Monday, April 12, 2010
MORONIC PLOT TWISTS AND INCORRECT FACTS IN BOOKS AND MOVIES
I want to talk about some of the things that can destroy a writer’s manuscript and perhaps keep a potentially good book from getting published. Dumb plot twists and incorrect “facts” are killers when it comes to destroying the fictive dream for a reader.
A single error in a book or a film can destroy the entire credibility of the work. The second-worst thing a writer can experience is an editor finding such an error in a manuscript. The worst? Having a reader find such an error. That means the editor missed it and virtually nothing makes those folks angrier. Kind of embarrasses them.
Even though the rest of the book may be perfect, the reader will have doubts about the integrity of all of it if he or she finds a single error. I’m going to go over just a few of the ones I’ve seen (no room to list them all!) and it would be kind of cool if others would share the ones they’ve spotted and that bother them.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting on a panel at the annual Writer’s Festival of Literary Arts in Aurora, Illinois, next to one of my favorite writers. I won’t name him as it’s not my intent to cause anyone embarrassment, but if he reads this, he’ll know it’s him. This was an extremely well-known writer, whose every book lands at the top of the NY Times bestseller list.
While we were waiting for the audience to file in, we were talking and I mentioned I’d just read his latest mega-seller. I hesitated, but then decided to pass on what I’d read. He’d had a military man communicating with another military man via radio telephone, and he’d had the guy say, at the end of their transmission, “Over and out.”
“______,” I said. “You know there’s a glaring mistake in your book.” I pointed out the “over and out” dialog. “That’s impossible,” I said. “No military man would ever, in a million years, say that. ’Over’ means, ‘invitation to transmit,’ while ‘out’ means, ‘transmission over.’ You can’t issue an invitation to transmit and then say the transmission is over. I hate to say it, but I’ve only ever seen that in bad movies.” An amateur might have said something like that, but never a bona fide military man.
He was shocked. “You know,” he said. “I know that. And, I had a military man vet my book! He never caught it.” I didn’t say anything to the writer, but I can’t imagine a military man letting that get by. Must have been in the Reserves, I figured. A “real” military veteran would have caught it in a heartbeat. And, he couldn’t blame the proofreader entirely. After all, he was the one who’d written it.
The upshot was the writer thanked me, and said he’d have it corrected in future editions and that he’d never hire this guy to proof any of his material ever again. He was embarrassed and I would have been, too. He’s a literary star and so that one glitch won’t prevent him from selling future books, but if this had been his first novel, it very well could have harmed him greatly.
Recently, I read a novel by another suspense/thriller writer acquaintance—again, a top bestselling writer who even has a writing how-to book out there, and found several serious errors in this novel. First, he had a character looking at a piece of handwriting and saying that it looked “masculine.” That’s impossible. There are three things that handwriting can’t reveal. Age, sex or handedness (if the writer is left-or right-handed) cannot be revealed by handwriting. Laypeople, who haven’t studied handwriting analysis or graphology, subscribe to myths like this, but it just ain’t so. You absolutely cannot tell any of those three things from handwriting. Later on, he compounded the error by having the same character, looking again at the handwriting sample, and saying it “looked like an older man” had written it because it looked “waverly.” Again, not possible to tell a person’s age by their handwriting.
Two glaring errors, based on the same thing. The third error, however, was the most egregious. This same character finds the body of his deceased wife who had disappeared two years previously, and he’s upset because her hair was longer than he’d liked it before she was murdered. It was longer, the character says, because “hair grows after death.” The first two mistakes I could possibly understand—there are many misconceptions about handwriting among laypeople—although, it would have been fairly easy to research and correct this—but this last one is one of the hoariest of all old wives’ tales—that hair “grows” after death. That’s been disproved about… oh… maybe a couple of hundred years ago? That it sometimes “appears” to have grown after death is simply the result of body tissues shrinking in decomposition, sometimes giving it the illusion of having grown. Any eighth-grade biology student could have told my author friend that. Any funeral director or even the lowest of employees in a funeral home could have told him that. Well, for me, reading this guy is over. A single mistake can be excused, like the first author I mentioned. When I see three in one book, as much as I like this guy, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to believe his characters again. He’s simply too sloppy in his research. And he has a doctorate and even taught in a prestigious school. If he’d only asked a kid about some of his facts…
There’s a huge error in a popular movie that drives me crazy and because of this error, I’ve never seen the ending of the movie. I just couldn’t believe the rest of it once I’d seen this mistake. My level of believability was completely destroyed. The fictive dream had been utterly destroyed.
