Dragons, Wizards, and Other Story Distractions

Star Wars is not about the Force.

Terminator is not about Time Travel.

Harry Potter, believe it or not, isn’t about Magic.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you should never mistake a plot device for the reason the story exists in the first place.

I could go on.

Iron Man is not about How to Build a Suit of Power Armor.

Doctor Strange is not about How the Metaphysics of Magic Would Actually Work.

Lord of the Rings isn’t about the Rings.

In all the above examples and a hundred others I could name these elements help keep the story moving, perhaps even start it going. But this isn’t the same thing as being what the story is about. Confusing that leads to a lot of weird places.

One of the reasons the term Plot Hole is so overused is that it is often thrown at elements that are there to get the story going, but aren’t supposed to really be that important. We all know the questions we’ve heard posed:

“Why didn’t Skynet just cover a nuke in synthetic flesh, send dozens back to the city that Sarah Conner lives in, and just blast the whole city to irradiated ash?”

“Why didn’t they just use those eagles to fly the Ring to Mount Doom?”

“Why didn’t the Empire build the Death Star without a weakness?”

The answer to all these questions is simple:

That would lead to boring stories.

Most of the above “plot holes” exist because they must exist for the story to be worth experiencing. It’s no accident that time travel in the Terminator films is almost completely unexplained. Explanations can only lead to more questions, which leads to more unnecessary answers, which leads to more questions. And before you know it, you’re watching a killer robot adventure that is all about explaining time paradoxes, which is not the kind of story most Terminator fans want to see.

There are always those who are more interested in story mechanisms than characters. Fair enough, but you aren’t going to win over a mainstream audience by spending twenty minutes addressing every little element of time travel when the only reason time travel is in your story is to create an adventure with an unstoppable cyborg as well as throwing in a little discussion of fate and predestination while you’re at it.

Like any broad stroke, there are exceptions. There are many hard science fiction stories and meticulously crafted fantastical worlds that succeed because they’re invested in explaining all the minutia. Anything I write about here is sure to have plenty of exceptions, but even then, those exceptions know why they exist.

Part of the reason so many sequels to popular fantasy franchises struggle is because it’s really easy for a creator to mistake the devices for the story itself. Perhaps no recent story has shown that better than the Fantastic Beasts spinoff of Harry Potter. There’s a lot going on in these two films, and almost all of it is stuff nobody really cares about.

Harry Potter isn’t really about a Hidden World of Magic. It’s not really about Magic. It’s about kids who find themselves in a world of adventure, have those adventures, grow into adulthood, and rising to the occasion until they eventually become the new generation.

Confession time: I’m not the biggest Potter fan. I read the first book and liked it okay, but I never felt the need to read any more of them. I admit this while acknowledging that they are incredibly popular books that have a huge influence on the genre and generations of readers. And they still remain so. I wouldn’t dream of giving J.K. Rowling any writing advice. She is more popular than I will ever be by an order of magnitude not even estimating.

So when Fantastic Beasts was announced, I was actually kind of interested in it. I was intrigued by the idea of a visit to the fantastical ‘20s of New York City. Having little loyalty to Harry and his world, I was willing to explore this offshoot. But I left the theater feeling hollow. Not because the movie was awful, but because it felt like the foundation–a series of YA novels about kids in a magical boarding school–was working against this story. There were little references and a strange whimsy struggling against some darker themes. And that worked pretty well when the protagonists were kids and the setting was an otherworldly school, but placed beside the real world, it didn’t quite fit together.

This problem only got worse in the sequel, which falls victim to assuming that it should answer questions that were never asked. This is why there are so few good prequels. It’s all too easy to miss a good story while writing answers to unasked questions.

Did anyone out there ever wonder where Han Solo got his gun? Or how he got his last name? And even the questions that were hinted at gave us answers that weren’t as interesting as they were in the abstract. Although Solo has a lot of problems that are seen simply from some of its choices. It is a movie that felt the need to explain why Han Solo would give Chebacca a nickname, which says everything you need to know about it.

A good rule of thumb I employ in my own writing is asking if the fantastical elements are enabling me to tell the story, or if I’m telling the story to justify the fantastical elements? In almost every story I’ve written, there are moments during first draft where I was working hard to make a fantasy element function. Almost every time, those bits get simplified or even cut in the rewrites and editing.

I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous attitude about MacGuffins. The MacGuffin is the thing that drives the plot but that nobody really cares about. Although given a large enough audience, someone will care about it. They don’t publish technical manuals of Star Trek for no reason. But your average fan doesn’t care about the function of warp drives. That’s just a fact.

Fantastical elements aren’t exactly MacGuffins. They shouldn’t be disposable or easily replaced. While I stand by the assertion that Harry Potter is not about magic, it still wouldn’t be Harry Potter without magic. Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without the Force. Iron Man without his armor is a rich genius who would not have spawned a billion dollar franchise. The fantastic elements of these stories and thousands of others are a big part of what accounts for those stories’ popularity. But they are not why those stories exist and have long term appeal.

In the end, we want characters we care about doing interesting things. Without that, all the cool robots and dragons in the universe are going to have a hard time winning us over.







2 Replies to “Dragons, Wizards, and Other Story Distractions”

  1. Thanks Lee,
    Love your insight into writing. I too also feel empty when I see a movie or even read a book but have no connection or care for the characters.

    Thanks for your books, they are a welcome distraction during these times.

    Keep writing the good write !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.