How Much "Unreality" Will You Accept In A Plot

I had to write this story and I do humour and everyone who read it thought it was excellent and quite funny…


I kept getting the comment, “But you know Mark, penguins don’t live at the North Pole.”

Of course they don’t carry guns and have nuclear arms and other assorted armaments they used against Canadians and their polar bear allies.

But for some reason I guess we can overlook that :slight_smile:

So I rewrote it and had the penguins invade up the Antarctic Peninsula up through the Andes, over the Panama Canal, wiping out massive native populations in the process.

Now everyone said the story was better.


So my question is for you all, in plot lines in books, movies, plays, TV, songs, etc how much “unreality” are you willing to accept.

As in my example you can overlook penguins having weapons, but not the fact they are at the North Pole for no reason. Once I gave an method to get to the North Pole it was fine.

Would my example have bothered you?

If you have some example, I’d like to hear them

It really depends. But sometimes obvious facts which are ignored are harder to overlook than more subtle things.

There was an episode during the first season of Pushing Daisies in which Kristin Chenowyth’s character Olive was revealed to have a past as a champion jockey.

I had issues with that. Major, major issues, based on my understanding that women jockeys are quite rare. There was plenty of other fanciful/implausible stuff going on which I could overlook, but a woman as a champion jockey–nope, nothing doing.

Or to give you another example, I read two books more or less at the same time a year ago. Both romances. One of the “paranormal” type-- the Matron of Honor at a wedding was a woman who had had nanobots implanted in her which made her superhuman. And she worked for a supersecret government agency which didn’t make sense. And the hero of the story had a past which was awfully convenient. But it had a happy ending, and none of the stuff which didn’t make sense annoyed me. It was real in the story and that was good enough.

But the other story was mostly realistic, set in modern day America. I had issues with the “world famous rich sculpter” who turned out to be 32 years old (or maybe even younger)–look it’s not that prodigies don’t exist or get rich, it’s more that his work was known to the heroine because her mother had wanted a custom piece of his work, and the timeline just didn’t compute. And I got really, inexplicably annoyed when the Heroine turned to Google an address and she got the information she wanted immediately, and the whole romance took place over a span of about 48 hours.

Romances which go from “Who the heck are you?” to mutual “love you, want to marry you, and have babies with you” in 48 hours (or even two weeks) piss me off.

Incidentally–the first romance I described above was guilty of that sort of a timeline–it’s just that it was such a short, and lighthearted tale I was willing to overlook its flaws in a way that I was reluctant to do with the more serious romance.

So there you have it–I read paranormal romance–by definition I must be willing to accept a lot of unreality. But it’s the bits which run most directly up against my common sense which bug me the most. The stupid mistakes.

I bet I’d have liked your penguin story better with an explanation for how they got to the North Pole too.

It mostly depends on the tone of the story, and internal consistency. If it’s whimsical, then I don’t mind silliness; if it’s written more seriously silliness can get irritating. Inaccuracy doesn’t bother me much if it’s minor, if the world in question is clearly not the real one ( like Jim Butcher’sversion of the Chicago Underground in the Dresden Files ), if it’s explained *, or if it . . . feels like deliberate deception. Like it’s been put in there to serve an agenda. Internal consistency is really the big one for me.

  • I would have explained penguins at the North Pole either by saying “They had to run away from the Shoggoths”, or “Penguins not at the North Pole ? That’s just what they WANTED you to think ! They’ve been building up there in secret for years . . .”

I did a design job a long time ago for a guy that was sweet on a woman jockey.

In regards to the story mentioned in the OP, I’d have just changed the penguins to auks.

In regards to the question from the OP, it depends on the genre of the story. But someone once said that readers will accept IMPOSSIBILITIES quicker than IMPROBABILITIES. Take comic books. People who have no problem with the idea of an alien with godlike powers who happens to look like a studly white male get irritated with Lois, Perry, & Jimmy not realizing that Clark & Superman are the same person. People who don’t blink at the notion of Spider-Man clinging to walls bitch about him not using his webshooter invention to become a billionaire. And so forth.

