I killed the movie twenty minutes in, muttering ‘In a world …’ under my breath – my favorite ironic description of lazy storytelling. ‘In Time‘ is a classic example of lazy storytelling where ‘In a world’ of 25-year-olds with the ability to buy and sell minutes of life, nobody worries about wasting the viewer’s time. Lazy, irritating – a missed opportunity. Let’s discuss why, and then some examples of single premise-scifi done correctly. But first, we have to deal with my coffee maker.
She’s been through thick and thin with me – a humble 12-cup Black & Decker from Before Times. Second shelf in the housewares department at Target when our relationship was new, when love still had the sheen of a showroom Cadillac. The coffee maker came with me when it was time to leave Los Angeles – she had a Keurig from Amazon arriving the next day. An passive partner, a precarious passenger atop of a laundry basket full of clothes. Bravely bearing the brunt of a thousand-mile trip in the back of a borrowed Nissan Sentra. Ten years and 3650 pots of coffee later, something zapped inside as she brewed her last cup. My friend was gone, without so much as a last good-bye.
Into the green accordion EmX bus – time for a 40-minute trip to the Fred Meyer on 11th Avenue. No conversation – passengers on their phones or off their meds – talking to Grandma or radio dogs on Mars. For $1400, you can buy a Keurig automatic coffee maker with black plastic and shiny anodized metal. Touch screens deliver tea, coffee or cocoa. Never mind what all those little pods are doing to the landfills. Black & Decker had a coffee maker but at five cups, it would be a poor companion on late-night writing jags. I settled for a Toastmaster 12-cup that used the same basket-shaped coffee filters. Not fancy enough for a No.4 coffee filter – maybe after this book sells.
We return to the conflict in progress – lazy storytelling and single premise-scifi. I tried watching ‘In Time‘ but snapped it off after twenty minutes. Same reaction to ‘A Quiet Place,’ ‘Arrival,’ ‘Finch,’ and ‘Ad Astra.’ It’s taken me a while to understand why some popular movies rub me the wrong way but now that I do, let’s talk about it.
No one argues that science fiction is often built on simple premises, but when you fail to connect the emotional dots for the audience, it becomes lazy storytelling. For example, ‘In Time,’ – the world is genetically engineered so everyone is 25 years old and runs on minutes of life? How did that happen? Why did that happen? What happened to all the older people? No one knows – no one talks about it. Those unanswered questions took me right out of the story and kept me there.
Let’s try again with A Quiet Place – why did the aliens come to Earth? How do they have ‘impenetrable armor plating?’ Why is a suburban family the only group of people who figured out how to stay safe using ASL? The unanswered questions, again, take you right out of the story.
Same with ‘Finch’ – how did Tom Hanks come to be the only survivor with access to an underground lab in St Louis? How did he translate his knowledge of robotics into Machine Learning and AI to build a fully-functional humanoid android that Boston Dynamics is still tinkering away on?
Why would NASA agree to send Brad Pitt on a mission to ‘find his dad,’ when a simple probe could accomplish the same purpose? Who was the project director who slammed their fist on the table and said “I know we can do this for 1/1000th of the price but we’re sending a man, anyway – and not only a man, the guy’s kid!”? Whoever worked for NASA has no idea how or why projects get funded and anyone who knows that is going to scream all the way through ‘Ad Astra.’
I’m sure you get my point, but let me say this to express my frustration in a more distinct way. Yes, asking questions you never answer is going to piss your audience off. You know that already, right? Of course, you don’t *have* to spend the movie on these questions, but you should create a way to answer them. It’s called ‘diegetic storytelling,’ people – the type of ‘in-universe’ story that helps you gain depth and texture to an otherwise flat narrative.
Remember the depth of set design in Star Wars – how that sucked you into the desperate world of the Rebels vs. the Empire? Remember the opening scenes of Midnight Special with the church compound juxtaposed with the junky old car? Those components told *volumes* of story without having to say a word. If you tried to describe either movie with ‘In a world,’ you’d truly be talking about that world because it felt like a real place.
‘A Quiet Place,’ ‘Arrival,’ ‘Finch,’ and ‘Ad Astra’ never felt like real worlds. Too many convenient ‘problems,’ too many questions you never got a satisfactory answer to. I found those movies frustrating and disappointing and the reason why is simple: Lazy storytelling.
How do you avoid lazy storytelling in your work? How do you avoid me saying ‘In a world …’ while I turn off your movie? There are some handy, simple ways to achieve texture and verisimilitude in your stories. I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.