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The Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Feb 2012, Nov 2014, Jul 2016

Introduction

One of the important elements in making a memorable story in any medium is having the audience believe that what is happening in the story is relevant and consistent -- it is believable in its context and makes sense. As long as the audience can believe in what is happening in the story world they can relate to the characters and share their hopes and conflicts. For the rest of this essay I will be relating specifically to movie making, but the principle applies to story telling in all mediums.

When belief comes to a crashing halt, when an audience member is watching... and... suddenly says to him/herself, "Eh? What just happened? That makes no sense!" or "Eh? That person said what?" then the movie has blown it. What has happened is the viewer has gotten snagged on an inconsistency.

Inconsistencies are surprisingly hard to avoid for two reasons: First, because they can be superceded by familiarity (familiarity vs consistency), and second, because they are not given high priority in the movie development process. But consistency is important, and you, as a story teller should be sensitive to it. As a script goes through "development hell" keep internal consistency in mind.

To be clear: internal consistency means that what is happening inside the story is consistent. The story can have a dragon, that's fine, but if the dragon is breathing fire in the beginning and then somewhere in the middle breathes a blast of cold for no reason, that's an internal inconsistency.

(jump to Doing It Right)

An example of doing it wrong (2016 version)

The popular movie with lots of inconsistency in 2016 is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The root inconsistency here is that this is a step-for-step retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope only with new faces taking the place of old faces, and the setting taking place forty years later.

Eh? Nothing has changed in the last forty years?

o Setting: Same
o Story: Same
o Characters: Same
[sigh]

Even worse, this is what... the third Death Star to get defended in the same old way, and get blown up the same old way... even though this one is planet-sized! [more sigh]

That pointed out, there is an important second lesson this movie teaches: This movie, more that most, demonstrates the powerful value of familiarity -- a story can be terribly inconsistent but still wonderfully popular if it is based on a familiar and popular theme.

Very similar in its level of inconsistency is Star Trek Beyond. First let me say that the settings and sets in this movie show lots of imagination. I really enjoyed them. But how the space ships move around is straight out of 1950's low budget Sci-Fi movies. First problem: these starships fly down to planets, and crash on them, like they were as tough as tanks. Second problem: It seems that the Enterprise prop creating people have an on-going contest for each movie to see how many more holes they can put into the ship when it gets attacked and looses. Back in the original TV show days, one volley of shots was fired and the enemy ship was totally disintegrated in the next scene -- short, sweet, and internally consistent with having powerful weapons.

An example of doing it wrong (2014 version)

Christopher Nolan has done some impressive movies, sadly Interstellar isn't one of them, mostly because it is riddled with inconsistencies.

The first cliche of the movie's story is that humanity is losing the battle for survival on earth because resources are running out, specifically food. The inconsistency is this is portrayed in a setting that is a 1930's-style Dust Bowl farm, not anything near future. The farm house and its furnishings are 1930's Dust Bowl, the automobiles are not driverless, there are few computers in the home, and the old folks being interviewed are contemporary. In fact I think the Nolans were inspired to create this setting by the way contemporary documentaries talk about the Dust Bowl. In sum, this is not a future setting.

If the Nolans had really wanted to show near future rural poverty:

o the driverless cars and light trucks the family used would have been beat up, run down, and not showing up when needed because the solar car charger is on the fritz.

o the house would be a very simple modular plastic design, sun bleached, and with a twisted and bent dish antenna on top. Gramps complains that the 3D printer can't keep up with the house repairs.

o Murph could be complaining that the dust storm has twisted the dish antenna so she can't upload her school assignments or download lessons. Then Gramps can tell her to learn lessons by reading a book, and then that musty old library, kept as the family's luxury hobby, would make some sense.

These are some ideas for portraying an impoverished near future farm -- ironically, doing things the 1930's way, as the movie portrays, would be too expensive for poor folk of the future era.

Next, the super secret NASA base makes no sense. If you're building something big, you need supplies. If you need supplies, people and trucks loaded down with stuff are constantly coming and going. There will be busy roads leading to it, and GPS's and Google maps of the place. This place can be disguised as a busy something else, but it can't be a place no one knows about.

When they get into space the inconsistency continues. The space ship interiors are right out of the 1960's Apollo missions -- a few displays and lots and lots of manual switches. Further, the hot-shot human pilot can out-maneuver the robotic auto-pilots on routine maneuvers such as docking the spacecraft with another spacecraft. This isn't going to be what the human pilots do in the near future, the auto-pilots will do this much better.

Related, the robots in this story are cute, and a new style that I haven't seen before, but they aren't practical -- they don't have arms and hands. It's not clear what they do that helps humans, other than relieve their tensions by wisecracking.

I won't go into details, but the new worlds they visit are just as bad in their inconsistency. And, as in Prometheus (talked about next), the explorers don't send scout satellites ahead to get the big picture of the world, or watch the weather after they have landed.

When the story starts talking about twisting space and time, the head-scratching gets even worse.

What the story does handle well is drama. If you're into caring about family and want to see your movie characters caring about family, this movie will stroke your heartstrings nicely. At this it is much better than Prometheus.

