Undefined Magic – Shatters Worlds and Ruins Stories

You know the moment in some stories when everything seems most dire and there doesn’t appear to be any possible way the hero can turn the tide to victory and just as everything is going to end in the villain’s favor…. the hero unleashes a never before seen power, an ability the audience was told is impossible or an artifact ‘wakes up’ to save the day – it’s always a result of lazy writing.

Deus ex machina. Unprecedented plot twist. Ecuastrophe. Whatever the term the audience or creator want to use to defend a random swing in the protagonist’s favor it doesn’t change the fact the audience was mislead during the adventure.

For sci-fi or fantasy to succeed the worlds need to be believable. This isn’t to say the world is probable or possible, just believable. In the first act, wild, crazy and impossible feats can be on display to grab the audience’s attention and draw them into the world, but inevitably there needs to be a scene where the rules are established.

Rules help frame the conflict. With the groundwork of the world established the audience knows when the heroes are in real danger or when they can just tap their shoes together and make it home safely. Without the fear of failure, there can be no thrill of success.

Let’s examine the Matrix , (spoiler for the Matrix) in the first installment the audience is led on the path of discovery alongside Neo as he becomes The One. By the time he turns to face Agent Smith and is later revived, it doesn’t feel like a cheat because all of the clues, hints and journey were leading to this moment. His awakening is in keeping with the narrative of the digital world created.

However in The Matrix sequels (spoiler for The Matrix sequels…which you probably don’t need to see anyways), everything falls apart. Ghost wraiths, old computer programs, multiple anomalies, Agent Smith jumping into the real world, Trinity coming back…it is no longer building on the world created but is merely a series of events that don’t necessarily make sense…but the creators think it’s okay because it looks visually interesting (but it doesn’t…).

The more they added into The Matrix, the more diluted and unnecessarily convoluted the rules of the world became.

On the flip side, Harry Potter is a franchise that actually grew into its world and rules as more entries were released. The first story ends (spoiler for The Sorcerer’s Stone) by Harry touching the villain and making him fall apart immediately. What the fuck. There is no context, reason or explanation for this when it occurs except for the fact that J.K. Rowling needed a way for a child who has been a wizard for 6 months to defeat one of the greatest evils the world has known.

Flash-forward to Deathly Hollows and Harry’s defeat of Voldermort is even more far-fetched and magical but it makes complete sense based upon the signposts and markers created along the way. (Oh…forgot…spoilers for Deathly Hollows…Harry wins).

When the audience is clued into what is possible, they feel more in touch with the world as opposed to a “clever” trick occurring at the last second and then a series of rambling explanations backtracking into why things worked out.

The worst is when the chosen one does something specifically stated earlier that no one can possibly do. This isn’t just a creator writing herself out of a corner…they have transitioned to outright lying to subvert expectations.

If the audience can’t trust the world created, the entire premise shatters.

Movies, comics and games should strive to build a payoff when the hero triumphs; a delicate balance of something unexpected to the audience, but believable based off what came before it. The audience should feel like a traveling companion along for the journey, not a rube being swindled on the side of the road.

What are some of the worst last second saves you can remember in a story? Do you find the third-act reveal with no basis exciting or frustrating?

Level Up, Friends!