Monday, November 18, 2013

Ranting & Rambling: Story vs. Setting

(Note: This post was written without having read the full Divergent trilogy. In fact, my only knowledge of the books came from detailed plot synopses. Several of my questions end up answered. Really, this rant was basically a way for me to come to terms with my frustrations over what I saw as shortcomings in the setting... and I succeeded in that, at least.)

You know what bugs me? Spiders. But besides that, I have a problem with contrived and overly-specific series of events that lead to dystopian futures.

Let me explain. I was looking at the synopsis for Divergent. Basically, in this story of a post-apocalyptic world, there’s these factions that are basically the equivalent of Hogwarts’ houses, with each one exemplifying a positive trait for humanity. But some chick born into a "selfless" family finds out that she’s actually suited for three factions, not one! She proves that she's capable of multiple virtues. Which is somehow bad…? But that's another issue entirely.

Here’s my problem: How does the future get to that point?

Certain “bad” futures like Marvel 2099, Blade Runner, or The Matrix, or even Demolition Man take problems of the present and extrapolate them. Corporations, technology run amok, racism, etc. But how the heck do we get to situations like “Divergent?” Some big bad war happens and everyone’s like, “Well, better split us all up according to arbitrary guidelines!”


An often-occurring problem is that a writer has a situation that they want to write about, and they have to reverse-engineer a very specific backstory to allow it to happen, which more often than not ends up being quite contrived. The better way to write a bad future is to extrapolate the problems of today, and many works do just that.

NSA monitoring us?
Take that to the logical extreme of Big Brother.(1984)

Corporations gaining unconstitutional rights?
Have them take over. (Marvel 2099)

It’s the same problem I have with The Hunger Games, though to a lesser extent. While with that series, everyone who’s been telling me to read it has been going on and on about how it’s a commentary on society, and it’s deep, and blah blah blah* that's irrelevant.

I will admit, I have not read Divergent, which automatically makes me a hypocrite. I’ll admit that.

So let me just pose these legitimate questions I have. If there are answers, I’ll listen. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read Divergent or not, I want to think about this logically.

After the apocalypse, Chicago.
In Chicago, there are several factions, each one representing the best traits of society. In order to join one, you not only have to show possession of a specific trait, you must compete and be ranked within the top 10. If you fail, you get cast out as “Factionless.” If you exemplify several traits, you are cast out as “Divergent.”

I have a few questions.

1.    Why would you ever cast Divergents out? By definition, that limits the number of people in your Faction. People should be fighting over the Divergent.

2.    If people are cast out because the faction’s specific trait is so important, fair enough, but why not execute the Factionless or Divergent if they’re the unwashed heathens that will rise up? Yeah, it's an evil solution, but the rest of this setting is so messed up that it's surprising that they draw the line there and create an issue for themselves over an issue they created in the first place.

3.    Can’t you brainwash kids to be selfless, or brave or whatever? Yeah, again, it’s wrong, but there’s a lot of wrong with this whole situation.

4.    If these ideals are so great, then why is it a bad thing to have several of them? Why? What good does it do society do get rid of people who are better by the arbitrary metrics society uses? Having one trait is good, why isn't having two better if having none is horrible?

I can see where it would be a good thing to put all the smart people together, but why the selfless? When are you ever going to need an entire group of selfless people who possess no other redeeming qualities? Are they sacrificial cannon-fodder?

And if you possess honesty, you can say that maybe they’d make good politicians and leaders that the people could trust, but I say no, because I want leaders to be intelligent, and all the smart people ARE IN A FACTION OF THEIR OWN!


Yes, it is possible to justify this as a self-imposed societal shift, but you have to bend over so far backwards with contrived explanations that you’d end up with your nose stuck in your bellybutton!

This is a problem that many writers have. At least, it's a problem many stories have. It doesn’t matter how cool your fictional society is, there has to be a reason why it is the way it is. You can have an implausible society, but there has to be a plausible reason for its existence. And I don’t mean “realistic.” If you can justify your strange society with an invasion by Nyarlhothep and his army of alien clowns, be my guest. Sometimes, saying “aliens changed human society,” though inherently “unrealistic” makes more sense than “people in the future thought it would be a good idea for no adequately explained reason.”

Let's try it out: Post-apocalyptic society divides itself into factions based on the best traits of humanity. 


Because the aliens that caused the apocalypse and enslaved humanity restructured society in this way to keep the humans in check for anthropological study and no major insurrections happened since the aliens all died out from a plague.

Yes, you can map out a whole series of unlikely events in human history that would lead to the result you want, but I prefer a writer’s time and effort go into the story as opposed to the justification of the setting.

This has been a lot more rambling and incoherent than I wanted, so let me summarize.

When a writer wants to write about a specific, highly unlikely situation, sometimes they start at the result and manipulate past events in the story to create a contrived series of events to justify it.

This can be done well, or it can be done poorly. If every step you take to justify your unlikely situation opens up more plot holes than it closes, I hate to say it, but you may need to rework your premise. Other times, you may need to rework your approach to handling the “realism” of your backstory.

For example, you can explain all you want about how a group of ancient Aztecs managed to figure out the technology to create laser guns (opening up many plot hole regarding the other technologies they should have as well as the speed with which they invented all these breakthroughs), or you can just say that they stole them from time travelers and forced them to teach the Aztecs how to use them.

To summarize the summary, some fictional settings require either an “unlikely” backstory, or an “unrealistic” one. If you can’t pull off one, go with the other. It might change your “artistic vision,” but at least people will pay attention to the story as opposed to questioning the setting.

Let me explain the difference when I refer to an “unlikely” backstory and an “unrealistic” one.

Situation: A future without nuclear weapons

"Unlikely" backstory- All the nations of the world spent time and effort dismantling their nukes all of a sudden, despite the balances in power that would cause as well as the lack of full transparency regarding nuclear weapons programs.

"Unrealistic" backstory- A scientist working with an experimental quantum particle-accelerator which accidentally stabilizes all radioactive materials on Earth, thus rendering nuclear weapons useless.

Both backstories answer “how” we got to this point. Surprisingly, there’s more plot holes with the “unlikely” situation, because the audience will keep asking “why?”
"Why all of a sudden?"
"Why did the countries that would be put at a disadvantage agree?"
"Why did no country have at least one nuke 'just in case?'"

It just raises too many questions.

In the second situation, the question “why?” is answered: it was an accident. No vast, sweeping changes on the political landscape, no going against human nature, no everybody-changes-their-minds, it was an accident.

The problem is that the story is supposed to be a political thriller with no science fiction.

That does pose a problem of a different sort, but one that can be rectified if you put some effort into it.

To summarize the summary of the summary, unlikely futures demand well-written backstory. If the reader gets hung up with questions on your book’s setting, mayhaps you didn’t put enough effort into world building as you were creating your fictional landscape.

I’m not saying you have to go all Tolkien and write a 3,000 year history to justify something that no one will ever see, I’m just saying “don’t give us a backstory that closes one plot hole and opens up fifteen more.”

*BTW, the worst way to convince someone to read something is to say “you just don’t get it.” Instead, try telling them that it’s not actually about what they think it’s about. You might think there’s no difference, but seriously, there is. For instance, explain that Fight Club is not about the Fight Club, the club is a backdrop to the real plot. Don’t say, “You just don’t get Fight Club’s premise. You don't understand why you should do what I'm telling you. Just do it.”

No comments:

Post a Comment