Clever folk call it the willing suspension of disbelief.
When we read a book or watch a film, we switch off some of our critical faculties. We give the fictional world a chance to be true.
Vampires, werewolves, dragons, a school for wizards? Yeah, why not?
Faster than light travel and star-fighters that scream when they turn corners? Okay, if you say so.
A peasant serving girl magically turning into a princess, winning a proposal of marriage from the dashing prince and not cutting her feet to shreds on the glass slippers? I’ll buy that.
But that willing suspension of disbelief is only a loan. We can reinstate our normal cynicism if the author takes too many liberties with our trust. If your 18th century pirate gets out of trouble by whipping an alien ray gun out of his pocket. If your swooning heroine suddenly develops the skills to fight off attackers in ninja-esque slow motion.
Or just about every scientific detail in the film Gravity…
I call it the “yes, but” moment. It’s that point in a book or a film where you are wavering. Half of you is still giving the plot a chance. The other half is tutting in surround sound – “oh, really? You expect me to believe that?”
A case in point – the bad guy has a hollowed out volcano for a secret lair.
That is ineffably cool. It brings out your inner megalomaniac. Especially if the volcano also has a monorail. And a dock for submarines. And a giant TV screen with a map of the world. And …
But hang on a minute. How would you build all that without anyone noticing? You would have to find an estate agent with a volcano on his books, get planning permission for the change of use, buy a twenty foot high TV screen … the list is endless.
And how do you recruit minions? You can’t exactly put out an honest job advert: “Wanted – minions for world domination. No experience required for being able to hit anything with a machine gun.”
Where would these minions live? You have either got to give them rooms in your headquarters or they will need to commute each day. And I am sure that the authorities would notice several hundred minions commuting to a supposedly uninhabited volcano with a lunchbox in one hand and an Uzi in the other.
If you give them rooms in your headquarters, there is then the little logistical problem of feeding them. It would break the illusion if you had a Domino’s pizza delivery van arriving at the front door of a hollowed out volcano.
“I’ve got one hundred ham and pineapples, forty five pepperonis and one shark’s fin with extra chillies.”
At some point in the minion recruitment process, you are going to have to tell them exactly what the job entails.
“There will be some late nights and weekend working. Is that okay?”
“You’ll need a clean driving licence.”
“Oh, and by the way, our organisation is dedicated to taking over the world. On the positive side, that means that you will be one of the few survivors of the nuclear war that we are going to start.”
“Shame about your relatives though.”
“Can you start next Tuesday?”
The other plot twist which is becoming almost comical is the “bad guy allows himself to get caught” cliché. Yes, I am looking at you Avengers Assemble. And The Dark Knight. And Skyfall. And …
Let’s admit it, as a narrative device it’s getting a bit old hat.
We know why you do it. You get to create a bit of tension – can the good guy catch the bad guy? Then you release that tension with some special effects and a fight scene. Then we can see how dastardly clever the bad guy was because it was all part of his plot. So the good guy gets to catch him again.
Giving plenty of opportunities for jump scares and implausible gadgetry. So let’s see – the bad guy in Skyfall knew exactly where he would be kept prisoner so that he could pre-plan his escape. He knew that James Bond would chase after him. And he knew precisely where Bond would catch up with him, so that he could plant a bomb there beforehand. And that the bomb would go off at exactly the right moment to derail a train which just happened to be passing.
Usually in the final reel the good guy is forced to kill the bad guy. Partly to give us a dramatic ending and partly so we don’t wonder … “did the bad guy plan to get caught this time too?”
The Austin Powers films got it exactly right when Scott Evil asked his father Dr Evil: “Why do you always put Austin Powers in a cell with no-one guarding him where he can escape? Why not just shoot him when you have the chance?”
The intriguing thing for me is that we accept all this. Sitting in the cinema with a tub of popcorn and a diet coke, we switch off our higher brain functions and strap in for the ride. Yes, it’s nonsense. No, it wouldn’t happen in real life. But that doesn’t matter when we’re having fun.
There is a geeky corner of the internet that takes great delight in spotting movie “mistakes”. Youtube channels like Cinemasins. Television programmes that spot Roman centurions wearing wristwatches.
While these have a certain nerdy charm, they rather miss the point. It would be very boring if books and films were 100% realistic. We need our fantastical elements, our edge of the seat thrills, our unexpected plot twists.
That’s why we are watching the film in the first place. To be entertained.
There have been 280 downloads of Love, Death and Tea since the free promotion started. The next book “Global Domination for Beginners” is only a few days away.
And, yes, it does have a hollowed-out volcano.