Making Sense: Narrative Consistency & Sticking to the Rules

Pet Peeve -1

Among my writing friends, it’s a well known fact that one my greatest peeves are when things “don’t make sense”. Whether it’s a narrative inconsistency, rules that are little too fluid depending on the plot’s demands, or places where a character’s unexplained unwillingness to perform a particular action that could help solve the current crisis is so blatant that it completely destroys my suspension of disbelief – that magic ingredient that makes the world of a story seem so real. Today I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about that.

It might sound strange, coming from someone who primarily writes fantasy, to talk about things needing to make sense. Usually, the moment you start talking about magic things like logic can be largely suspended.My current project includes dragons, portals to other worlds, gods, monsters, and just about everything in between – in short everything that screams illogical, so magic can be the catch all answer to things, can’t it?

Short answer? Absolutely, and that’s fine. Saying “a wizard did it with magic” is perfectly acceptable if you’re careful with it. This little article is more about why I personally don’t like that answer and why fantasy and science fiction is particularly prone to riling me up.

To be clear, this is by no means a comprehensive article on the subject matter, just a few of my thoughts as they come to me. I may talk about more specific examples in future piece.

We’ve all had those moments in books, movies, shows, etc. where we ask: “Why didn’t they…” or “Couldn’t they just use that thing from before?”. Sometimes this is explained by the storyteller – the phone was dead so they couldn’t call the police, the gun jams, the doors were locked, etc. We’ve all seen it, sometimes it gets on our nerves, but by and large we all accept it.

But when it comes to something like magic, if they don’t introduce some rules to their system and then stick to those rules it can become magic bullet of plot convenience. Problem A is solved with magic, but then it’s never explained why Problem B can’t be solved with the same magic – it’s just decided for the sake of the plot that Problem B must be overcome differently with little to no explanation given.

While there are many stories that avoid this with well established rules for their magic systems that are consistently maintained, but there are more than a few books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen that have failed to keep me engaged simply because I am never given an explanation as to why the characters don’t just solve the problems with whatever gimmick they used three chapters ago.

Granted, I am stickler for logic – much to the annoyance of several of my friends, my desire for things to make sense even in a fantastical world is something I can go on about for hours and hours. Naturally, I do everything I can to avoid the aforementioned pitfall in my own work.

My first rule is to change as few rules as possible. For example, my story universe works almost exactly as our own does with only a few notable exceptions, including the one that magic is another force of nature, akin to the fundamental forces such as gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, and electromagnetic force. I do a bit of delving to establish what it does, how it works, and where it applies to reality, but beyond that it’s “just” another force that exists. It can be measured. It can be studied. It can be theorised over and new ways of using it can be developed.

This may seem like a simple and rather common notion, but now that I’ve established that rule for myself, I can apply other laws to it -the laws of thermodynamics, for example. and start judging any problem based on those. I can ask myself questions based on whatever crisis my characters are going through and give myself definitive answers because I have a formula to fall back on.

Magic, of course, is just an example – the key word here is consistency. The same methodology could be applied to just about anything. Travel time, a character suddenly developing hitherto unseen skills, and (perhaps the most common offender) – combat.Is your character a good fighter? Why would they lose a fight against someone who is less skilled – this is something that happens a lot to Hollywood villains, and it often entirely rips me out of the story. Sure, there are plenty of good reasons, but if you’ve taken the time to establish that your character is indeed skilled then it’s worth taking the time to find a good reason why they might lose.

Remember that the above is just my approach. It’s not a rule, it’s a peeve, and I can well understand those who might roll their eyes at this overthinking as the children of the village chant “Pedant! Pedant!” (which would be impressive vocabulary for these Narratess-reading village waifs) outside my window.

But I don’t think I’m entirely alone here. I suspect most readers and writers aren’t as hung up on this as I am, but I’m curious as to how many people feel the same way, and how badly it impacts their experience. I can imagine some can happily ignore it, some can shrug it off, and some feel as I do. For me it’s about as jarring and immersion breaking as the moment you see poor CGI in a movie.

Tunnel sequence finale from Alien³? I’m lookin’ at you (though I really wish I wasn’t).

So please, feel free to share your opinion as a comment below, send us an email, or yell at us over Twitter.

We would love to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Making Sense: Narrative Consistency & Sticking to the Rules

  1. Kartosael says:

    Writing Science Fiction as well as Fantasy myself, I share your peeve here. Using technology or magic as a plot-solver is basically using a Deus Ex Machina, which in my not-so-humble opinion is both lazy and somewhat insulting.
    When I do sense it going on, it really does break immersion for me and my enjoyment of the given narrative plummets.
    So, no, you are not alone. 😉

  2. Jeff says:

    It is exactly the same for me, but since most of my work deals with animated comedy entertainment it is often sacrificed upon the fires of cartoon-logic.

    I do recall advising another writer friend of mine when he had trouble with magic in his story. I told him that the scene where magic suddenly defeats the Big Bad felt off because he literally did just magic the problem away! I suggested that if he were to include magic into the story then he should think about how the magic works, what its rules are, what its limits and effects on the world would be. It had never appeared in the story until the very end. He responded, “bah” and kept his Deus Ex Machina. Oh well.

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