Christopher Swiedler

the charactery

Category: Random

Believable Me

Think back to the last few movies you’ve seen and enjoyed. How many times have you heard someones say, while walking out of the theater, something like this?

That was a really good movie. It was a little unbelievable that $CHARACTER did $THING, but still, I really enjoyed it.

Or think back to some of your all-time favorite blockbusters. How many of them have plots that you could poke little holes in, if you really tried?

Hint: the answer is all of them.

How many of those plot holes ruined the movie for you, or even made a noticeable impact on how much you enjoyed it?

Probably none of them.

By believability I don’t mean realism. Lots of stories have magic or advanced technology that is completely unrealistic. But as long as the world of the story is internally consistent and makes sense to the reader, it’s believable.

And believability is important! If the reader or audience stops and thinks “wow, what’s happening here doesn’t make sense,” then you’ve obviously made a mistake. If you can, then by all means, make your plots, explanations, and world-building completely airtight. The problem is that often fixing believability comes at a cost that isn’t worth the benefit.

To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who sacrifice essential momentum for a little temporary believability deserve neither momentum nor believability.

Imagine you’re writing a story where the protagonist is trying to avenge their dead father by pursuing Big Crime Boss. The police have picked up the main character, and the police chief questions them. After a brief, heartfelt conversation, the police chief lets the protagonist go.

How believable is this? Not very. The job of a police chief is to catch people who break the law and hold them for trial, not to make decisions about an individual’s higher moral purpose.

But how important is the lack of believability? The answer is it depends. If you’re writing a story that revolves heavily around the details of law enforcement, then it could matter a lot. If the police chief is a major character, then it definitely matters a lot. But if this scene is just a brief pivot into the climax of the story, and the police chief is a minor character, then maybe it doesn’t matter much at all. Maybe the reader doesn’t really care, and only wants to see the story keep accelerating toward the confrontation with the bad guy. Maybe they intuitively understand that this is how the story needs to be, and that complete, airtight believability just isn’t very important to them.

And what about the cost of the fix? If all it takes to improve this scene is to add a couple of lines of dialogue, then it’s probably worthwhile. But what if it takes a massive rejiggering of your story? What if changing a motivation to fix your problem results in more problems in other parts of the story?

The danger we can get into as writers is to think that there’s some perfect version of our story that fixes every problem that anyone might possibly perceive. We can tinker endlessly, trying to tune every tiny bit until there’s no chance for the reader to complain. And in the process, sometimes we end up with a story that feels overly complicated. Or mind-numbingly slow. Or just plain boring. We lose our story’s momentum.

Sometimes, the right thing to do with a believability problem is just to zoom right past it. A good story catches the reader up in a flood of anticipation and excitement that can easily withstand a tiny bit of unbelievability. That momentum, whether it’s internal or external, plot-oriented or emotional, is the key you’re looking for. It’s the reason why you didn’t care about the silly little believability holes in your favorite movies. Focus on maintaining that momentum, not on tiny bumps and potholes in your plot.

One last note: there’s a big difference between deciding that you’re not going to tinker with a tiny problem where the fix will hurt the story overall and deciding that you’re not going to fix a real issue just because it’s hard. Sometimes the right fix for a real problem means upending lots of other parts of your story. That’s one of the most frustrating things about writing. But it’s not the difficulty of the fix that should be the deciding factor, but rather what makes the story better. Let that guide you, and you’ll always be going in the right direction.

 

from the tinkerer-tailorer-soldierer-spier dept

Legal semantics

I swim a few times a week, and so I see this sign a lot. Apparently a few years ago California legislators (god bless ’em) passed a law saying this text needs to be displayed near all public pools:

diarrhea

Persons having currently active diarrhea, or who have had active diarrhea within the last 14 days, shall not be allowed to enter the water.

It’s basically a swimming pool equivalent of the ubiquitous this facility has chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer. But what I find funny about it is the distinction between “currently active diarrhea” and “active diarrhea within the last 14 days.”

If there’s a semantic (and apparently, legal) difference between those two cases, then what, exactly, is “currently active diarrhea?” Any normal definition of currently active would mean people who have recently experienced digestive indistress–but that’s a case covered by “within the last 14 days.” Meaning the only remaining definition of currently active diarrhea would be people whose gastric misery is, in the most literal sense, currently active.

filed under eww-gross

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is not an acceptable deity in the eyes the US District Court for Nebraska

When I first saw this mentioned over at Ars Technica, my reaction was, oh, hey, another conservative judge deciding that only Judeo-Christian religions are ‘real’. But after reading over the decision, I have to say, the guy has me persuaded.

