Monday, April 12, 2010

MORONIC PLOT TWISTS AND INCORRECT FACTS IN BOOKS AND MOVIES




Hi folks,

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?

Not quite.

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.

15 comments:

E. Elle said...

I expect them to do their homework, especially if they're making something historical-based. I am most bothered by typos and grammatical errors.

We call our local newspaper "The Gazidiot" because of its never-ending list of inaccuracies: both in language and content!

Les Edgerton said...

Cool! It amazes me how low newspapers have gone in quality. I started out as a newspaper reporter in the "toy department" (sports) and any of us would have been fired on the spot for stuff I see every day in most papers.

We truly are, in many ways, amidst the "dumbing of America."

carlrbrush said...

Was listening to a book on tape recently. A junk book for passing the time in the car. It was set in a museum. A diamond collection was stolen. People were in the streets over the theft. Not because people would ever do that, but to artificially increase the level of suspense over the crisis to the museum. New director had to figure out a spin, etc. That's how the book began. I don't know or care how it ended, but apparently it's one of a fairly successful series.
You mention that an error like this can kill a book's publication chances. I wonder why it didn't kill this one's chances. And the hundreds like it which do make it into print.

Glynis said...

Great post, Les. I get so annoyed by glaring errors.

I wrote something in my wip, sat back and thought about it. I researched the item I had written in, and found it was invented three years after the era I am writing. Lesson learned. :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Obvious errors do turn me off. On a Friends episode (probably 15 years ago) they quoted lines from Tennyson, but they credited Keats. Oh, how that upset me. In another 15 years, maybe I'll be able to forgive them! Maybe... :-)

Laura Marcella said...

When I went to Disney World, I wanted to buy a zebra stuffed animal from Animal Kingdom. The one I wanted neighed like a horse when squeezed. Zebras do NOT neigh like horses or bray like donkeys! I was really annoyed with Disney. I still bought a zebra stuffed animal, but it was not one that made noise.

I want a gripping plot and engaging characters in books and movies. I'm not picky other than that. If I stopped reading books or watching movies because of grammar and factual errors, then I'd never read or watch anything!

I hate when I see an error on my own blog post after it's published! But I sure hope no one judges my blog because I made a word possessive that shouldn't have been. I certainly don't judge anyone else's blogs for those simple errors!

Writers and producers are only human. At some point errors are inevitable no matter how meticulous you are.

Les Edgerton said...

Laura, you're a very forgiving reader and there are many who feel as you do, but I just can't keep reading someone who makes serious factual errors in their books or films. I wouldn't count blogs in this discussion at all--they're just not in the mix at all--blogs, if anything, are like self-published or vanity press books. So, I wouldn't use those in comparison, personally.

But, if an Indian boy says, "They'll write songs..." I can't believe the rest of it. It's the same as if he said, "They'll send us to the moon in a rocket ship." Rocket ships didn't exist then nor did writing as a concept among aboriginals. And, the screenwriter had it right! They spent $40-60 million to make this movie and couldn't spare five hundred bucks to hire a fact-checker? Or, if a character has three easily-checked fallacies in a book, as did my friend with his two handwriting errors and the "hair grows after death" presented as "facts" then I simply can't believe anything else. The main thing we strive to do as writers is to write so that the reader "suspends his/her disbelief" and once we see a major error, that disbelief is upon us as readers in full force. And, that the author himself, his agent, and then at least one editor let all of these through is just, I think, an indictment of how our standards have slipped.

Over at Lee Lofland's blog, The Graveyard Shift, there are countless articles about the same thing. One egregious error that keeps cropping up in the material he reviews is detectives "smelling cordite." Well, since cordite hasn't been manufactured or used since WWII, that would be kind of difficult to smell. How on earth is a reader (or, viewer in this case, as he's reviewing TV series) supposed to buy that this character is believable? And, it's not like this information is hard to find. Stuff like that just shouts out "laziness" and actually, ignorance about the subject the author has chosen to employ.

I do appreciate your point of view, and do agree that sometimes, even with the best of efforts and intentions, mistakes creep into manuscripts. An occasional one wouldn't keep me from reading that writer, witness my friend who had a military guy say, "Over and out." I'll still keep reading him because he knew better and had hired a person he trusted to also know better to vet it and it still appeared. One mistake? Sure, no problem. Three very big mistakes, easily avoided with a little work? Nope.

