Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

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Why It Works: The Lord of the Rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Corruption.

The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it. Frodo succumbs to the corruption, because it’s impossible for him not to.

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident. If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute. The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

Film Analysis

Today I saw a great film, yesterday I saw a horrible film. The great film was The Hawk is Dying (THID) and the horrible film was Ellie Parker (EP). It is rare that I see such a contrast so close together, so I’ve decided to analyze it. I haven’t analyzed any films yet on here (in my memory). Here is an interesting tidbit about why I’ve chosen these; both are independent. This means that to the average box office movie-goer, both of these films would probably be written off as “unbearable,” “plotless,” or “arty.” To the average independent film-goer, both of these would be considered huge successes. This gives me great opportunity to explore at a deeper level than just genre basing my opinions.

My typical analysis of whether a film is bad, OK, good, or great goes through many layers. So let’s lay out a bunch of parts of a film first. There is: acting, script, editing, directing, and cinematography as major categories (of course there are others, but these catch my attention first). To pass the first level, a film has to show proficiency in each of these areas. THID definitely passes round one in each of these categories. EP had some slight issues with acting. It was superficial at times. I’ll get to directing later, but this was definitely very immature directing, as well. Overall, both pass round one, but EP shows some weaknesses that could pose problems in later rounds.

Round two: originality vs predictability. In my mind, you either follow the formula or you break out of it. Now these are both independent films, so by their very nature they don’t follow the formula or else they would have funding from a major studio. Here is the interesting thing, though. THID decided to take a rather mundane idea (taming a hawk) and pull out a very original and intense film. EP decided to take the originality route from the ground up. This is sort cliche in my opinion. It is much more impressive to take something that is common place and make it original than to just toss together all sorts of randomness to make it original. Whatever the case may be, both pass round two.

Round three: balancing the creative and technical. This is the eternal struggle in creating art. You must know and be able to follow the rules in order to break them. A musician must have incredible technical proficiency that comes from training scales, arpeggios, and etudes with the relentless click of a metronome before they can play expressively, bending the tempo and tone to fit the mood. A film can easily fall prey to being too technical and dry or too artistic and without any technique. The two go hand-in-hand. THID blends this beautifully. The technique is often awe inspiring. Angles, lighting, and acting are pitch perfect to fit the scene. Every shot is thought about. EP goes over-the-top. It is what I often call “young director’s syndrome.” A director that is overflowing with ideas often lets too many of them spill over into the film. EP is filled with rapid editing showing a tour de force in both camera work and editing. It serves no purpose, though. It is a mindless show of flash. It lacks the artistic side. This can be explained perfectly, though. This was Scott Coffey’s first directing experience. He had been an actor in several Lynch films. For an aspiring director, it is clear that he was trying to imitate Lynch. The thing he didn’t realize is that Lynch does things with a great vision and masterful artistry. The technical display by Lynch is vacuous like what Coffey did. THID is clearly superior in this round.

Finally, I fall to overall purpose. Now I am a big supporter of art for art’s sake (meaning a work of art doesn’t need a purpose), but that is part of the process. I determine if there was a purpose or not. If not, did it accomplish that? If so, how well and accessible was it? THID also masterfully pulled this off. Nothing was handed to the watcher. This is important to me. If the purpose is handed to me, then I feel like the director and writer didn’t trust me (a common problem with major pictures). I like that I had to work and figure things out. Overall, nothing was beyond the watcher’s capabilities, though. EP on the other hand had another young director’s faux pas. It confused its purpose. It posed as a truly pure art film without a purpose, while at the same time it had one. This is a common mistake. Young directors want arty directors to respect them, so they think if their film has purpose then they will be written off as not serious or commercial or something. What they don’t realize is that trying to come across as something your not ruins the film.

Overall, THID was excellent. It had great technical proficiency balanced with the perfect amount of artistry to keep the watcher interested. It took the common place and made it original. EP tried to be too much. It was like freshmen writing class. You have an overambitious student take a grand topic and write a short essay on it. They try to cover everything. The true art of writing comes when you can take a very small idea and develop it in a long work. The artist that tries too much ends up digging their own grave. Yes, I was taught this by my freshmen writing professor when she took me aside and harshly told me that I was trying to write a lifetime’s work into a 10 page essay. Narrow the focus. Use the tools that suit the purpose. Be ambitious, but don’t let every idea that pops into your head appear in your work. This is the difference between an experienced director and a new one.

Hope you now have a better idea of how I critique films 🙂