My biggest pet peeve in fiction

One short section of this article contains spoilers for the new Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker. This section is clearly marked, so if you don’t want it spoiled please skip those two paragraphs.

I started writing an article discussing the various issues that prequels tend to have. But the bulk of it ended up being about one particular topic, so I decided to rework it into its own standalone piece.

When a franchise and the world it inhabits are new, we as the audience – whether we’re readers, viewers, listeners, or players – are learning about the setting just as much as we are about the characters. What factions are in play, who owns what fictional corporation, who’s the current king – hundreds of little pieces of background story or lore come together to build up that world in our minds, and believing in that world for the duration of the story is a key part of suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, in essence means that as the audience, we put our knowledge of the real world as well as our logic and critical thinking to one side for the sake of enjoying the story. It’s a phrase which explains the basics of how we can take seriously a story about wizards and magic spells, or spaceships and aliens, when none of those things exist in our daily lives. Being able to suspend our disbelief – that is to say, to give a free pass to the illogical and the unreal for the sake of a story – is a key part of how we, as human beings, engage with fiction. It applies to children watching My Little Pony and it applies to literature professors reading War and Peace. It’s a fundamental part of human imagination, and without it fiction could not exist as we know it.

One major part of world-building in any fictional setting is the establishment of fundamental rules about how things work. In the Star Trek series, for example, starships are powered by dilithium crystals, which allow them to travel at faster-than-light speeds. In Middle-earth, wizards can perform spells and there are a variety of sentient non-human creatures. Star Wars has the Force and hyperspace, and even a cartoon like Phineas and Ferb establishes early on that it’s possible for its protagonists to invent and engineer massive projects. In each of these cases, something about the setting has been established in the mind of the audience, and we accept it in the context of our suspension of disbelief.

When any fictional world has established its ground rules, it’s horribly jarring for the audience when it subsequently breaks those rules. Internal consistency is incredibly important to maintaining suspension of disbelief, and a failure to abide by the rules of the road in a fictional setting is immersion-breaking.

Prequels quite often fall victim to this, but it isn’t solely a prequel problem.

It’s obviously very tempting for writers and producers, when dealing with a setting that doesn’t have to abide by the rules of our real world, to use magic or technobabble as a cover-all, explaining away anything and everything by saying “magic works this way” or “starships don’t work that way”. And in a brand-new franchise, they can get away with that to an extent, provided it doesn’t seem to come completely from nowhere – if it does, it’s a deus ex machina. And that’s a whole other problem.

But in some ways, dei ex machina (yes, that’s the plural form) are exactly what we’re dealing with here. Briefly, a deus ex machina is a solution to an unsolvable or difficult problem that comes from nowhere – such as by introducing something brand new and never mentioned before, or by giving a character powers, abilities, weapons, etc. that they never had before.

When a franchise has run for a number of years, the basics of how its setting works has been established in the minds of its audience. We know, for example, that the Force in Star Wars can be used to choke people, to create lightning, and to confuse people. It can clearly do many other things, but introducing any new Force power has to be treated with caution – because if it seems to contradict what we’ve already seen on screen, it can be an issue. And these issues are not simply a case of “why haven’t we seen this before?”, but also of “in situation X in a previous film, this ability would have been useful”.

Spoilers ahead for The Rise of Skywalker for anyone unfamiliar with its plot.

In The Rise of Skywalker, we have precisely this scenario unfold. The Force can be used to both heal wounds and revive the dead. How many times in previous Star Wars films would such a power have been useful to our protagonists? How many characters could have been saved from dying unnecessary deaths if such a power had been deployed sooner?

The decision to include the ability to use the Force to heal and revive is contrived, it’s clearly done for storytelling reasons to get around what would otherwise be plot holes, but in so doing it’s created a bunch of new plot holes.

Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker end here.

There’s always going to be a huge temptation to use contrived technological explanations or the use of magic to get away with what is essentially bad writing. But by failing to abide by the rules of the world they’re supposedly setting their story in, writers are being lazy and disrespectful. Magic and technology aren’t a cure-all to explain away anything a writer wants. They are part of the foundation of the setting, and chipping away too much at the foundation risks the entire story collapsing.