 

An example of doing it wrong (2013 version)

The 2013 movie that does is wrong is "Prometheus" (2012). This movie had a lot going for it. Good actors, good effects, good franchise. Sadly, all that was sacrificed to a truly head-scratching story line. The writer seemed to be channeling Ed Wood and his low-budget sci-fi of the 1950's. (The good news is that Ridley Scott's next sci-fi movie, The Martian, came out much, much better.)

Here are some specifics:

o A small point first: When the starship arrives at the new star system the engines are pushing it forward, not breaking its speed so it will come to a stop here. This is a classic cinematic mistake, but a tiresome one. Making it signals that the film makers figure their viewers still don't know the difference between airplanes and space ships.

o Half of the crew finds out what they are up to after they wake up two years into this journey, when they arrive at the faraway moon with Earth-like conditions. Their finding out is a neatly impressive virtual reality scene... but... Eh? Some job recruiter comes up to you and says, "Son, I want you to go on a four or five year cryosleep space ride and I'm not giving you any more details than that. Wait! I'll give you one detail: I read your resume and I'm offering this to you because something on it says you're an expert. Are you ready to go?"

o This journey is a billionaire's hobby trip, but he is not there at first. If this is his hobby, where is the rest of humanity sending their other starships? If this is a hobby, interstellar space travel is commonplace.

o This starship lands on the surface of a planet with full Earth gravity and full Earth atmosphere -- it doesn't send down a shuttle. Whew! Straight out of the fifties! These days we have lots of real world experience that the ship traveling through space and the ship landing in a deep gravity well with a thick atmosphere are completely different designs, and thus completely different ships.

o The actions of the people are pure forties and fifties sci-fi/horror. By modern standards they are Keystone Kops scientists. Specifically:

oo They don't scout ahead. With one exception they don't send probes or robots first. They don't have a weather satellite. They don't spot their signs of civilization while still in orbit. They don't have backup for any surprises they may encounter.

oo They discover the air is breathable and poof! off come the helmets within seconds. First problem is the risk -- apparently no War of the Worlds readers in this group. But second, the suits of that technology era will be smart -- they will be "the outer me". Taking helmets off will cut down on sensory capability.

oo They have probes map out the place, the explorers are monitored back at the ship and in communication with it, but some get lost anyway. Worse, they are surprised by a vigorous storm. The rescuing from that makes for some neat action scenes, but...

oo Various members of the crew have secret agendas. That's not so unbelievable except that they are far, far away from any help and they aren't teaming up well.

oo They start encountering some really strange, really surprising stuff, and they don't go slow in response. They start hasty, they stay hasty, and make many silly mistakes that bite them.

All-in-all, very fifties in its handling of people and technology, and very silly by modern expectations.

o There is no explanation of how the ancient human people found out about this star system and drew it on cave and temple walls. We see one alien visitor, depicted as the first and only visitor, who deliberately dies after he is left on the surface, and is ripped into a hundred pieces by a potion he deliberately drinks. He's not going to be drawing any pictures! How did any figure-drawing humans find out about this?

o They find an alien, get his DNA, and discover it's identical to human DNA! Wow! ...except the alien doesn't look human, isn't the same size as a human, doesn't have human performance... did he have something beside DNA to help him become what he was? Some Sixty-four Loco? If so, I want some of that!

o It is not clear the DNA relation between the creepy chest-burster aliens and the human-god-like aliens.

o This is a prequel to Alien, but David, the helpful humanoid robot in this movie, has much, much more performance capability than the robot of Alien, who was state-of-the-art in his day, and a secret to the crew.

o The use of medical technology is spotty. Elizabeth Shaw can get it to pull a fast-growing alien out of her, but it can't keep Charlie Halloway from binge drinking after just one day of disappointment, and it doesn't warn when he starts getting a bit strange. Even though they are here looking for life forms, the scientists can't characterize the organics leaking from the alien canisters as life forms within seconds of discovering the leaks.

More information: Thanks to D. Michael Martindale for locating this 16 Nov 12 Film School Rejects article, The 8 worst parts of Prometheus made sense in the original script by J. F. Sargent, which talks about how the script got modified as it moved into production. This shows a typical case of internal consistency being sacrificed to enhance other issues. These other issues are seen as being more important, such as neat special effects or plot devices. Yes, they are important, but if tossing internal consistency leaves the audience head-scratching, giggling or yawning, much has been lost.

Tooting my horn: If you want to read a more internally consistent "first encounter with a planet with aliens" story, try my Where Does the 500LB Alien Sleep? in my book Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1.

Examples of Doing it Right

I present two examples of doing consistency well. I'm a sci-fi fan so both are science fiction movies -- "Moon" (2009) and "Limitless" (2011). Both have unusual stories and both have executed them well.

Moon tells the story of a lonely man at a mining base on the moon. It becomes a mystery story when he has an accident, and is replaced in just a few hours by... himself!

In truth, the first time I saw this movie I was getting more and more upset through much of it. I was seeing inconsistencies such as: This guy was out of direct communication contact with Earth and had been for months to years -- Earth isn't that far away and there should be redundancy.

