That's Impossible!

Movies violate reality in many ways. Movie reality is not reality at all — it's a heightened pseudo-reality, a world of imagination. Audiences are comfortable with this. It's what they want out of movies. You want real life, look out your window! When the lights go down or the opening logos are done — it's time to live in a world that's better, brighter, and more awesome than our own.

In the last article, we discussed all those coincidences you find in movies, and how they're your friends. Moviegoers only have time for the important bits. Plausible coincidences are allowed, encouraged, as a way of concentrating the important bits in a vivid and entertaining way.

Movies also deal in impossibilities. Impossibilities range from the acceptable to the ones that strain — and even snap — the audience's suspension of disbelief. Impossibilities can dazzle and numb your audience - too much of that, and they may tune out.

Your goal — your mandate — is to stretch that disbelief, it's true. But more than that, to stretch it in an entertaining fashion. You need to know what you can get away with...and what should make you return to the drawing board.

If the audience knows a place, they'll put up with certain violations. Within reason. Audience knowledge is always the standard against which you must measure your artistic license.

You wouldn't have a snowstorm in Cairo — only 2 inches of rain there a year. And it never snows. So don't bring down flurries on the pyramids unless it's a climate change disaster movie.

It doesn't rain a lot in L.A., but you wouldn't know it by the movies. It's not an impossibility, however, to have a rainy day in L.A. It's plausible, because it happens.

Lots of people live in L.A. But not a lot live in Greenland. We set a script in WWII Greenland. In a sense, we could do anything we wanted — but we wanted to keep it plausible. To use the unusual aspects of Greenland's geography to generate dramatic possibilities.

We fudged a bit in several key areas. One was the temperature. You can't do a lot of fooling around outside in 50 below. You certainly don't want to play soccer. But our characters did. Another fudge was the direction and frequency of the piteraq, a warm windstorm that comes off the ice cap — we configured that to our own advantage.

Another fudge was the location itself. There is no such location as we invented in the script, with the exact geographical features we needed. So we invented one to suit our needs. All writers do this. Writers need never restrict themselves to the actual geography of a place, provided the geography they do use is reasonably authentic. You wouldn't show a giant waterfall in Griffith Park — but sometimes, seasonally, there are little ones.

Let your story dictate what location features you need — provided they are in keeping with what's available in the general area, you'll get away with it. At the same time, you want the location and the environment to dictate the story you will put there. To let the impossibilities generate dramatic possibilities.

Physical impossibilities are those which violate the capabilities of the human body or the laws of physics and the natural world.

Your basic action hero can take a lot of abuse. Get punched, beaten, injured, shot, dragged, hurled, blown up - and still come back for more. Sometimes this strains credibility, sometimes not.

Many standard action stunts are so improbable as to be impossible, but they are physically possible — so the audience buys it. It's fun to see it happen, even if it'd probably never happen. Bruce Willis could probably not send a car careening into a helicopter — a plane could probably not break off its wings and slide past Indy Jones's car in a tunnel — but it's fun to see, and it's not utterly impossible.

It might be technically impossible — but, within reason, never let the impossible keep you from entertaining the audience. This is movie reality, and you decide what happens there. Entertainment is the name of the game — so take it right to the limit, and even beyond, if you can.

But it's also true that today's audiences are less tolerant of sheer ridiculousness than they used to be. If you are going to the limit and beyond... is it really the best way to go?

Wouldn't it be more fun — more interesting — to let impossibilities generate dramatic possibilities?

One reason you should always research your location and setting is so you can let the environment suggest story angles. William Broyles would never have devised Tom Hanks's beach buddy Wilson had he not spent time camping on a remote beach, trying to stay alive — and found a volleyball washed up on the sand.

If all you're doing is making a story where all sorts of environmental and physical impossibilities are going on — by definition you're creating something generic. If it could happen anywhere...why's it happening where you set it? And what unique dramatic possibilities are you missing out on?

Limitations are always opportunities for creativity. This is an important fact in fiction, in art, in life itself. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. And some of the most interesting movies have been made with a shoestring budget limiting easy solutions and forcing creative ones.

Impossibilities are simply limitations. Let the impossibilities suggest details you can incorporate into your script — plot points that will drive the story and twist the characters into emotional pretzels. Impossibilities can collaborate with you, if you let them.

You can even invent impossibilities to create dramatic opportunities. Yes, the rebels could have blown up the Death Star with "exotic space matter" beamed from a "quantum singularity" directly into the power plant. Instead, they had to achieve the impossible — and whole sequences of audience-thrilling action arose from that one impossibility.

So feel free to take liberties with the small stuff — utilize all your plausibilities in creative ways, and configure the story and storyworld to your needs. But be on the lookout for limitations — inherent and invented — to help make your story more distinctive and entertaining.

Movie reality is malleable and can be configured to your specifications. Humans can be called upon to do extraordinary things, things that might seem impossible. But as long as they are plausible — they become possibilities for you to use in your scripts.

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