Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Things Never Go Smooth

One of the problems with the stories that are popular, things are always going wrong.  There's always some amount of unnecessary pain and fear and trouble in the world.  It's stuff that could probably have been avoided if it weren't for a handful of mistakes that the story makes painfully obvious.

The crisis can be personal, such as saying the wrong thing to a girlfriend and trying to spend the rest of the story apologizing, or it can be local, such as dealing with a bank robbery.  It goes on and on, with the mistakes being more obvious and seemingly extreme as you go further up the line.

But the matter is the same.

Mistakes were made and they have to be cleaned up.

Or, it could be about a succession of mistakes that were made and what it resulted in.

But it comes down to: mistakes were made.

If the real world had as much incompetence and malice as you find in reading fiction, then we would probably be living in a state of anarchic babarity out of a post-apocalyptic movie.  That's because the movies and films focus only on the exceptional and rare instances where things do go wrong.

The innocent person is convicted.

The killer goes free.

A judge is bribed.

A cop is brutal and cruel.

Witnesses are killed.

These two in particular are repeated ad infinitum across a plethora of crime-centric TV shows and movies.  The movies in question don't deal with the hundreds of thousands of other criminal cases that have to be taking place in the world of the movie in the background, most of which are very much open and shut cases.

There is no open and shut in a TV show.

If there is, then a lawyer has to be called in to raise a technical issue.

Or maybe the open and shut case is wrong and the suspect is innocent.

Every case is a long drawn out affair where the juries, judges and lawyers require crazily accurate forensics findings that are all but impossible for modern day crime labs to produce without bankrupting their city.  And then a clever lawyer is called in to show that that inescapable evidence isn't all that clear after all.

Most of the mistakes that drive stories are made as a matter of misunderstanding an event.

In most cases, there is an underestimation of a situation.  This is what happens when you have people that don't believe in the slimy monster that is killing people around town.  Or, more realistically, don't believe in the existence of the charming young sociopath.  In the detective story, the police are usually suffering from this mistake.  Even in cases were the police are the main characters, they are underestimating the intelligence or randomness of their enemy.

In other cases, there is an overestimation of a situation.  The most common situation here is when a group in power mistakenly decides that a particular individual is a threat to them and must be put down.  The result is usually the creation of the very threat they were trying to prevent.  This is often the situation when the story is one of oppression or the like.

In other cases, there are situations when the mistake is one of not thinking about the consequences of an action.  The example earlier of insulting a loved one accidentally, or else not expecting them to pick up and leave, is one such consequence.

Good situations can be misunderstood as well.

Imagine a stock broker who spends the first fifteen minutes or so of a movie pushing a particular stock and how great it is going to be.  Then imagine that the improvement of the stock is far less than what he claimed it would be.  The result is that the investors, the company and the stock broker are all harmed by the man's mistake.

Now, imagine someone winning the lottery and casually mentioning it to someone else and now spending the rest of the story trying to hide and protect themselves and their ticket from people that want the money that they managed to win.

It is a difficult task to have mistakes happen and still portray the person who made the mistakes as competent.  It is easier to make them completely incompetent.

I prefer not to do that.

As the public, at least the American public, we have a tendency to think of various authority figures, ranging from parents to the government, as either malicious or incompetent or both, because that is the way that they are portrayed in most stories.

One way to try to do it is to have the character notice and comment on their own mistake and give them a situation later where the enemy assumes they'll make the same mistake but don't because they've learned their lesson.

Another way to do it is to never call the reader's attention to the mistake to begin with.

You could also choose to actually have an incompetent individual in control of the situation.

The mistake could be made because of situations about which the characters couldn't possibly expect to be aware of.

There could be a danger or situation that has changed what is normal for the character so that what would normally be a perfectly reasonable action would now be a mistake.

It is a mistake to fall asleep when your building has a gas leak, but that mistake doesn't indicate incompetence if you fail to notice the gas leak or else if it starts after you go to sleep.

Then there are the stories with the supernatural and paranatural events.

We laugh and sneer at the useless adults in some sci-fi movies when they fail to believe in the monster killing people, but seriously, if a teenager came up to you and said "there's a werewolf and we need to get silver bullets to kill it" would you believe them?

How about "I didn't kill them, I was possessed by an evil spirit."?

I don't think most would believe that either.

The disbelief of the supernatural or paranatural or extraterrestrials is a reasonable reaction.  However, a lot of movies and scripts feel that they have to emphasize the mistake and point out that, yes, the cops are incompetent, by having them act needlessly dismissive or even rude about the reports.

We look at these clownishly rude people with our outsider's knowledge that there really is a monster and we then condemn them as incompetent.

On the other hand, you could have a clearly polite and competent police officer still disbelieve the report.

Of course, it is easier to make people incompetent to explain the mistakes, but I still prefer to avoid the tendency to make the fault of the story belong to someone who clearly should never have had their job in the first place.

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