Posts Tagged reincorporation

A plot twist too far – was Rick Deckard a replicant?

Have you thought of a brilliant twist for your plot? How does it fare in the Blade Runner test?

Who doesn’t love Blade Runner? It’s one of the few films I could watch again and again. But I don’t have much time for discussing whether the main character Rick Deckard is a replicant, like the characters he has been sent to kill.

No, actually I do. He isn’t a replicant. Period. Because if he is, that weakens the whole story. It’s a twist too far. It’s the kind of idea that gets invented when you analyse a story to the nth degree and keep looking for more and more.

But it’s a lesson for all of us when we’re plotting our novels. We constantly wonder if we’ve got enough twists. We want the reader to think, wow, I didn’t see that coming (yet it was there all along). And novels take so long to write that we’re in danger of getting bored or losing confidence in our surprises.

When I’m plotting I try out a lot of twists, big reveals and payoffs. Quite a lot of them I throw away because they’re not quite right. Rick Deckard being a replicant would be one of those. Yes, it’s a twist. It’s possibly signposted by clues. It’s dripping with irony. But it is wrong. Here’s why.

Blade Runner is about a man who has lost his humanity. His job is killing robots. But he’s woken up to life again when he falls in love with one of them (Rachael Tyrell). Then the last robot on his hitlist, Roy Batty, saves his life and shows that he has been a more complete, remarkable human than Deckard ever has. If Deckard is human, isn’t that perfect, ironic and life changing?

If Deckard is a replicant too, what do we have? A story about a robot who thinks he’s human, killing other robots, some of whom have had more exciting lives. Hardly gets the pulse going, does it?

Of course, it is essential that Deckard – and the people he works with – lack humanity. But these are rewarding as themes and ironies. If they turn out to be literally true it robs the idea of much of its power. It also destroys our emotional connection. One of the reasons Blade Runner leaves us with a yearning ache is that we ask, on a smaller scale, how much of our humanity do we lose? How many of us really make the most of life?

Stories work on two levels – the superficial action and the deeper emotional journey. But often when we’re trying to squeeze the most out of a plot, we can squeeze too far. If you’ve thought of a radical twist, don’t think only about the literal events of the story. Do the Blade Runner test. Look at the essential emotional arc that is connecting with the reader. Ask if you have twisted too far.

Have you pulled back from a twist too far? Do you have any examples from novels or movies? Share in the comments.

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Doctor Who story problems that wouldn’t be allowed in a Hollywood movie

 
 
 
 

You're right. This is from GalaxyQuest, not Doctor Who. But read on and all will become clear

If Doctor Who was being made as a Hollywood movie, two lazy, cobbled-together storytelling problems would have to be sorted out.

I love Doctor Who. One of my earliest TV memories was Patrick Troughton drowning in a room of foam, which sounds cheap and silly but actually was bizarre and horrible. 1970s Doctor Who became my weekly tutorial in creativity. It was ‘what if everything around you was different’, on LSD. Shop dummies came alive and drove the Doctor away in a car, and turned around to look at him with blank faces. A storyteller couldn’t have a better start in life.

The reborn Doctor Who is different, of course, and in many ways better. However, the writers have got lazy when they have to extricate the Doctor from trouble. Husband Dave touched on this on Mirabilis Year of Wonders (which you can read here after his rant about the Daleks– strange how if you put our names together they make Davros).

 These are the two storytelling sins I’m seeing worryingly often in Doctor Who.

1 The Doctor deals with a crisis with an outburst of gangsta-like posturing – ‘Yo, I’m the Doctor, be very afraid.’ Like he’s channelling Kanye West.

 I like a character with attitude, and can get my groove on to Kanye West. But Kanye West Doctor Who is embarrassing. It’s not that the Doctor can’t be a remarkable, fear-inspiring creature – the problem is that the writers don’t show it.  

 Sherlock Holmes, a chap not known for modesty, doesn’t tell enemies to give in just because he’s Sherlock Holmes; he does something brilliant. But telling readers what to think and feel, instead of showing it, usually backfires. When Kanye West Doc says ‘be afraid of me’, my response is, ‘I’ve met plenty of plonkers like you’. 

Yo, show not tell.

2 ‘Solve the situation by giving the bomb counselling’.
In the new Doctor Who, aliens, bombs and errant Hoovers are often talked into finding their inner humanity and then renouncing their evil intentions.

 Actually, this would work if the writer had set up a weakness early on in the story that could be exploited in that way. You can pull absolutely anything out of the hat to solve a problem if it has been seeded properly. But in Doctor Who it often isn’t done, and so counselling the bomb looks like sentimental rubbish and the last resort of a writer who couldn’t think of anything better. Sir Terry Pratchett calls it makeitupasyougalongeum in his guest blog post on SFX. (He also points out that in more academic circles it is known as deus ex machina.)

You might say that I shouldn’t take these things so seriously. In that case, I urge you to look at the climax of GalaxyQuest. Although it’s a spoof, it played fair by the audience. The crew dragged a magnetic minefield behind the ship and tricked the enemy to wander into it. It was properly set up – earlier in the story we saw them have a tricky encounter with the minefield. It wasn’t plucked out of the vacuum as a thing they’d suddenly found and could use.

(This reuse of ideas seeded earlier is called reincorporation. It’s extremely satisfying and you can find more on it here.)

 In Doctor Who, makeitupasyougalongeum surfaces in another guise: ‘get out the sonic screwdriver’.

The sonic screwdriver can get the Doc out of any hotspot if convenient. Some producers of earlier series minimized its use, because they didn’t want a gadget that could cure all. But now it’s a magic wand that writers can wave to solve any problem. Handily, they have it malfunction or make up new characteristics for it when they want the problem to last a while longer. Eg in Silence in the Library it apparently won’t open a door made of wood. I bet it’s opened plenty in the past.

 The first rule of magical or powerful devices is to give them boundaries but this has none. What the sonic screwdriver can do is entirely governed by what is convenient for the writers in each episode.

 As I’ve said, I love Doctor Who and regard it as essential brain food for creatives, young and old. But often it is plying audiences with major story cheats – ones that Hollywood movies, for instance, wouldn’t allow. Hollywood storytelling may sometimes push obvious buttons, but its principles are underpinned by what we respond to as intelligent life forms. We don’t like fudged explanations and we snigger at plonkers.

It’s kind of a law of the universe. Yo, don’t mess with that, Doctor.

 Do you have any examples of makeitupasyougalongeum or Kanye West Doctor Who? Share them here!

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