Why fiction’s freest genres need its most rigid rules
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Late in the recent Andrew Niccol film In Time, criminal villain Alex Pettyfer forces protagonist Justin Timberlake to participate in a “wrestling match.” It’s meant to be one of the movie’s big action climaxes, where Timberlake finally takes on the murdering, thieving bully who’s tormented him throughout the film. And yet the tension is largely absent, though the stakes are high: Because the participants are “wrestling” to somehow pull time off each other’s built-in arm-clocks, which determine how long people in In Time get to live, if Pettyfer wins and steals all Timberlake’s clock-time, Timberlake will die. And for an extra unnecessarily crude touch of mustache-twirling villainy, Pettyfer has spelled out that once Timberlake is gone, Pettyfer will make a point of raping Timberlake’s hostage/girlfriend Amanda Seyfried before killing her, too.
Problem is, the film never bothers to establish how “wrestling” works in this world. The broad outlines are obvious—contenders grab each other’s arms and grunt and glower, and then somebody dies—but the film tries to keep time-wrestling mysterious by repeatedly bringing it up without defining it. Except that at one point, Timberlake tells Seyfried the story of his dad’s unbeatable time-wrestling strategy, which involves letting his opponent almost win, then taking all his time back when the opponent gets distracted watching his last seconds tick away. This makes no sense by wrestling standards—just because one side in a tug-of-war momentarily anticipates victory doesn’t mean they then just awkwardly stand around, letting their opponents make up all the lost ground—unless maybe time-wrestling is unlike its real-world analogues in some way. But instead of letting the audience in on how things work, the film sets up just one guideline for the scene: Timberlake has a secret winning move. Hence, no tension. Viewers don’t know what’s mentally or physically or mechanically involved in the contest, they just know exactly how it’s going to go: Some undefined nonsense will happen, and then Pettyfer will lose.
Which is one of the biggest problems with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Particularly in film, where it’s hard to lay out all the rules without endless exposition breaking up the action.) In these genres, the fundamental realities of a world can be anything imaginable: There can be wizards, or dragons, or intergalactic spaceships, or time travel, or dragon-wizards in time-traveling intergalactic spaceships. Nothing can be assumed. Which makes it mighty easy for authors to cheat by changing the rules whenever it’s convenient to the plot: “Oh, did I not mention that dragon-wizard time-travel spaceships are sentient and can crossbreed to produce baby spaceships? Well, they can.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with changing the rules of engagement in the middle of a scene in order to provide an out for a hero in an impossible situation. In fact, here’s an interesting mental exercise when reading or watching the kind of stories where heroes get backed into corners: Note how rarely they think their way out solely with the resources at hand—the ones the audience already knows about—and how often they instead get away because something changes, whether it’s a new person arriving on the scene as a help or a distraction, an outside event that changes the shape of the problem, or just something the audience wasn’t in on, like a hidden weapon or ability.
And changing a story’s rules mid-stream can be an effective way to foster tension. Consider what happens in The Ring when Naomi Watts acts on what she assumes is the correct way to end the threat of Samara, and finds out too late that reality isn’t what she thought it was. Or what happens in Alien when the crew of the Nostromo sets out to capture an alien the size of a rat, and winds up unexpectedly facing something bigger than a human. Or consider the time-honored, annoying, but often-effective Twister cliché: When someone begins a story by saying “None of us has ever seen an F5 tornado! Never! That would be like the finger of God!” there’s a 100-percent chance that the characters are going to be facing that finger by the end of the movie. In all these cases, what makes the rule-change effective is the characters’ sheer terror at facing something outside of their understanding of how the world works. They think they know where they stand, and they act accordingly. Then they find out they’re wrong, and they have to figure out their actual standing in a hurry, with their lives at stake.
The problem with pulling this kind of thing the wrong way in a speculative-fiction story is that science fiction, fantasy, and horror don’t necessarily share mainstream fiction’s baseline expectations for how reality works, and it’s far too easy to leave audiences feeling cheated, annoyed, or just plain confused when the rules change abruptly, or were ill-defined in the first place. Here’s a recent case in point: 2010’s Vanishing On 7th Street. In this horror-fantasy, for some reason darkness suddenly starts swallowing people up, leaving only their clothes behind. A small group of frightened people (Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo, Thandie Newton) cling to life and light in the form of flashlights, generators, car headlights, glowsticks—anything to keep the shadows at bay. Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) gets a lot of effective mileage out of the visceral, atavistic fear of the dark, and his eerie images of shadows that actively pursue the characters whenever the lights dim.
