Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When the Tracks Don't Meet (or Travelling At the Speed of Plot)

Have you seen that cartoon of the train tracks being laid? They're coming from two different directions, but there's a problem: The tracks don't meet up in the middle the way they are supposed to. I think there are a bunch of guys standing there scratching their heads. Or something.
Yeah, I would have liked to have posted the image here, but I couldn't find it. You'll just have to pretend.

Usually, where books are concerned, those kinds of things are called "plot holes," but, really, they're not the kinds of things I would call "holes." They're just pieces of... let's call them "discontinuity." I hate them more than the plot holes, I think. Oh, you need me to differentiate?

Okay, let's say your protagonist loses the keys to his car in chapter two but, in chapter five when he's running from the bad guys, he fumbles them out of his pocket: That's a plot hole. And that's not what I'm talking about in this post.

This is what I'm talking about in this post:

When I was in high school, I had an after school baby-sitting job, and one of the things I "got" to do virtually every day was sit with the younger of the two boys and watch He-Man. I hated He-Man. I good example of why is related to the picture above. One day on He-Man, he would lift a mountain. He would struggle with the mountain but, eventually, he would pick it up and throw it. The next day, he would pick up a boulder, and would struggle just as much with the boulder as he did with the mountain. Why? Was the boulder made of dwarf star matter? I kind of doubt that. It just served the "story" by making the moment more tense if it was difficult for He-Man to do the job, no matter how easy it should have been for him.

It drove me crazy.

For those of you who follow my own blog, StrangePegs, you'll know that I've been reading and re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's Time series. She does this stuff all the time, stuff where things don't quite connect.

For instance, in A Wind in the Door, there's a section where Meg and her companions go into one of Charles Wallace's mitochondria. L'Engle goes to great lengths to tell us how much faster time moves inside the mitochondria than it does in the outside world. It's a huge difference, something like 10 years in the mitochondria is only one second of real time. After going to all of that explanation, she proceeds to move back and forth between what's going on with Meg in the mitochondria and what's going on with Charles Wallace and his mother in real time. Meg and everyone with her would have been dead of old age based on the real time passage.

Another example is from Many Waters (review forthcoming). At one point, one of the characters is having a baby. At the same time, there's an interaction happening with Sandy and Dennys that happens in one evening. The birth, which happens within the time frame of this one evening, somehow lasts for three or four days. And don't even start me on the fact that Dennys and Sandy, older teenagers (maybe 17?), act like they are about nine when it comes to girls: "Sandy got a funny feeling inside when he looked at her." Her being the naked girl talking to him. A "funny feeling." Or something like that.

However, the thing that inspired this post came from one of today's fantasy giants. Now, I haven't read A Game of Thrones -- and I don't really intend to -- but I do watch the show, mostly because my wife likes it. There's a point (during season two, I think?) when the castle is being attacked by Stannis and there's absolutely no hope that they can defend it. There's no hope because no one is close enough to come to the rescue. However, Tywin shows up anyway and saves the day, even though he was much too far away to get there over night. Then, I read an interview with Martin in which  he said something along the lines of, "I don't bother with distances in my books. If I need someone to be somewhere, I just pick them up and move them there." You know, like a game of chess in which you can move any piece to any location on the board any time you want to.

I call it "traveling at the speed of plot."

And, you know, on the one hand, I get it. It's your thing; you do with it what you want to. However, when you set up rules for your thing, you need to follow your own rules, and Martin does have rules in his world which are pretty much (except for the dragons and zombies) the same as the rules in our world. That means people can't teleport. They can't travel by magical means. And the don't have horses that travel at the speed of sound. It's bad enough that they use birds to deliver messages which are pretty much as fast as telegrams.

Honestly, I don't have patience for this kind of stuff. It's sloppy writing; I don't care how successful it is. Most people either don't care or don't notice, I suppose, but it doesn't make it not so. The thing is, it doesn't have to be that way. All of these things, with a little more effort to bring them into alignment with the rules of the worlds the authors have created could be that much better and not alienate people like me.

Actually, it's one of my biggest rules of writing: Follow your own rules.

And when I say it's "one of my biggest rules," I mean it's one of my biggest rules. One of my rules because, other than just doing the writing, every writer has to figure out his/her own rules. I suppose that makes it one of my biggest rules of reading, too. So be warned! If your book doesn't follow the rules you have set up for it, I'm not going to view it favorably.


  1. I never got into Games of Thrones, but yeah, moving characters around like that would bother me as much as moving a rook diagonally would.

  2. This kind of thing bugs me, too. At least Tolkien, when he needed to lift Aragorn to the battle in time, had the grace to come up with that tunnel of the dead or whatever it was to sail through.

    The L'Engle things are to try to make it more dramatic by comparing the two things. Which is fine, but you're right: don't then spend all that time explaining how much time is passing in one world. Just make them pass at the same time.

  3. Sandra: It's like trying to play with someone who refuses to follow the movement rules.

    Briane: I get why L'Engle did it, but it doesn't make it okay. If you want to switch back and forth, don't change the way time works in one of the places.

  4. That's weird about Martin, as I know his books have been delayed because of his attention to detail and his attempts to make sure he hasn't screwed up his continuity. He tells this story over and over about how he changed and horse from a mare to a stag over the course of a few books and is so embarrassed over it that he makes extra care to avoid even little snafus like that.

    But it doesn't surprise me that he may drop the ball that way from time to time like that - just that he's so blasé about it.

    Stuff like that can bug me, but I try not to scratch too long if something is bugging me like that in a story. It usually doesn't end well for my enjoyment.

  5. Rusty: You know, it's the kind of thing that I -might- not notice while reading, but when the author just comes out and says, "Oh, yeah, I don't care about that kind of stuff," it really bothers me.