ETA: It sometimes helps to lampshade things you know will be hard to believe. Even if you have no good explanation for the unbelievable thing, if you have one character comment on the oddity and another explain it – perhaps not even showing the explanation–it at least shows that you did some basic research and are lettng the reader in in the joke.

For me, the answer is quite variable, depending greatly on the specific piece of work. I think there are two main factors:

How engaging is the work otherwise? Honestly, if I am thinking things like “hey, penguins don’t live at the North Pole” while reading your story, I’m probably not that engrossed in it. If your story is extremely engaging there is a better chance that I will be too distracted to notice things like that.

Is the inaccuracy purposeful, or just lazy writing? This is the big one. If I’m watching a movie set in a somewhat realistic world, say a romantic comedy or drama, small inaccuracies can jolt me out of the movie very easily. Even small things: police procedures that don’t seem quite right, misunderstandings of law, etc. On the other hand, I loved the movie Shoot 'Em Up, even though it is the most unrealistic thing on the face of the planet. Every thing about this movie was ridiculous: gunfights, dialog, story - everything. It even had weird continuity issues (everyone is on a plane, cut to next scene, everyone has parachuted off the plane - where did the parachutes come from?!). But it just worked. I think a part of it is that I felt in on the joke. The movie said to me “Hey, you know what? Screw all the rules. Screw making sense. If a parachute scene is the most entertaining, we’re just going to do it, regardless of sense”. And I said “Sure!”.

On the other hand, a different movie can have inaccuracies that are far less ridiculous, but are going to rub me the wrong way. Often this is because I feel the writers got it wrong just because they were too lazy to put the effort into getting it right. It is annoying, somewhat insulting, and I expect better out of a multi-million dollar production.

In your specific case, there probably is a chance that the North Pole thing would be distracting, since it sounds like something that could just be neglect rather than intent. I’d move it, or just create a throwaway back story to explain it. In light of the other unrealistic details it probably doesn’t even have to make that much sense. :slight_smile:

One of my writing professors said that it’s harder to write science fiction & fantasy than “real world” fiction because you can’t be lazy about setting up the constraints of your fantasy world. If you are lazy, you are telling readers to assume that everything you didn’t tell them is different this way, is the same as the real world. That’s where you’ve run into trouble with the penguins: you have not established why in the universe of your story penguins live in the north pole, so people assume that it’s the same as the real world, which would make you wrong.

I’m pretty accepting of science with bad explanations (I love the Jurrasic Park movies, and liked Timeline and The Day After Tomorrow) but even I have limits. Take for example The Red Planet. The monsters are called “nematodes” which makes no sense because they’re totally not flatworms. And Species: the girl in the movie is a human-alien hybrid. She has a kid with a normal human, yet the kiddo is far more alien than she is. That doesn’t work, because he must have more human DNA than her. Neither movie offers even a bad explanation for what they’re trying to make us believe.

And at other times, I feel like Driver8 does, and get frustrated with obvious laziness on the writers’ parts. A good example of this is the recent movie The Unborn which I’m going to discuss in spoiler-y detail below:

[spoiler]In this movie a girl is haunted by a ghost. The trailer gives you the red herring that makes you think it’s the ghost of her dead twin, though it isn’t. The explanation offered to the girl by her father about the dead twin haunting her is that he died when they were in utero, because their cords tangled, so while it wasn’t her fault, it was her fault.

It would have been nice if they explained that she was lied to because fraternal twins don’t share the same amnions even if their placentas “grow into each other” like the doctor said, so it obviously couldn’t have been her fault he died, but they seemed to forget about this, and why it was only a plausable lie if they’d given her a dead identical twin sister.[/spoiler] Honestly, I doubt they even looked it up, though it takes all of two minutes to on google to figure it out.