The movie? Dances With Wolves. In a scene about a third of the way through, Indian boys steal Kevin Costner’s horse and are fleeing with it and chattering elatedly among themselves. Convenient subtitles are provided as they’re speaking in their native tongues. One of the boys says, “They’ll write songs about us!” I emphasized the word because this was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in dialog, book or movie. The thing is, Native Americans not only don’t have a word for “writing” in any of their languages; they don’t even have a concept of writing. If these boys had been raised, say, on a reservation and gone to a reservation school, yeah, perhaps they would have learned the concept of writing, but these were true aboriginals and had never been exposed to writing in any form. In fact, the only contact the entire tribe had ever had with a white person was with the love interest, whatever her name was—a now-adult woman who had been captured years ago when she was a child when the tribe killed her family.
If the Indian boy had only shouted out, “They’ll sing songs about us!” it would have worked and been believable. The instant he used the word “write” it was all over for me. I looked up the original script and the screenwriter had it right. He’d written that they’d sang songs, properly. Whoever rewrote the subtitle or had ordered it rewritten was the one who was the dummy. For this one, I’ll blame the director, the editor, and whoever rewrote the original screenwriter’s screenplay. But, from that moment on, I didn’t believe anything in the movie.
The other thing that will cause me to walk out of a movie or close a book, never to return, are “idiot plot twists.” There’s a truly awful movie that was released in theaters and then made it to TV re-run land that still shows up on the tube now and again. I saw it in the theater and actually walked out. It wasn’t until it turned up on television that I ever saw the end.
I can’t recall the title (it was so horrible I’ve sublimated that knowledge), but the premise is that, for some reason, this couple who are either man and wife or romantically entangled, find themselves in this new-fangled office building with a nifty new security system. The entire building shuts down on Friday evenings and doesn’t open up until Monday morning. No one can possibly get in or out during this time. Again, I can’t remember why, but this couple finds themselves trapped in the building and know they can’t get out until Monday morning. No big deal—they can survive on candy bars and sodas from the vending machines. Except… there’s a bad guy in the building with them and his mission is to render the pair room temperature. Again, I forget why this guy wants to dust them, but he does. It’s not important to the story why.
Anyway, the first third of the movie involves setting up the situation and the bad guy trying to catch and kill the dude and his babe. So far, so good. There’s no doubt in the man and woman’s minds that this guy wants to ice them. He’s chased them all over the building—up and down elevator shafts, through various rooms and different levels, etc. He comes close a few times, but they always manage to escape in the nick of time. And then… The plucky couple race into a huge room that’s being remodeled, just ahead of the bad dude. There are piles of lumber and all kinds of tools lying around. The man grabs some big tool—a nail driver or something—and the dynamic duo hide behind a pile of lumber. The bad guy enters the room, and the two hold their breath, and eventually the bad guy comes around the corner of the lumber pile and… POW! The good guy lays him out with the power tool. Knocks him cold as a mackerel, to use a cliché I, for one, never get too tired of hearing.
Movie over, right?
At this point, the question the writer of this opus needs to ask him- or herself, what would a logical person do now? This is the standard all writers need to ask themselves throughout the writing of their stories. Their protagonist should act the way a person of at least average intelligence would act. I use this movie for an example in many of my classes and ask the students what they would do if they were this man and woman. The situation is: The good guys have knocked out and disabled the bad guy. It’s just Saturday and they have to remain in the building until Monday to escape.
Here’s the typical answers college students give:
1. Kill the bad guy.
2. Tie him up. (Remember, this is a building site with all kinds of materials at hand.)
3. Take turns guarding him while the other sleeps and when he wakes up, knock him out again.
Other variations of the same thing. Makes sense, right? If you have a moral thing about killing somebody, just tie him up or keep knocking him out. If you have no compunctions about killing someone that was trying to kill you, just bash his brains in.
Okay. What did these two geniuses do? Sit down—you’re not going to believe this.
They drop the nail gun and run away to hide somewhere else.
I’m not making this up. I wish I was.
This is an idiot plot twist—just written to keep the chase and the movie going. I actually walked out of the theater at this point and demanded my money back. And got it.
These two people deserve to die at this point. It’s obvious they’re from the low end of the gene pool and the danger is they may have offspring and there’s that genetics thing. Their kiddies may well grow up to be as stupid or stupider than they are and the bad thing is… they’ll be out there in society with us! Driving cars… If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.
This is a moron plot, akin to those “John Wayne cavalry finishes,” of yesteryear’s godawful movies. Where the wagon train is surrounded by murderous redskins who are about to lift their scalps and… at the last possible second, over the ridge comes John Wayne with the cavalry!
Actually, this is an even worse plot than that. This is unparalleled stupidity of the nth order.
