Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes on a Plane: Don't be Daft

Writers really have to be careful in developing their stories. I'm going to give some fine examples. Really fine.

First...Snakes on a Plane.
Doesn't anyone remember basic biology?
Samuel L. Jackson is one of my very favorite actors, but this latest fiasco in filmmaking has me a little perturbed due to a severly flawed premise. How could he participate in such an abomination?

No author is perfect and none of our artistic efforts are perfect, but writers owe it to their audiences to at least give it the old college try.

So...Snakes on a Plane. Sadly, this premise is flawed from the get-go. The problem can't actually be a problem, unless you're like...daft.

Humans are warmblooded.
Reptiles, which includes snakes, are coldblooded.
It's cold at 33,000 feet.

Ergo, turn off the heat in the plane for a few minutes.
Problem solved.
Humans, being warmblooded, will whine and shiver, but remain active when the temperature drops. Snakes, being coldblooded, will become inactive. Planes shunt engine heat into the cabin because it's darn cold in the air, particularly at 33,000 feet. If you turn off the heat, you can then stroll through the plane at your leisure, picking up limp, rubbery, semi-comatose snakes and do whatever it is you want to do with them. Then, when you're done, turn the heat back on.

You're done.
There's no actual story here, other than the fact that everyone involved with this movie appears to be suffering from some kind of serious brain damage because no one appears to know what it means to be coldblooded versus warmblooded. They don't know what snakes are.

The writers appear to be cheerfully clueless.

This movie illustrates a bad premise.
This is just one problem a writer must contend with. Another is character incoherance. Not incoherant dialogue, but character actions, traits, dialogue or other characteristics that don't make sense for the type of character you are creating.

I ran into this recently in a book that I really wanted to love. It is a major bestseller and has a thrilling premise. Besides, I know and like the author. The problem is, the heroine's character is hopelessly incoherant in the first chapter. The behavior of the character is so flawed that it shattered my ability to like her at all. In fact, my only hope is that she "buys the farm" later in the book. I know she won't, but I'm hoping at least for serious injury.

This heroine is an ex-FBI agent and has been around guns most of her life. If this was a coherently drawn character, she would have her gun safety rules so ingrained in her psyche that she would do things like unload and break open a gun before handing it to someone. She would never in a million years point a loaded weapon at anyone. (I'm around law enforcement people all the time, as well as having my own concealed carry permit, and I've noticed how people, even "civilians" in even a casual situation such as looking over unloaded guns in a pawn shop handle the weapons. They hand them to each other broken open and never point them at anyone.)

You don't point a weapon, loaded or not, at anyone unless you mean to use it.

So, in the first chapter of this book, a friend of the heroine's has hired a bodyguard for the heroine. When the bodyguard arrives, the heroine is in her den. The bodyguard, the friend, and the bodyguard's assistant walk down the hallway to the den, knock, and open the door.

The heroine points a loaded weapon at them.

Now, she knew who opened the door. She knew her friend was out there, along with this bodyguard and his assistant. The heroine had plenty of firearms training and yet she aimed a loaded weapon at an open doorway where she knows her friend and two innocent people are standing.

This character is seriously broken at this point. She's incoherant. She cannot be an ex-FBI agent and act like this--I just can't believe it would happen.

But wait! There's more!

I didn't tell you that before the bodyguard opens the door, they hear the heroine giggling to herself and loading her weapon.

Now, I ask you, does that sound like something a heroine--a character you are supposed to sympathize with--should do?

The only characters I know that laugh insanely to themselves, load weapons and point them at their friends are wacko nutjobs or people with a major substance abuse problem.

The best thing that could have happened at this point would have been if the writer had the hero--upon seeing the loaded weapon pointed at him--had whipped out his own gun and shot her right between the eyes. Then we could have gotten a new, and potentially more coherant, heroine. The hero could have claimed self-defense and given the insane laughter and loaded gun pointed at him, I'm sure any court in the land would have found him completely innocent.

This heroine needs to go. She makes me want to tear off her arm and beat her senseless with it.

Now, lest you think that I'm perfect, or think I'm perfect, that is not the case. My brain short-circuited the other day and I wrote that Mercury was the sun god. Clearly, this is not the case, and I knew this. However, for some reason, my brain didn't note the error and it kept slipping through my edits. Fortunately, I sent my manuscript in to a contest, and the judges astutely pointed out that Mercury is not the sun god, he's a messenger for the gods. The judges indicated that Apollo is the sun god, which in actual fact, is not precisely true, either. The actual, original Greek sun god was Helios, but somehow, over time, Apollo got mixed up with Helios and folks forgot that Apollo was actually the god of other things, but not the sun.

Anyway, that's just one mistake I've made. There are plenty of others and I'll make plenty of others in the future. That's why it is so critically important to have other people check out your work.

Errors stop a reader cold and they will rarely continue once stopped. They may also avoid your books in the future, figuring you're an idiot. Don't let this happen to you.

  • Test your premise - is it sound or is it a "snake on the plane" premise? Run it by as many people as you can to check for logic and/or scientific flaws.
  • Understand your characters - don't have them do things like point a loaded weapon at a friend when the character's background and training would preclude such a stupid action (even without a law enforcement background, I don't know any adults who would do this, either). Even a character mentally cracking up will deteriorate in ways that reflect their own peculiar habits, training and traits, so keep that in mind. Have others read your work and look for character inconsistencies.
  • Check your facts - don't put in facts like Mercury is the sun god, thinking you will change them later, or because you're too lazy to check, or worse, because you think you need that "fact" for your story. If you need to distort the facts, see if you can't distort your story instead. Readers pick up on facts that are incorrect and it can destroy your work.
  • Don't include extraneous research just to show off you've done it - oh, I forgot to give you an example of this. Another bestseller I read spent the initial chapter on extraneous details about the FBI training facility in Quantico, VA. Not only was it incredibly boring, it annoyed me because it's only the writer showing off, saying "hey, look at all this cool stuff I learned in my research!"

Here's the thing with the last point, it was boring and the author actually got some of the "facts" wrong. The more "facts" you include, the higher the probability that you are going to misinterpret your research and/or get something wrong. Only add those details that you need to have to create the atmosphere, setting and plot you are writing. Layering on more information, particularly background information (the building was built out of native limestone in 1920--blah, blah--who cares?) bores your reader and increases the probability of error.

You must do your research, but it's more important to understand the implications than to just include a bunch of facts.

The writers of the snake movie did not understand the implications of reptiles being coldblooded and the fact that high altitudes are cold. Another writer did not understand the implications of gun safety training and how it becomes a habit in those who regularly handle weapons. Another included piles of details from her research that were not only unnecessary to the plot but in actual fact exposed a few things she got wrong.

And of course I got my gods wrong.

At one time or another, I've made all the mistakes listed above, from stupid premises to misinterpreting researched facts, so...

Keep it accurate and keep it germane.

Get another pair of eyes to review your work just to make sure.

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