It’s an age-old struggle I find myself in — where to strike the balance between a believable, internally consistent world, and a world that’s fun and interesting?
Everything a plot tries to deliver is for nothing if it has shaky foundations, but on the flip-side, if a plot has too-solid foundations it is all too easy for it to paint itself into an incredibly dull box.
The Right Side
Star Wars is a prime example of getting the balance right. It explains enough – “the Force is a magical field that can be tapped into by some people to do actually fairly minor things” – without going too deep – “the Force is generated by microorganisms called midichlorians”. It satisfies the surface level without constraining itself (or making a fool of itself) by setting too many hard rules — we’re happy to accept that, given a universe where the Force exists, magical effects are possible.
How about a counterpoint — the superhero film Avengers Assemble recently (“recently”) prompted similar thoughts. The Marvel Cinematic Continuity or whatever the hell it’s called falls mostly on the right side of the balance (plausible enough), but jumps right over the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable with the hideous Hulk. As the old saying goes, “close, but no biscuit”.
What about my more recent favourite, John Carter? There’s no space magic here — John’s Earthly physique allows him to jump harder and faster on the Martian gravity (which is apprently 30% of Earth’s, so maybe he would be able to leap that far after all). And the bad guys… Well, they shoot lasers out of nanotech, and we all know that nanotech is akin to shoving the word “quantum” in front of everything as a sci-fi get-out-of-jail-free card.
That’s the thing — it’s just hand-wavy enough to get by without scrutiny. Maybe it’s an advancing cultural thing; when we all understand quantum mechanics and nanotechnology from primary school, maybe looking back on the Deus Exes of our time will be hideously embarrassing too.
Not that I want to suggest that science is destroying my capacity for imagination. As mentioned above, there are examples that get the balance right while continuing to spit in the face of reality.
The Wrong Side
Defining too many rules, extrapolating too much, removes the mystery. But not articulating enough rules is equally as dangerous.
If magic has no defined rules, then anything is possible: we can end up with the whole Lord of the Rings “why didn’t the Eagles just paradrop the Ring into Mount Doom in the beginning?” situation. Sure, the Eagles aren’t magic, but they’re a symptom of the same problem: there is a plot hole and, instead of solving it, we shove in a get-out-of-jail-free card.
If there are no rules, no limits, then anything like this can happen, but more importantly, it can happen at any point: you end up reducing your plot to a one-hit-one-kill of the villain at the earliest opportunity. There has to be a damn good in-world explanation for why the nukes cannot be unleashed immediately (whether that’s a moral argument against them or a physical barrier or a lack of character knowledge of their existence or how to work them).
When I write, I want to have a solid and reasonable answer to every “why didn’t X just do Y?” question. They don’t necessarily have to be articulated explicitly; their mere presence will cause the actual exposition to flow around them, so that when somebody wonders and works it out, the response will be “oh, of course that’s why X didn’t just do Y”.
Painting Yourself Into a Corner
It all comes back to Project Y4 in the end. Y4 is grim, far grimmer than I ever intended, and far less fantastical than the glorious space opera it wants to be the precursor to. It might be the culmination of ten years of modding, but it is more immediately the product of an unhappy two years of employment in companies going nowhere. But how did it get this way?
Because the first drafts of Project Y4 didn’t even include force-fields or holoprojectors. It was a real watershed when I finally gave in and added those — without them, the world was too pragmatic, to the extent where doing anything even remotely fantastical with aliens would have been impossibly jarring. The pragmatism was stifling the universe and the stories possible within it, forcing them too close to reality… a reality that was pretty tough back then.
And we all know worlds without laser-swords aren’t worth exploring.
I wonder if I fell down the same funnel that the AAA games industry has done over recent years. Relentless explanations increasingly tend towards reality, because what imagined explanation can trump one based on decades of scientific research? But the more real the rules, the more real things have to be to satisfy those rules, and the less any fantastical elements fit in — and before you know it, everything is a gritty real-world shooter rendered in shades of brown and grey…
… When all we really wanted was fantasy with a little bit more consistency and backbone. Fantasy that could stand up to at least pub-conversation-level scrutiny, fantasy that adheres to some plausible (but not necessarily realistic) constraints. Escapist trash can be intellectually satisfying too, can’t it?
With the This Wreckage re/construction, I want to finally get the balance right. I want that belter of a yarn, built from plausible actions and reactions based on established context. I want the motives of the villains to be more than just pantomime “take over the world”, but I don’t want them so grim and serious that they become cardboard cut-outs from Babby’s First Gritty Screenplay.
So here’s to striking a better balance. Here’s to having internal consistency without trading strange imagined worlds for boring real ones.
I know that balance is in there somewhere.