Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The Rule of Cool

I've been on a bit of a film critic kick lately. This isn't because I'm some kind of huge movie buff, but because I really enjoy listening to intelligent deconstruction of story, and movies are a lot simpler to deconstruct that novels. This is because movies and television--being vastly shorter and more limited in scope than novels, which are hemmed in only by the author's imagination--can't afford to waste story time.

Script writing is famously unforgiving. There is simply no room for anything but the most efficient and deft strokes of plot and character. Scripts are storytelling condensed down to its purest form, which means that when mistakes happen, and they happen a lot, the way the story fails tells us a lot about what is really important in narrative and why.

I just wanted an excuse to use this picture.

If you're interested, I highly recommend Every Frame a Painting for super insightful classic film criticism about why good movies are so good. Movie Bob for a funnier, more topical criticism on current releases, how they came to be, and why they succeed or fail. And finally DigiBro for an incredibly insightful and thoughtful look at the unique storytelling and directorial work that goes on in anime.

All of these channels are really good in their own areas, and while I have zero interest in ever writing a screen play or getting behind a camera, I've learned a lot from all of them. Writers have a bad habit of thinking our art form is unique, but at the end of the day, on screen or on the page, stories are still just stories. They have the same rules, same tricks, and same pitfalls regardless of medium. Tropes that appear in film and TV often appear in books. This is especially true as our modern generations grows up and starts writing stories that draw inspiration not just from our childhood novels, but also from the movies, TV, anime, comics, and video games we grew up with. My own stories are just as inspired by those shows as they are by the books I've read, and as I keep digging for new ways to become a better writer, it only make sense to turn to analysis of these other mediums to find my new tricks.

So now that I've written 200 words about how I got here, I'm going to get to the good stuff and talk about my latest favorite story concept I've gleaned from watching all these critic videos, and that is the Rule of Cool.

Writing Wednesday: The Rule of Cool

The Rule of Cool is a common trope in movies and television, especially in genre titles. Like any geek concept definition, there are a lot of caveats and a whole page explaining them on TV Tropes, but basically, the Rule of Cool states that an audience's ability to suspend disbelief and accept a story's sometimes questionable plot choices is directly proportional to how cool find that story to be.

How did this happen? What is going on?! I don't know, and I don't really need to. It's just AWESOME!

At its highest level, the Rule of Cool means that mistakes that would doom a lesser work like breaks in internal logic or even blatant physical impossibilities (like Will Smith's Deadshot shooting the C4 to blow it up for the big final explosion at the end of Suicide Squad, never mind that the entire point of plastic explosives is that they don't detonate from vibration. Seriously, you can shoot a block of C4 with a rifle or even set it on fire and it will not go off.) are forgivable if the overall experience is cool enough that we just don't care.


As you probably already already guessed, this was not the case for me with Suicide Squad, which was a terrible movie and a hugely frustrating waste of time. (Srsly, DC/Warner Bros., you had a killer concept and a great cast, and you just shat all over them. I hate you right now.) Much as I hated it, though, Suicide Squad is a fantastic example of how lazy writers use the Rule of Cool to get away with terrible storytelling.

If you're not familiar with the movie, all you really need to know here is that it looks really cool. It's beautiful and visually interesting, there's a lot of cool cuts and flashy explosions, the characters look awesome, Will Smith brought his A-game, the concept is killer, etc. Lots of cool on the surface leading to lots of hype. Unfortunately, that's all it was, because when you actually get into the movie, it's a convoluted mess. The story is dumb and overly complicated, with the exception Deadshot none of the characters have discernible or consistent motivations, there are too many characters, no one has a real arc, the final climax hinges on shooting C4 to make it explode, which we've already established doesn't actually work. On and on and on.

I wanted to like this. I wanted to like this SO BAD. Why, Suicide Squad? Why?

And this is where Suicide Squad gets so frustrating for me, because at any point, any writer who understands even the basic fundamentals of story could have looked at the script and pointed out all of these problems. These are not small, subtle errors that only become obvious in the final product. These are huge, honking, stupid missteps that anyone with any storytelling chops should have been able to see.

