by the book, a life by the rules because – in a general sense – the rules work for me.

A few years ago, my friends all learned I’d been inconsistent with them.

And had done things outside of their awareness with a cocaine habit I’d kept hidden from them for years.

I told lies about where I was, and what I was doing.

Allergies to excuse a bloody nose which happened frequently.

I was ‘working’ when I didn’t want to go out the next day to friends or family despite having spent all night binge drinking and partying with Jackie.

When friends crossed over with co workers, the nature of the story telling changed.

No longer could I use working as an excuse unless I had side projects I was working on.

So I established relationships at work accordingly to make this appear the case.

While my methods and personal experimentation may be questionable – and while I may have been a cocaine addict and alcoholic, I was discovering myself for the first time, this thing called choice, how science and time worked, and a MUCH more personally meaningful way of looking at this thing called existence without the limitations Hollywood might try to impose on me by calling the things I want and need in life fiction.

A couple weeks ago – I was asked by Naman, a local writer who’s written a decent story about the origin of Loomis, the doctor from the Halloween series – but as I read it – it was entirely inconsistent with just about everything.

Here’s what I told him that I wish I could tell most modern writers who just don’t seem to be ‘getting it’ despite their works becoming published.

Lessons I learned NOT just from watching television and movies.

But from realizing the value of consistency within one’s own life.

Even if that consistency is a temporary lie.

Helpful hints for writers of modern fiction and consistency:

  1. If you’re writing about a specific time period, then add RECENT (TIME relevant) subtle entertainment references and fact check those references to make sure the time period is accurate. For instance, let’s say you’re writing a story about someone in 1977, you might want to have them pass by a theater which is showing Star Wars just for immersion’s sake. KEEP IN MIND that what occurs in the United States during a specific time period is NOT the same thing that occurs in a place like London.
  2. If you’re writing about a specific place (ie: London), then set the scene appropriately using REAL street names and locations. EVEN IF IT’s FICTION. Why even if it’s fiction? Look at Dan Brown’s novels. He single handedly boosted up France tourism dramatically by citing real locations. Terminator put Griffith Park on the map. Having REAL LIFE locations you can identify with gives people a reason to leave their house and see the setting – EVEN if you’ve only seen that setting through Google maps.
  3. If you’re writing about a specific people (ie: Brits IN LONDON) – then BE SURE to add in accents and colloquialisms into your story. Naman brilliantly added a medical term in his London reference in use in 1960 that I at first flinched and then I thought – that’s brilliant! A word that’s misused but given entirely new meaning in the context he presented it. In any case, if you’re writing a story about ANY place – just do the research and bring the culture you’re presenting to life. Whether it’s Britain, it’s Romania, China, or Africa. And DONT just rely on the news for your interpretation of their culture. For instance – bloody and pissed are two commonly used words in British English – but most western writers have a tendency to ONLY use these words. Expand that. Heck. Go to London if you have to to get ideas and bring a freakin notepad with you to write the funny phrases down. THEN. And only then when you’ve understood their culture. write.
  4. If you’re writing about a specific region in the United States – then go there. Hang out for a while. Get to know the feel, accents, people and place you’re writing about. “I Spit on your Grave” captured the look and feel of a backwaters town in Louisiana marvelously. Viscerally in fact. It hurt to watch that movie because it felt so real. If you can’t afford it, then you’re not a real writer, you’re a transcriber trying to sell a story. Real writers create and explore possibilities both IN AND OUT of the pages and don’t let money limit them.
  5. If you’re writing about a specific person or group of people. BECOME them. FIND the world through their senses. Justify their actions through their lens. Even if you’re not writing it down as a part of the story you’re telling, KNOW the history of this character and draw that line between who they are now and where they came from and why.

Now you’re gonna make mistakes and there will be inconsistencies within any production.

WHEN they happen. Not if. WHEN.

You can easily appear like the most intelligent man on Earth by closing that loop in later stories.

Not only does the previous inconsistency look planned.

But it really becomes fantastic and fun story telling and an exercise in creativity for both you and a delight to those who may be watching what you create.

So here’s the thing.

When you’re consistent with your story and character, and you show growth in your characters, the story comes alive and THAT is what compels me as a viewer or reader to want to watch.

And I am not alone.

Just like in real life. I know America’s not being run by Americans because I’m offered the same ole shit I used to be offered minus the potential career, personal, and professional growth possibilities.

Consistency contributes to the character evolution – Whether it’s in a Hollywood story. or real life.

When it’s not there. Sure. there can be stories there. But more often than not Consistency is what makes the story something identifiable. You lose that. You lose our interest.

You don’t WANT to lose our interest, do you?

On a final note…

I have to give kudos to Sylvester Stallone.

Rocky turned from a wonderful set of movies at first to downright lunacy towards the end as the profit engine began to run amuck.

So when you rekindled the series with Rocky Balboa.

You answered questions as to where Rocky was in his career and you closed the loop permanently for me.

So when the profit engine ran amuck again and created the shitball known as Creed.

No one bought it because it was the same shit as before.

Thank you, for closing that door and providing a wonderful finale for a well thought out ending.

 


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