P. T. Mayes


Story Vs Reality

While watching Christopher Nolan's new film "Interstellar" (which I loved) I began to ponder that age-old conflict between story and reality. The thing is, you see, is that Interstellar has been attacked for fluffing science, and therefore, reality; but if you look at all of Christopher Nolan's films, even though they have the veneer of being "real", they're all actually about as real as The Lord of the Rings.


You see, story and reality are the very worst of enemies, but both are essential to our enjoyment of a book or film. Reality lays the groundwork; it makes us feel comfortable with the stage upon which story is set, but then story comes along and butts heads with it, and in a competition between story and reality, story always wins (although the astute reader or audience might call it "cheating" instead). Yes, writers and filmmakers are cheats. We're forced to be, although (most of us) strive to keep our stories as real as possible.


Here are just a few of the more obvious instances where story and reality are strongly at odds.




Especially locked doors. As a writer I hate locked doors. At one point in almost every thriller/action/horror story someone is going to have to break into an office/house/enemy lair/crypt, and that means a locked door stands between them and what they want, and the chances are your hero doesn't have the key. This means the writer has to go through the tedium of having to leave a window open or allow the character to shoot the lock off (apparently more difficult in real life than it appears on the screen), or pick it with pickled herring. Of course they could always break the door down, but again, it's a task that would defeat most normal people, and it would make a lot of noise, and the same goes for smashing a window. If only sonic screwdrivers were as common as mobile phones then everybody could access to every door with no problem at all. In reality most people would come up against a locked door, try the handle, give it a push or two, and then give up and go home.




How does he know that? How did she work that out? How can anyone ever know what another person is thinking? The getting of information in books and films is usually crude and simple, and often requires a big cheat. The hero turns to the right page in the book to find exactly the piece of information he requires -- The heroine manages to guess the villain's password to the doomsday software every rotter has installed on him Apple Macs in three tries (it was the maiden name of his dear old mum), or finds it scribbled down on the edge of the blotter -- The villain gives himself away by using his catchphrase at the end of the story that he used at the start when he was wearing a mask and had the hero at his mercy. In reality nobody knows anything and research is a laborious and time consuming activity, but in fiction it's as easy as dropping your hat.




The greatest enemy to any story is that of...time. If the writer is writing historical fiction it usually happens that the two events you want to connect your story together actually happened hundreds of years apart, so a little bit of compression is required. In space stories travelling faster than light is needed (and ansible for communications) so that the story can be fitted into the lifespan of a gerbil, not the hundreds and thousands of years it would take in reality. If there was no light speed in Star Wars, there would have had to have at least three different sets of characters to finish the story, each one the successor of the other, and by the time they got to Yavin the Empire would have crumbled to dust and Darth Vader would have become a brain floating in a tank of goop, or something or other.


On a slightly smaller scale time poses a tricky problem for that good old story trope: being saved in the nick of time. In reality nick-of-time rescues rarely happen, although they are not impossible. Usually the cavalry turns up a good week after the massacre; not just at the moment when it seems that everything is going bad for our heroes and all hope is lost. Another good example of this is the hero who realises that he's left his best friend to guard his girlfriend when it was his best friend who was the serial killer all along. The problem is the hero is in John o'Groats while his girlfriend and best friend are in Lands End. Of course he has no mobile phone signal (and its out of charge anyway, and got eaten by a marauding goat) so he has to dash from John o'Groats to Lands End in his clapped-out mini in the half hour that the serial killer realises that his identity has been revealed and has to break down the bathroom door to get to the terrified girlfriend (there it is again: doors) and somehow manages to do it by the time the serial killer has successfully picked the lock with a pickled mackerel. Time = bother.





In stories technology always works perfectly, while in reality it never ever works when you really need it to work. The only exception is vehicle engines, which never work when you want them to but will always burst into life at the last second.


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So there you have it, the old battle between story and reality. It would be lovely if all writers could abide %100 by the laws reality, but then what long, laborious and frankly dull stories they would be. The whole point of all good stories is that they bend reality in acceptable ways, and we, the educated audience, know that the rules of reality have been broken, but we go along with it anyway, because a story is a story, and there's nothing better than a good yarn told economically and with all the boring reality bits taken out.

Copyright © 2012 2016 P.T. Mayes. All Rights Reserved.