When I finally watched the end of this turkey on TV, it turned out pretty much the way I figured. Their “escapes” from the bad guy came closer and closer and they were everywhere in this building, up and down elevator shafts, out on ledges thirty stories above the street, all that kind of melodramatic crap as you’d expect from this kind of Hollyweird baloney. I don’t remember the exact ending—I’m sure they escaped at the end through some kind of miracle move and with a lot of FX and expertly-applied makeup to show their wounds. Doesn’t matter. You begin rooting for the bad guy as soon as they leave him and run away to hide. At least he’s got some smarts. At least if he catches and kills them, it’ll prevent them from breeding and that would be a major blessing to mankind in general. Do you really want idiots like this driving cars on your block or handling power tools like chainsaws in your immediate vicinity?
This kind of plot is why I don’t watch teenage horror movies. I don’t see most of them as horror, but more as broad comedies.
Look at some of these things. There’s a bad guy who stands about 6’8” and is always dripping with blood and wears a hockey mask. The police force in the burg he always lives in can’t catch this guy. Even Barney Fife would catch a guy this obvious, I think. Does he just look like most of the other citizens? Doesn’t he ever have to go to the local 7-11 for a loaf of bread occasionally? I mean, he never looks a bit different in all 13 movies…
And then, this group of college kids arrives at the Dismal Swamp Resort. When all the other kids in America go to Florida, this group of geniuses opts for a weedy lake, crawling with leeches and in the middle of nowhere. There’s a clue right there that these aren’t Rhodes scholars…
And then, five minutes into the movie, one of the comely coeds in short-shorts, goes to take a leak and finds a head floating in the toilet. She lets out a shriek and they all come running, but about five minutes later, everything’s pretty much back to normal. How, exactly, does she think that head got there? The guy was barfing and the lid fell on him? But, they all go back to normal except they’re “kind of” worried about things. At this point, and every point thereafter, all this brainy band need to do is to pile into their Land Rover and drive away, maybe call the state troopers. But then… the movie would be over. Can’t let that happen!
Moron plot twists…
One by one, the evil guy knocks the merry band of anal retentives over until there’s only one left. The blondest blonde with the shortest shorts… natch. He’s saving the best morsel for last… Again, long ago we began rooting for the bad guy. He’s the only one with at least a double-digit I.Q. These “leaders of tomorrow” for sure don’t have brainpower even close to his.
This is when it really gets funny. The bad guy—remember, he’s about 6’8” and can’t run for shit—he kind of looks like Lurch, stumbling along—is outrunning the frisky little filly of a coed who is flat-out flying…and he catches her! A miracle! How on earth did he ever do it? She must be running in circles like rabbits do. Come to think of it, there are an awful lot of movies where the victim runs as fast or even much faster than the bad guy, but somehow the bad guy manages to catch them… Kind of a Hollywood tradition…
Like I said, most horror movies are comedies.
Does this sound a bit anal? Am I a bit harsh in my judgment? Perhaps so, but I don’t apologize. The main tools we have as writers are words and stories that make sense and if writers are sloppy in their usage, then I’m not going to purchase their products any more. This attitude drives my wife Mary nuts, sometimes. I’ll quit eating at a restaurant if they misspell words on their marquee. I figure if they’re this sloppy about the language, what goes on in the kitchen? I don’t want to take the chance.
This kind of stuff goes on everywhere and it seems to me as if it’s increasing. Take newspapers, these days.
We have two newspapers in town. The morning paper, The (Ft. Wayne, IN) Journal-Gazette is a joke. I’ve had a standing bet with a friend for years that he can call me on any day of the year and within five minutes I can find an error in the paper—spelling, usage, punctuation, syntax, whatever. He’s phoned me over the past ten years perhaps thirty times and I’ve never lost the bet. He could have called me every single day for the past ten (or longer) years and I wouldn’t have lost the bet. I won’t place the same wager for our evening newspaper, The News-Sentinel. I’ve never once seen a mistake in it. Not a single time. I’m not saying they don’t make errors, just that I’ve been unable to find one. Which paper do you think I trust for the news? What’s a tragedy is that the Journal-Gazette (which I fondly refer to as the “Journal-Afterthought, as I’ve read all of their news at least a day before online and is why newspapers aren’t dying; they’re already dead) participates in a thing called “Newspapers in Education.” They promote their rag as an instrument in the public schools. (The private schools have more sense. They want their students to actually succeed in college…)
The thing is, if a book has a glaring error, it’s pretty good evidence that the reader can’t trust the writer. I’d give that writer one chance. If it happens again, there are plenty of other writers I’ll support with my dollars instead who do take the time and expend the energy to get things right. It’s the only way I can vote on the subject. And, even though it seems people think we have more knowledge these days readily available on the Internet, it also seems to me that more books have incorrect facts like this than they did years ago. And movies… well, that’s Hollywood, where Harvard MBA’s run the show. I wouldn’t expect them to be accurate… I’ve seen too many Oliver Stone and James Cameron movies to think otherwise…
How about you folks? Have you experienced something like my examples that turned you off to a writer or a film? Or maybe you’re not as anal as I am and you don’t care? I’d like to hear from both sides.