I don’t hold any respect for the argument that “it’s just a story”, either. Of course it’s just a story, and of course characters go from one place to another at the whim of the writers. But that is also no excuse for bad writing and mishandling the basics of the setting. The best stories are the ones we can get lost in, and part of that means that they have to make sense in the context of their world. When the underlying rules are broken, and the story fails to abide by its own world-building, it’s jarring, it’s immersion-breaking, and it ruins any suspension of disbelief. If a writer cannot make their story work without changing the fundamentals of the world they’re supposed to be writing in, then they have written a bad story.

In the current age of online fan communities, people can become very attached to a franchise and its world. It should be well known by now to writers and everyone on the production side of a franchise that anything like this is going to be seized upon and criticised.

This isn’t to say that there can’t be innovation. In Star Trek, for example, we’ve seen greater and greater warp speeds allow starships to travel further and faster in the 24th Century than in the 23rd. But that doesn’t break immersion because it doesn’t change anything fundamental about how warp drive works – it’s still a dilithium-powered faster-than-light engine. And in a way, the less detail we as the audience know about how some magical or technological thing works, the more wiggle-room writers and producers have to adapt it to fit their story. There will always be a bending of rules in this regard – to use the warp drive example again, precise warp speeds are a bit of a mess. The fundamental principle is intact, but the minutiae is a bit muddled, with different episodes giving different timeframes for travelling at different warp speeds, essentially making a real-world comparison impossible or very difficult (though reference works for Star Trek have tried). Just as one example, warp 10 is supposed to be so fast that a starship could travel to any point in the galaxy instantaneously, yet at warp 9.975 (the top speed of the USS Voyager) a 75,000 light-year journey will take 70+ years. And the Borg are capable of “transwarp” speeds, which are much faster than warp 9.975 but don’t seem to allow for instantaneous travel anywhere in the galaxy. As I said, messy.

But we’re getting off the subject.

When a setting has established how its technology, magic, or other such things work, stories in that setting need to stick to that. They can elaborate on how things work, and they can add new technologies or magic spells provided nothing overwrites what’s already there, but they have to stick to the fundamentals because failure to do so takes what could be a good story and spoils it.

This can be applied to characters, too. If a character’s backstory is established, that needs to be stuck to. It’s no good to say that character X is a smuggler, then two episodes later change that and make him a doctor or a marine biologist simply to fit a particular story. A character trait appearing out of nowhere at the very least is noticeable, and at worst is another immersion-breaking problem, potentially ruining a story.

Outside of the real fundamentals of a character though, we start to stray into subjective territory. One person’s idea of a believable and enjoyable character arc may not be the same as another’s. Luke Skywalker’s depiction in The Last Jedi is a case in point – I found his characterisation to be incredibly relateable in that film, as I felt it showed how anyone could become jaded and regretful, and how anyone could suffer the consequences of a significant error in judgement. But others felt that there’s no way Luke Skywalker could ever behave like that, that he’d never have considered cutting down Ben Solo – even for a brief moment – and that he’d never just go and live in isolation. We can agree or disagree, and that could be a whole article in itself.

We’ve gotten a little off-topic again, but the point I’m trying to make is that a story that doesn’t stay consistent with the world that has already been established, and strays into overwriting established ground rules of that world, ruins my sense of immersion and completely takes me out of whatever I’m reading or watching.

I love to see franchises evolve over time, and establish new elements of their worlds. But when it’s not done right it comes across as simply being bad and lazy writing, and using all the magic and technology in the world won’t stop it feeling that way. Once a ground rule has been established, once the audience knows how something works in that world, any future stories have to be constrained by that.

You’d think that in today’s media landscape, every significant franchise would have people poring over stories specifically to look for details that go against what’s already been set up. A franchise like Marvel – though I’m not personally a huge fan – is at the very least well-managed, and they absolutely deserve credit for the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been constructed. On the other hand, we have a franchise like Star Wars, which has unfortunately suffered as a consequence of production decisions, including the decision to bring in some technological and Force-based story points which clearly clash with what has already been established.

For me, a story that can’t even stick to the basic way its own setting or world works is a fundamentally flawed story. And that really is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to works of fiction.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios, producers, and/or distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.