This is completely incomprehensible to me. This is a story about a man who brings the dead back to life under some very fanciful conditions, who has his dead girlfriend with him, and is filled with completely unrealistic elements from start to finish and yet you’re bothered by the fact that Kristin Chenowith was supposed to be a jockey. Considering the fact that she is 4’11’’ in real life, she is a reasonable size for it. And there have been quite a few female jockeys over the years; it’s still dominated by men, but there are more than enough examples for it to be completely plausible.

The problem is, you don’t know enough about the subject and are thus basing your issues upon ignorance. You don’t know, you assume, and then you condemn.

But what is really disturbing is when someone condemns some extremely minor point about about a TV show or movie that has next to nothing to do with the main story and gives it as evidence that something is wrong. It strikes me as both a lack of imagination and at the same time a show of ego (“I know better than you, nyaah, nyaah”). It’s throwing away the enjoyment of the show and movie in order to show how great your are at nitpicking. Ultimately, it’s a very sad commentary on how people are so reluctant to enjoy a good story. They’re so busy looking for nits that they miss the magic.

In my case, unless something is absolutely essential for the plot, I’m very forgiving of trivial nitpicks (I’ll note them, but they don’t necessarily ruin anything). It’s only when an error is glaring and is important to the plot that I will object.

I’m personally fairly brutal about it, especially when it comes to science fiction, a genre I have a love/hate relationship with. Aliens with the same DNA as humans? Deus ex machina FTL? Time travel stories which don’t take into account planetary/galactic movement? Pah.

Probably one of the reasons why I like Robert Harris novels. Its hard to quibble over points of accuracy with someone who is a history professor and so casually displays their ferocious knowledge of a topic (Fatherland, the best alternate reality book ever, is filled to the brim wth historical accuracy).

Martin Cruz Smith brings the same level of intimate knowledge to is subject, too - Gorky Park, the excellent and under-rated Red Star, Stallion Gate, Havana Bay, are all novels exhibiting an enormous amount of research.

Warren Ellis’ graphic novel Ocean is a good example of hard science being used in science fiction, which is the major reason I liked it.

I have no problem with “unreality” as long as it is consistant. I wouldn’t be able to read science fiction if I did. Even if it is handwaving over the science to push the plot along. But I have no tolerance for factual errors, especially since most of the time the answer can be so easily found. I can sometime gloss over lapses in logic if the movie draws me in.

Girth–the thread from when the Pushing Daisies epsiode originally aired.

My first post in that thread.

Look-- it wasn’t a “I’ll never watch this show again” thing–but it struck me as a kind of improbability that I found hard to accept. Some of it-- I think-- may be because of Olive’s age/innocence. Some may have been the failure of the narration to mention that women jockeys are relatively rare–not unheard of, but many aspects of horse racing are much more of an Old Boys’ Club than there is any logical reason for there to be. (Um, in my mostly uninformed opinion).

My first reaction to this post is to feel quite unfairly attacked. I’ll admit I’m in the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” camp with respect to horseracing, rather than an expert or an insider. But I never condemned the show.

But then I re-read the post you are reacting to, and I see where you are coming from. “Major, major issues” was the wrong way to describe it. My enjoyment of the episode wasn’t destroyed, it just took me a bit to wrap my brain around the same incongruity that you note–one must have a certain willingness to accept the absurd to enjoy the show–and why exactly must real life jockey gender issues be mirrored in fantasy?

But the commonness of nit-picking, and the enjoyment some people seem to get from it, suggest that for many people directly contradicting what we know to be true (even if we are wrong about what we know and even if it’s a minor point) bothers us much more than probable gross inaccuracies in other directions.

Just point out that Gary Larson does the exact same thing.