But while the visuals are intimidating, the film never makes any sense. It’s never clear why the dark is pursuing people, or what happens when it catches up. Events emerge from whatever’s scariest in the moment without connecting into a coherent story. For instance, no one who disappears into the dark ever reappears, except for Leguizamo, who’s seemingly absorbed early on, then turns up three days later, bleeding and concussed. Why does he come back? Where was he in the meantime? It’s never clear. The darkness shuts down vehicles and keeps them from operating—except for one. Why that one? The characters ask the question, can’t answer it, shrug, and move on. At some point, the darkness apparently starts unlocking and opening doors, and creating convincing, brightly lit illusions to lure people in. What are the limits of its abilities? Who knows? Still later, the darkness forms into what might be the ghosts of people it’s captured, who try to convince the people still surviving in the light to come join them. Are these shadows really related to people, or are they just more illusions? It’s never explained. And eventually, the darkness has an obvious opportunity to claim a surviving character, but doesn’t. Why not? And so on and so forth. The film never establishes a rule it doesn’t break, and in most cases, it doesn’t bother to establish a rule. The results aren’t spooky and frightening; they’re capricious, baffling, and frustrating.
So: Establish rules and then don’t break them. Seems obvious enough, right? Not really, given how few science-fiction/fantasy/horror films manage to do it right. As mentioned earlier, it’s harder for films to establish strange new worlds without a lot of clumsy exposition. And there’s less motive to stick by those rules in films, given that for American audiences, “science fiction” generally means action, “fantasy” means epic adventure, and “horror” means extreme, exaggerated, gory drama or comedy or both. Establishing an entirely new world is difficult, and it’s a low priority compared with establishing an exciting one that surprises the audience in the moment, regardless of what happens before or after that moment. Which explains why, for instance, in Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (to pick just one of the many massive inconsistencies that plague the Transformers films), a piece of the Allspark is used to revive the dead Megatron, but another piece (which the protagonists already have in hand) can’t be used to revive the dead Optimus Prime. Or why Neo’s powers over the course of the Matrix movies fluctuate depending on the situation. Or why R2D2 develops the ability to fly in the Star Wars prequels, which he doesn’t have in the “later” movies.
Contrast this with Stephen King’s new saving-JFK novel, 11/22/63, which establishes its own entirely arbitrary rules for time travel, but sticks by them and uses them right. Protagonist Jake Epping is introduced to a mysterious time portal that takes him back to 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1958. Like the protagonists of Vanishing On 7th Street, Jake doesn’t know how or why the phenomenon exists, but the lack of information there doesn’t get in the way of the story, so it doesn’t become an issue: We don’t always know why things happen in the real world, either, but if unexplained events in a story don’t happen solely to drive a plotline or provide a cheap scare, limits on information can feel like a natural part of a realistic world. And while King skips the how-and-why, he lays out the strange parameters of the time portal clearly and early: Anyone can go through the portal, interfere with history, and return to a present-day that’s been altered by those changes in the timeline, but if they re-enter the portal, they always wind up back at 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1958, and both past and present are reset to their default state. Besides that, the past actively resists changes to the timestream by interfering with time-travelers in various ways.
King doesn’t harp on these rules, but they hang heavily over the entire lengthy novel, as all of Jake’s actions and decisions are formed and limited by his awareness of how the portal functions. Those parameters may seem random—like any limitations on a scenario that’s essentially fantasy—but they’re used in a firm, fixed, non-random way to make the story more exciting by putting boundaries on what Jake can do and how he has to go about doing it. After a certain point, they become like any other rules for how the world works: They establish a basic framework for understanding and shaping a meaningful story.
Essentially, in the real world, people have to deal with the basic truths about how the world functions, whether they’re dealing with the law of gravity or common human motivations. The act of contending with limitations and figuring out how to work around and within them is inherently dramatic, and imminently relatable—everyone in the world has at some point been up against some force that prevented them from getting exactly what they wanted at all times. The hard part for storytellers in speculative fiction is figuring out what the rules should be, then getting them across to the audience clearly and convincingly. And then not breaking those rules for the sake of a moment, even if it would really, really startle people if they did. Speculative fiction makes up its own rules, and relies on its audience’s goodwill and suspension of disbelief to make an inherently unreal world feel real enough to be convincing. Breaking internal rules—or worse, lazily never bothering to set them up in the first place—is the easiest possible way to cut the cords and send that disbelief crashing to the ground.