Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm

Over on The Dragon’s Rocketship Facebook page I posted a graphic commenting on one of my least favorite tropes in film.  It’s something that might be called: The Awful Choice. 


The point that I was trying to make is that while it is presented to the character and the audience as two options (“cut the chain”; which is impossible or “cut off your foot”; which is horrible) there is actually a third option–“cut the pipe”; which would completely defuse the drama of the scene.

Now, some people wanted to argue about the practicality of cutting the pipe (as a maintenance man I am used to working iron pipe, and it would take time, but I think it would be perfectly possible) and some people pointed out that the poor judgments by characters are not technically “plot holes”, which I will grant.  It’s like that insurance commercial that says, “When you’re in a horror movie you make bad decisions.”

What I found most interesting were comments made that complained that getting bogged down in technical details detracted from the story.

I disagree.  I think that the technical details are the story.  That particular scene depends upon technical details–the relative hardness of bone and tempered steel versus the cutting power of a hacksaw blade.  It simply requires the audience to ignore one relevant detail–the hardness of the pipe–and accept the other two.

I think that’s cheating.

I write about things that are impossible, and I expect my readers to accept them as if they are possible.  However, I also follow what I call Consensual Suspension Of Disbelief. To sum up that article, I believe that suspension of disbelief is both negotiated and limited. The example that I use in that article is the TV show The Walking Dead.  Viewers of the show know from the onset that it is about zombies, and are willing to accept that or they wouldn’t be watching.

That doesn’t mean that the writers are then allowed to break natural laws whenever they choose.  It is perfectly reasonable to complain about inaccuracies in the portrayal of firearms because, as I say in my article, “Zombies were negotiated.  Magic guns were not.”

I think that deviating from what the audience has specifically agreed to accept as possible weakens any story.  On the director’s commentary the writer mentions a scene in the original script in which the photographer cut a different section of pipe to find a clue.  That scene was not in the shooting script because the writer didn’t want the audience to consider cutting the pipe as an option.

When you break the rules that you have made in order to advance the plot, you are weakening your story.  God is in the details, and you are God of your worlds.  Get the details right.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    I view it as more than merely negotiation: there is an aspect of sympathy, too. However, speculative and plot-driven a particular person likes their fiction, they still want a frame of reference to hang events on.

    Even if I say in advance that my story is about killing aliens with sorcery, so the audience enters into the work knowing it is sci-fi and high-fantasy, there are only so many differences I can have from the audience’s experience of how reality can work before there isn’t enough similarity for the audience to know what is a challenge any more, so nothing seems exciting.

  2. Great post. I never thought of it like a contract before, but it is.

  3. That’s why I really dislike books/shows where something is presented as “impossible”, and then later on one of the bad guys does said impossible thing, screws everything up, and then when the explanation is finally given for how he can do this, it only works because he did something ELSE that’s impossible, and by that point you’re just sitting there going “Come ON.” I guess my beef is that if a villain can do impossible stuff, the hero should be able to do impossible stuff to — otherwise it’s unbalanced and irritating. Anime is particularly bad about that — there’s this show called Full Metal Alchemist, and there’s a character who can literally dodge bullets, except his special ability has to do with blowing stuff up, not super speed. It’s infuriating.

  4. “I think that deviating from what the audience has specifically agreed to accept as possible weakens any story.” — I agree. I think, though, that part of the problem is differing standards for “possible.” [mini-tirade deleted] There are also people are willing to accept anything and everything in a work of fiction, since ‘it’s all made up anyway,’ and they assume that everyone else is just as willing to accept it.

    “I believe that suspension of disbelief is both negotiated and limited.” — When the storyteller (print or screen) violates the terms of the agreement (and this includes declaring something impossible that isn’t), I stop trusting that person, and I stop trusting the story.

    In the example with the saw, the chain, and the pipe, if the guy had at least been shown -trying- to cut the pipe before deciding that it wasn’t an option, it would have been a better dilemma all the way around. Who thinks ‘I’ll just cut off my own foot!’ without trying- every- other option first?

    (I’m going to have that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day, and it’s all your fault.)

  5. Dr. Mauser says:

    That particular scene had other issues. How’d the other guy (the one who started in the tub) manage to wake up from whatever drugged him in time to not drown (considering that [massive spoiler] the killer was playing a corpse in the middle of the room and had to get that all set up. Plus the whole bit about him accidentally dropping the key down the drain of the tub as he woke. If that hadn’t gone off, well, it would have been a very short movie.

    And the world would be better off.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Yeah, there were an awful lot of random elements that had to work just so in order for the master plan to work. Another trope that I don’t care for.

      • Dr. Mauser says:

        Kind of like how some authors try to make their geniuses seem smart simply by having them take the LEAST probable interpretation of the evidence and eventually be proven right. (I’m looking at You, “Death Note”.)

        Sir William is slicing his wrists with his own razor.

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