Friday, November 27, 2009

Reality bites

I've just spent the last couple of hours transfixed by the cheesy action movie Turbulence. You know, the one where serial killer Ray Liotta lets loose on a planeload of Christmas travellers before flight attendant Lauren Holly kicks his no-good behind and lands the plane?

I've seen it a few times over the years, and it's never struck me as something special. And yet it held my attention today, again.

Why is that, I find myself wondering? I mean, besides the scarily magnetic Ray Liotta, it's a movie that manages to be both predictable AND stretch the bounds of believability all at the same time.

In that, I think, is my answer.

You need enough reality in any story for the audience to identify- hey, most of us have done the Christmas travel thing at one point or another. It's a total hassle. Most of us have also hit large-scale turbulence on a plane. It can be super-scary. A lot of us have had to work over Christmas, too, and we know how much that sucks.

But reality is boring. We don't want to see our own lives up there on the screen- we go to the movies to escape from our lives! Even if you're a super-spy or an astronaut I bet there are large chunks of your day that qualify as tedious. And that's where we bring in things like a crazed serial killer (and if one's good, how about TWO?) who manages, by good luck and villainous genius, to pick off no less than six armed marshals and go crazy, RIGHT AS THE PLANE IS HITTING A STORM.

I kept thinking, how would this be reported in the news if it actually happened? Nobody would believe it. It's too nuts. Especially how the flight attendant takes down the manic serial killer after a lot of dramatic running around, then manages to land the plane with the aid of a good-lookin' British pilot who talks her down. Even better- she just broke off her engagement and he's single!

Seriously, a news report on all that?

Fifteen people, including six US Marshals, both pilots and a flight attendant, were killed on Saturday when notorious serial killer Joe Bloggs, who was being transported via commercial airline to face trial, broke free of his guards and went on a rampage mid-flight.

There were some tense moments during the drama as the plane recovered from three full nose-dives, a direct entry into a level 6 storm, and a missed approach which saw a 4WD become lodged on the landing gear before the US Air Force was able to shoot it off with a precision missile strike. The drama eventually came to an end when Joe Bloggs was killed by flight attendant Mary Sue, who then single-handedly landed the 737 with the assistance of TCA pilot Hugh McHugh on the ground. Twenty hostages were released unharmed.

USA Today reports that Sue and McHugh will now be spending Christmas together.

I don't know about you, but I'd totally choke on my toast if I saw that on the morning news. Nonetheless, that's the movie I want to see, and not the alternative:

Authorities are defending prisoner transfer protocols after notorious serial killer Joe Bloggs attacked and wounded two US Marshals during a commercial flight on Saturday. Bloggs was brought under control by the other four Marshals on the flight with the assistance of flight attendants. No other passengers or crew were harmed during the drama, and the plane landed safely in Los Angeles about an hour later.


This is not a new tip- it's oft repeated advice. Know your story, but choose what you actually show the audience. For example, the flight attendant in Turbulence starts the movie by breaking up with her absent fiance. This is necessary for character development. When we next see her, she's on the airplane about to meet a serial killer. What happened between those two scenes? She probably got ready for bed, had a good sleep, got up in the morning and ate a bowl of cornflakes. She probably took a cab to the airport and met a host of people she knew as she made her way to the plane. She did all the pre-flight stuff that flight attendants do- and right there is why none of it appeared on the screen. It doesn't fill any purpose to the actual events that the movie is about. So it doesn't appear.

The same applies in your story. Sure, it might be important to know what your characters are doing at any given time- but it's what happens to affect the central story that your readers will care about, and that's all they want to see. A big divergence off the main story without a good purpose, or several small ones for that matter, will detract from your tale instead of enhancing it.

Whatever does happen to them? Make it interesting. Make it anything but run of the mill. Don't make it Turbulence, because hey- it's not that great a story. But always remember that your readers are, for the most part, picking up your book as an escape from their reality. Give them enough to identify with by writing good characters, but also give them a break from their reality with an interesting plot.


  1. Yes, yes, this is me carefully stapling this information in long-term memory. ;-)

    At the moment, I'm not sure if I'm trying to write about catching a rapist (in which case, I've got a long way to go, but a lot of scenes I'll never need) or if it's someone starting a rather unorthodox relationship, (in which case I'm probably gone on too long already) or perhaps I'm just rambling on and on, as a happier alternative to other things I Could be doing. :-) If it will never see the light of day, then nobody cares if I accidentally have an info-dump every so often, right? (Wrong. I'd like to write well, even if I'm too chicken to show it to anybody.)

    So, more to the point, there's more to plot that this, surely. Or am I confusing plot with story arc?

    Now, maybe I need to rent Turbulence. ;-)

    Best to all!

  2. Claire, know I love me some movie posts. There's really SO much to learn from films, and you've made an excellent point. I can't tell you the times I've slogged through a manuscript that has characters sitting down to elaborate (or not so elaborate meals), talking about mundane, every day stuff that I just don't care to read about. Showering...getting dressed..combing their hair...doing stuff I DO NOT WANT to read about!

    My first piece of advice when dealing with pacing and tension is to chuck every last dinner/driving scene out the window. LOL. (And of course I open FI with one). Heck I don't even think my characters eat. (g) The main thing is that every scene needs to serve some kind of purpose that helps move the plot forward. Fluff may be nice and fun, but it would be better off on the cutting room floor.

    Yanno, can't remember if I've seen Turbulence. Maybe. I seem to recall it being rather...outlandish. (g) Better than boring, at any rate. lol


  3. Choke on your toast... ROLF!! Great post. There is so much we can learn from movies about plotting and pacing.

  4. Definitely true - there's no reason for a book to be chock full of pontificating :-) On the other hand... I love that scene in the Ramona book (I think it's the one where she's in kindergarten) in which the teacher reads them Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel and all the kids start wondering how Mike manages to dig the hole all day - when did he go to the bathroom, they ask :-)

  5. Ah, great post. Movies (and TV shows) really show, in snap-shot form (compared to how fast we read novels) how to structure plot and pacing. I was reminded of that when I watched the latest Dr Who episode with son #1 on Sunday night - not a dull moment in that one! Now, to apply that to my book ... (g)