This is not a question of theology: it is a matter of basic reading comprehension. The FSM Gospel is plainly a work of satire, meant to entertain while making a pointed political statement. To read it as religious doctrine would be little different from grounding a “religious exercise” on any other work of fiction. A prisoner could just as easily read the works of Vonnegut or Heinlein and claim it as his holy book, and demand accommodation of Bokononism or the Church of All Worlds…Of course, there are those who contend—and Cavanaugh is probably among them—that the Bible or the Koran are just as fictional as those books. It is not always an easy line to draw. But there must be a line beyond which a practice is not “religious” simply because a plaintiff labels it as such. The Court concludes that FSMism is on the far side of that line.

If I were to try to argue that I was a “Pastafarian” and entitled to religious protection for it, this argument would have me bowing my head and mumbling an apology for wasting the court’s time. Since I’m certainly aware that FSM is a satirical statement, I can’t claim to at the same time believe in it as a religion.

It’s funny that (if you accept the court’s argument) this puts the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Pastafarianism at a disadvantage to Judeo-Christian religions specifically because of the effectiveness of the parody. If the humor wasn’t quite so broad, it would be much easier to argue that it was ‘believable’. Though I suppose that getting equal protection as a religion is exactly the opposite of what the FSM was created to do–skewer the concept of (and protection of) established religion–and so its creators are probably not too unhappy about the plaintiff losing this case…

Also, it’s hard not to love a judicial opinion which quotes Vonnegut and Heinlein.

filed under equal-protection-from-his-noodly-appendage

Essential Liberties and Begging the Question

Any time an argument comes up about civil liberties versus government security, you’ll find this quote from Benjamin Franklin:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

It’s a brilliant quote, but really, it’s meaningless. In fact, it’s a brilliant quote because it’s meaningless. It begs the question (in the classical sense) because the only thing it argues is that if the arguer is already right, then their argument is right.

Hrm, sorry, let me back up.

Liberty versus security is a tradeoff. Everyone recognizes that; nobody argues that people should have infinite liberty or that the government should have infinite power to enforce security. Arguments about liberty vs. security aren’t about black and white generalities, but about specific tradeoffs:

  • Is it better to let the NSA snoop on our web traffic to help catch bad guys, or is it better to let people use the internet without fear of being monitored?
  • Is it better to let the FBI unlock phones from suspects, or is it better to let people keep the contents of their phones private if they choose?
  • Is it better for the government to have ways to decrypt personal data, or is it better to let people encrypt their data using algorithms that are unfeasible to break?

In each of those cases, you could apply the word ‘essential’ to either side of the argument. It’s essential that the NSA be able to snoop on traffic; it’s essential to let people use the internet without being monitored. Same goes for ‘temporary’: any security that comes from the FBI unlocking phones is only temporary; the liberty of keeping your phone private is a temporary one.

In other words, the quote just adds a couple of adjectives to the sides of the discussion that the arguer prefers, and then wraps the whole thing up in a pithy, memorable sentence. If you want to argue the other side, you can just reverse the adjectives:

Those who would give up essential Safety, to purchase a little temporary Liberty, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

This is what begging the question originally meant: to make a statement in support of an argument that is only true if the arguer is already correct. Which makes it a wonderful use of rhetoric–at least, if you’re Benjamin Franklin, arguing over a tax dispute with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which was the original context of the quote.

So the next time someone whips out this old mathom of a quote and tries to shout you down by quoting a Founding Father, just tell them: “hey, asshat, all you’re doing is begging the question.” They’ll spend so much time trying to figure out whether you properly used begging the question that you’ll win the argument by default.

filed under you’re-welcome-internet

If there is a junkyard in hell, this is apparently the bench you sit on while you wait for service

I live in Pacifica, near a pleasant little beach-side trail next to Mori Point. There are a number of benches along the trail, mostly established as memorials for Pacificans who have passed on to the Great Surf Spot in the Sky. Judging by the dates inscribed on the benches, the length of the trail, and the number of benches,  in a few years they’ll be clustered so densely you’ll be able to hop from Highway One to the beach without touching the ground.

There’s one bench in particular that always confuses the hell out of me. It’s inscribed  If there is a junkyard in hell, love is the dog that guards it.

What, in the blessed blue blazes, does this quote mean?

Is it a memorial to the owner’s late dog “Love”, who is now apparently believed to be guarding a scrap-heap in the netherworld?

Is it a comment on love itself?–perhaps engraved by a jilted partner who wanted to suggest that hell hath no fury like a guard dog chained to a junkyard?

Was it put there just to confound passers-by looking for meaning, truth, and beauty in the panoply of seating that lines the trail?

I have no earthy idea. But if I ever find myself in front of Satan’s flaming gates, my first question is going to be is there, by chance, a junkyard here?

filed under language-is-a-mind-virus