So I was delighted when in the end these inconsistencies turned out to be elements of a well-designed conspiracy. The protagonist is not a human but a clone, and that clone has a life expectancy of just three years. When one clone dies it is replaced with another, and all experience life in a fantasy where they are fully human and on the moon for a three year contract. It turned out to be neat science fiction, and a neat mystery story, and I was delighted!

Limitless is also about exploring new technology -- in this case a pill which allows 100% of the brain to work, not just 10% or 20%. This is an urban myth, by the way, the brain is a very busy organ all the time. But it is a consistent premise within this story, so that causes me no problem. The satisfying part is we get to watch the protagonist go through triumphs and tragedies, uses and abuses, of this new invention. There are some inconsistencies in this story, but they didn't bother me much because the underlying premise of exploring a new technology was so well handled.

One example: The protagonist borrows big bucks from a Russian mafia type and then forgets to pay him back. Given his smarts that made no sense. It was pure plot device so that the mafia guy would get curious about the pills, and start taking them, too, and become a serious threat.

But I forgave, and I particularly liked the ending where the protagonist shows off additional cleverness, which is what this invention is all about.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), written in part by Joss Whedon, is another example of good internal consistency. This movie confused its first movie goers because it starts as if it is yet another slasher flick. It's not. Instead, this is an SF movie that starts with the premise that slasher stories happen for a good reason, and that is to appease some very real world gods with blood sacrifice. What follows is a movie with a lot of internal consistency, and humor, about the sacrifice being a routine part of human existence, but one that goes wrong in this case.

Some other movies with nice internal consistency: Her (2013) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Both of these movies, in addition to good internal consistency, have innovative filming styles. Budapest Hotel reminds me of a surrealist painting. This ability to support innovative filming style is one of the benefits of internal consistency -- the story is not familiar, so the filming style doesn't have to be familiar.

Consistency and mysteries

The kinds of stories where internal consistency matters the most are mystery stories. This is because inconsistencies in the stories are clues. If the butler says, "I was in the kitchen." but Miss Scarlet saw him in the garden, that's a clue.

An inconsistency that matters little

Since the time of Shakespeare and before, story tellers have paid little attention to getting time, distance and military scale right. Inconsistency in these areas seems to bother audiences very little.

People don't get upset when a messenger walks into the King's throne room and tells the king, "Sir! The Evil Duke as refused your offer."

The King furrows his brow, then says to General Mayhem standing beside him, "This means war! General, I want your ten thousand men attacking the Evil Duke's castle by..." checks his hourglass wristwatch, "3PM this afternoon."

"Yessir!" says General Mayhem with an arm smacking his breastplate in salute, and he then walks out to make it so.

Up until World War One marshalling and moving ten thousand men took years of planning and at least a season of preparation. An example: The battle at Bull Run occurred seven months after the South declared it was seceding, and it was roundly criticized after the Union defeat for being such a hastily assembled campaign.

But people watching movies don't seem to care when the next scene shows General Mayhem that same afternoon in front of rank upon rank of knights in shining armor at the Evil Duke's castle. It's odd, but true.

Consistency versus familiarity

Another circumstance that tolerates lots of inconsistency is when the story is familiar. If viewers know what is going to happen, they aren't too fussy about how the story makes it happen. Another name for this kind of inconsistency is poetic license. The surprisingly popular 2013 example of this is Frozen. (theme: Our daughter has a congenital defect, so we are banishing her to her room until she grows out of it. ...Eh?) Another example of familiarity winning out is the James Bond movies.

Consistency and familiarity are often at odds. You as the story teller need to decide which muse you will follow.

o If it is a mystery movie, where inconsistencies are clues, be consistent.

o If you are telling a story about something new and unfamiliar to your audience, such as a new science fiction concept, then consistency is more important. If your audience is going to be impressed with your new idea, it needs to be presented in an internally consistent framework.

o Conversely, if the story is a familiar one, and the audience knows what to expect, then internal consistency matters a lot less. Again, Frozen and franchises such as the Bond movies, Marvel and Star Wars, being fine examples of this.

o Comedies are often making fun of internal consistency, and familiarity. In both cases the writer must keep the consistency or familiarity constantly in mind as they wander into the outrageous.

This leads into the biggest virtue of internal consistency: It is going to take your story into new ground. Your story is going to become a surprising story in the deep sense of that word. When this is done well, the story becomes long-term memorable. The Lord of the Rings (book version, not movie version) is a fine example of this happening.

Conclusion

Internal consistency in your story is important. But in the real world of movie making you're going to run into serious disputes over how important. As a movie script goes through development hell, there will be constant temptations to upstage internal consistency with "neat things" such as showing off state-of-the-art special effects or "deepening" a character's motivation.

And, internal consistency's most formidable alternative temptation: familiarity.

Even though the temptation is great, do your part to resist it. Build a lot of consistency into your script to start with, and make it clear to others how consistent it is. This is especially true if you are trying to develop an idea or theme that is groundbreaking.

Consistency is important. It is important because the more it gets lost the more the movie will become confused and unmemorable to viewers, as my doing it wrong examples have shown.

 

--The End--

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