As I'm done with a newspaper in which every single edition has multiple errors while their sister publication has none. Not going to think of the first paper as anything much more than... stupid... They earned it...

I appreciate your input very much. If everyone agreed, we'd have a very boring society, wouldn't we!

Les Edgerton said...

Carl, I think you answered your own question. You said it was part of a "fairly successful series." A brand name. Remember, brand name authors can (and do) get away with things other writers can't. Many times, we have to be "better." While this writer may get away with something like this once or twice, eventually enough people will begin noticing the errors and quit buying... I hope so, anyway...

Les Edgerton said...

To expand on this subject a bit, I suspect the reason we're seeing more and more of these errors is that we've got a generation of writers who've been raised on television and films, and who've accepted the "facts" they've learned via those medias. Not realizing that in both TV and movies, there is far more sloppy research employed than in print. For instance, they keep seeing these TV cop series where cordite is smelled by the detective, so when they write their book the same thing happens. Their detective smells cordite. I've been teaching at universities for a long time, and when I was a student and when I began teaching, students would research bona fide sources. Today, they use... the Internet. And TV and movies. It's no wonder books have far more errors in them these days! The Internet! The single worst source of true information ever invented.

And, many of my current students aren't even half smart about it. They just Google a subject and the first article that pops up is the one they use. Makes it easy for us to figure out what they did. If they'd only go a page or two further into their Google searches, they'd get away with more, but that, I think, looks too much like that dreaded concept called "work."

A writer who depends on the Internet or TV or movies for his "research" isn't one I want to read...

Les Edgerton said...

Just going through newspapers I'd saved for articles to file, and saw this headline on the front page of the sports section in the Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette. It was the big headline, above the fold:

"Readers give us they're Top 26 area athletes."

This is a fairly common kind of error in this rag...

Elizabeth said...

Les, re your comment about sloppy authors. I believe cutbacks in the publishing business have contributed to the problem. As in so many other industries, fewer people (in this case, copy readers) trying to do the same load of work means more errors.

carlrbrush said...

Les--the sloppy author/short-staffed proofreaders comment was from me but somehow got attributed to Elizabeth. Not guilty--I swear. But sorry anyhow.
Carl

Kari Wolfe said...

Les, I'm going to question your statements on handwriting.

You stated: "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."

I'm not quite sure about this. I know that I can tell the difference between a six-year-old's handwriting and a thirty-year-old's handwriting because the thirty-year-old's handwriting is usually going to be more polished because they have more practice, more experience with it. My three-year-old daughter's handwriting is nearly nonexistent--because, well, she's not practiced.

My grandmother's handwriting is so different from mine, whether due to practice or simply how she was taught. I have this niggling thought that the typical handwriting has changed over the years--and Wikipedia states as much: "After the 1960s, it was argued that the teaching of cursive writing was more difficult than it needed to be. Forms of simply slanted characters, termed italic, were considered by some to be easier and traditional cursive unnecessary. Because of this, a number of various new forms of cursive appeared in the late twentieth century..." (the Wikipedia article on "Cursive")

Now, does this mean that a layman would have knowledge like this? Well, maybe--depends on his background. Could he have noticed the differences in his handwriting and his grandmother's? Sure. Does that mean by looking at a handwriting sample he could tell the exact age? Probably not, but he might be able to say that it was an older person.

One other thing--the adjective "waverly" sounds like a really bad description of handwriting from an elderly person, but what if that old man has Parkinson's? Or just jittery hands? I think sometimes you can get a general feeling as to age but how smooth (or not smooth) the handwriting is.

I can't say it's impossible to tell a general age of the person writing for a layman. BUT, more importantly is how it is used in the story. And I think it sounds like it was used in a way that came across extremely fake to you. That's more important than anything else. :)

The Yanqui Tourist said...

Had to have been Tom Clancy. Mr. "I'm a Cool Commando" himself who actualy was just a extremely well-read librarian until deciding to put pen to paper. Never did military service either so he certainly wouldn't know. But don't worry, your secret is safe with me!

Les Edgerton said...

Hi Yanqui Tourist--good guess, but it wasn't Clancy. If you email me privately, I'll tell you who it was and what book (butchedgerton@comcast.net).