Probably, and you already gave the reason - the penguins are at the North Pole for no reason. The stuff about penguins having guns serves a purpose in the story, but putting them at the North Pole looks like an error or oversight and doesn’t appear to serve any purpose. That kind of thing bothers a lot of people. Another sometime problem is when the ‘rules’ of the reality in the story get changed in midstream, as a cheat.

I’m willing to accept a lot of unreality in a story. What’s hard to accept, usually, is people behaving in unnatural or bizarre or stupid ways. To make up an example, maybe I could swallow your penguin idea, but if you included a scientist who has devoted his life to research penguins deciding he’s always hated them and killing a bunch himself, I might have a problem with that, or if you had a main character flee his home days before the penguins attack, but forget about his cell phone or his magic anti-penguin gun or something he obviously would have taken but ‘forgot’ only to increase the drama, I’d probably just roll my eyes.

The North Pole thing would have bothered me, because it’s unclear (I mean, from how you described it, I don’t know if it’s unclear in the actual story) if you are doing it on purpose or not.

Penguins having guns is something that the average person will understand is intentional. It’s fake, but you obviously meant for that to be part of the story. The North Pole is more like … did he know? Or did he mess up? If you had the penguins be in Florida, that would have been fine.

One of my favorite stories as a kid (one of the E. Nesbit dragon stories) describes things as “the size of an elephant” and it’s confusing because other elements of the story make you suspect that the thing is somewhat small. Finally, you learn that this is a crazy fictional world where elephants are small and guinea pigs are large (like if they switched sizes). It’s very clever, it’s fun to be reading and confused and then and realize OH, IT’S ON PURPOSE. (also, it made me very badly want a pet elephant that was the size of a guinea pig)

On the other side of the coin, I recently read a short story that had some fantasy elements (ghosts and stuff) but it drove me batty because a ghost is described as looking “like a Jackson Pollock painting” and then as the story went on I was fairly sure that the author was confusing Jackson Pollock with someone like Pablo Picasso. The ghost was supposed to be like a woman with irregular features and three eyes and such. A Jackson Pollock ghost would be a bunch of squiggly lines. Maybe the author would say “No, in the world of my story, ghosts are real and Jackson Pollock was a Cubist painter” but come on.

I am pretty forgiving. I will ignore a lot.

But I recently had a complaint about a book where a man opens his own leg to pull out his shin bone to use as a weapon to stab his enemy.

I just couldn’t overlook that. I consider myself pretty manly. I have a pretty high pain threshold. I still don’t see this happening.

I’m embarassed I know this but…

Species does explain that Sil’s appearance is more or less a come on to all men in the area so they’ll impregnate her easier. And while it’s not stated outright, it’s more or less implied that her body is just a shell to hide the hideous alien underneath (remember the tentacles and what not).

This is made a little clearer in Species II (I’m really embarassed I know this).

I think this exactly right. I just posted in the thread about Cupid, the retooling of the TV show about Cupid coming to earth and needing to hook up 100 couples so he can return to Olympus. (And there’s an aside during the show explaining the Olympus=Greek Cupid=Roman thing, as you suggest in your edit.)

God on earth, quest, etc., – fine. Shrink having time to follow around one client – who presumably isn’t paying her – nope, gonna choke on that.

I refuse to believe that Larson erroneously had penguins at the North Pole.

I fully believe he accidentally put a polar bear in Antarctica.

I love science-fiction, but sometimes find more “realistic” stories to actually be less realistic. I have worked in TV newsrooms for 25 years, and have yet to find a show that accurately displays what goes on in a TV station. You’d think that would be the one thing a TV show should be able to get right, wouldn’t you. I have learned to just accept it–to just shut up and watch the show.

What does take me out of a scene (movie or TV) is the way computers are displayed. They are never very realistic. They always tend to show pop up windows that propel the plot (“Deleting files – 15 seconds remaining” or “Transferring files” while showing every picture in the data base that is being transferred.) Do the producers think none of the viewers have used a computer before?