Screenwriting Basics: The Logical World

The logical world may seem like an obvious point, however, I read enough scripts that have major breaks within the logic of their world that this is a topic of importance that I wanted to write about. Whatever rules you establish for your world must remain consistent throughout.

Sometimes, in particular with younger or new writers, there can be a disconnect between what the writer is trying to communicate and what is actually on the page. Just because something makes perfectly logical sense inside your own mind, it may not seamlessly translate to the page, in which case there may be breaks in logic that remove the reader from the story. Writers must be vigilant to avoid anything that could possibly pose a point of confusion in the mind of the reader. If what you’re trying to do is not abundantly clear on all levels, then find a different way to work that info into the story. Any story or character element that raises more questions than it answers is a point to be avoided.

Breaks in Logic
Breaks in logic usually boil down to the writer not having comprehensively thought through the fullness of their story world. This has to do both with character, arcs, motivations, and also the physical workings of the world itself. In some cases, very basic questions about the world stand out to a new reader, whereas the writer – who has been working with the material for months – might overlook these same elements.

If you are writing a very small story that takes place in the world exactly as we know it, the “real” world, then establishing the rules for that world isn’t so complicated, because the paradigm would be close to our own experience. However, once you take a story outside the realm of daily life, establishing the logical world can get complicated.

This is especially true with unreliable narrators, futuristic stories, sci-fi, monsters, thrillers, the paranormal – anything that tweaks daily life as we know it.

Set Up What You Need To Pay Off
More often than not, establishing a world so that it is completely believable has to do with proper set up of specific elements that break the laws of the real world. If you want a character to have a psychic sense of ghosts, but yet she doesn’t display this ability until page 60, that would probably confuse me. Hints of her intuitive sensitivities along with a darker paranormal tone need to be planted from page 1 in order for me to take that journey with you.

If You Don’t Need It, Cut It
Science fiction and futuristic stories are especially tricky in this regard, because the world needs to feel different enough from our own to set the proper tone, and yet the more completely new and different elements you introduce, the greater potential for confusion there is. Having recently worked with several scripts that were wholly confusing, my new thought on sci-fi rules is, if the element is not essential to the story, leave it out or make it more specific so that it becomes essential to the story. With the elements that remain, track their lifespan and how they affect the characters’ lives. You should be able to give a logical timeline progression for every element in the story – the hows and whys – and within that universe, everything must make sense.

Last year, I worked on a script wherein the writer brought us into a space world where two factions of human beings had been at war for 500 years. The protagonist then, by default, was a warrior and it was his goal in life to kill the enemy. This didn’t sit well with me. These are very broad strokes – too broad for me to feel they bear any sense of reality. There was no reason to make the war ongoing for 500 years – it reduces any sense of dramatic stakes. If the war had begun more recently, then the characters would have a greater sense of urgency in the situation – either toward murder or toward peace. Also, just because one is a soldier doesn’t mean that one lives to “murder the enemy.” If there had been a very personal reason he was angry at the enemy, that would have helped. These elements to me did not feel as though they had been carefully enough thought out to a logical conclusion. We started at a point of confusion, and it just got worse from there.

I recently read another script that featured a rogue alien who was flying around destroying planets, but yet the author later on tried to sell the notion that there was a very powerful consortium of planets that protected over half the galaxy. If there is a powerful consortium of protectors, wouldn’t this one alien ship get its ass kicked immediately? Part of the journey of the story was one planet trying to gain access to this consortium through a game. The rogue alien was able to compete in the game on multiple occasions, even though he had no planet to protect and was a seeming enemy of the consortium, who sponsored the games. There were so many elements in this project that made absolutely no sense to me.

Be Careful With Fantasy Worlds the Reader Knows Well
Logical world constraints can also be tricky not only if you are creating a new world, but also if you are working within a fantasy world that is very familiar to the reader already. An example of this would be with science fiction or monster stories.

I was out the other day and someone casually threw out a concept based on the universe being created of nanobots. I said, “Oh, you mean like on Stargate and Stargate Atlantis?” His eyes glazed over, and then he snootily retorted that he doesn’t watch sci-fi TV. Particularly when you’re working with sci-fi, where the fans generally are really up on what is happening within the sci-fi world, know the genre. I’m not even a big sci-fi whore (although “Battlestar Galactica” was the BEST SHOW EVER) and I basically know what’s going on out there. He’s just lucky I didn’t bust out some Klingon. If you’re going to pitch a sci-fi concept, you need to study up on the genre and find out if that idea has already been written about, produced, or is floating around in the general social consciousness. If so, you can still use the idea, but you need to build upon that world and make it fresh, feel new. You need to actually bring something to the table.

Similarly, last summer I heard a young writer pitch what was basically “Heroes,” but as a feature. I asked him why he was pitching “Heroes” when that’s already a produced show. Again, eyes glazed over. Again, a snooty response about how that writer doesn’t have time to waste on television. He got uppity about how that just proved it was a good idea and he should write the script. I thought to myself, ‘You go, rockstar, who don’t have one hour to waste to get the gist of the “Heroes” storyline, but yet do have a whole year to waste writing an idea that has already been produced (now in multiple variants) and will never get you anywhere. You go with your bad self.’ You cannot take an idea that is already in the marketplace and pretend you are the first one to come up with it, and then do it worse. No, people. No.

Another example of working within rules that are pre-established has to do with monsters, such as vampires and werewolves. The market is just completely saturated with vampire stories ever since Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon agenda “Twilight” series wholly ripped off Charlaine Harris’ delightful Southern Vampire mysteries (upon which Alan Ball’s “True Blood” show is loosely based, although the show misses the heart, soul and – most importantly – humor of the books, in my opinion). Fine, fine, we all know we can’t copyright an idea, blah, blah. However, Charlaine Harris takes our basic understanding of vampire lore and either enhances the lore or debunks it. Everything makes perfectly logical sense within that world. She has taken the basics of the Ann Rice vampire world and added many fascinating dimensions to it to make it fresh and socially relevant to today – including psychics, maenads, faeries, etc. It’s a smorgasbord of paranormal delights.

Work with what you’re given and add to it in an interesting way. Work to recreate the genre in a fresh, dynamic way that is relevant. I recently read a vampire script that was a total snoozer – and I was thinking, ‘Eric?! Bill?! Edward?! Help! How is it possible to write a story about vampires and make it this boring?’ And it was. It was terribly boring. But, it was because the writer didn’t play with the genre in a way that offered anything fresh or interesting. He didn’t take the common denominators and put his own fresh spin on it. He just recycled in the most banal way possible.

Challenge yourself to bring something more to the table. The reader will thank you for it.

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