The fact that they are so fucking blatant tells me that people did, in fact, see them (b/c how could they not?) and just didn't care. They were relying on the Rule of Cool and incredibly stupid yet somehow persistent Hollywood assumption that summer movie audiences are stupid to gloss over all of these problems because all that other stuff I mentioned two paragraphs up was just so cool we wouldn't care about the rest of the issues.

Yeah, didn't happen. The movie was universally panned, and while its surface coolness and hype sold a lot of opening weekend tickets, I will be EXTREMELY SURPRISED if Suicide Squad is remembered as anything but the colossal failure it is at its heart.

But while I am deeply, personally insulted by how bad Suicide Squad was, it has always been my philosophy to never waste a failure. As much as it sucked, Suicide Squad excels in being a perfect example of dangers of relying on "cool" to carry a story.

When Cool Isn't Always Cool

As a Fantasy/SF writer, I am deeply invested in cool. I bend over backwards to create cool magical systems, cool settings, thing that capture the imagination. It's not enough for me to have a slacker, he has to be a dragon slacker. I can't just have a mercenary, she has to be a super badass powered armor space mercenary on a reluctant mission to save the universe

I'm not alone in this, either. Genre fiction is all about capturing the imagination with that killer concept or core hook. That one awesomely cool idea or character or magical system that makes our books stand out from the pack. Throw in the fact that we're often writing about events that stretch the laws of physics like taffy, and you start to see why the Rule of Cool is an entrenched part of SFF stories.

With the possible exception of The Martian, where the believability of the science was the story, all genre fiction requires the reader to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes, especially in Urban Fantasies that ask us to accept that there's a secret magical world coexisting with our real one, we have to suspend disbelief by a lot in order to buy the story. Most genre readers are perfectly fine with this, because they get a return of a great story. 

This is the Rule of Cool working as intended. We accept otherwise unbelievable ideas like dragons living among us or a school for wizards hidden in Scotland because they're cool and we want to know more about them. 

Thankfully for everyone, the structural properties of disbelief operate outside of normal physics.

There are limitations, of course. Even for the coolest of stories, suspension of disbelief only stretches so far. A reader will gladly learn how your version of magic works in order to understand your story, but if you then turn around and start breaking your own rules, you're going to burn through that trust pretty fast. This is why the best genre stories always have internal consistency. You can have some pretty ludicrous stuff happen, but so long as it all makes sense within the world of the story (and the story itself is cool enough to be worth it), readers are generally pretty happy.

But, of course, this kind of internal consistency takes thought and planning. You have to understand how your world works if you're going to explain it to others, or use it in a story. If you paint yourself into a corner where you need something to happen that you've deemed impossible by your own magic or setting-level rules, then you'd better have a damn good and well set up reason for why this situation is an exception.

If you plan your world and plot your book well, this kind of situations should be no problem. In fact, main characters breaking the stated rules of magic to do the seemingly impossible because they're special for Reason X is practically a trope of Fantasy. But like any trope, you have to follow the rules to make it work. If every character is breaking the rules all the time, then there are no real rules, and the whole system collapses, taking the reader's willingness to put up with your nonsense with it.

Now, there's a chance that if your story is cool enough, the Rule of Cool will kick in and the reader will stay anyway. We've all read book where we were rolling our eyes at the ridiculousness going on, but kept reading anyway because we loved the characters or the other parts of the book were just too awesome. 

This is the Rule of Cool in action. We liked the good stuff enough to willingly overlook the stupid bits. Sadly, a lot of Hollywood films rely on this to make stories fly. Just think of any summer blockbuster that didn't really make sense, but you were okay with that because the explosions were cool. That's the Rule of Cool holding things up.

But while this can work in movies, a book is an entirely different animal. It's one thing to suspend your disbelief to the very edge so you can enjoy pretty pictures for two hours, but quite another to ask a reader to do the same thing for the 10-12 hours it takes to read a 100,000 word novel that also has no pictures, music, or other coolness additives to help prop it up. 

Books are far more personal than movies. They ask a lot more of the reader, and for that, we as authors have to be willing to give a lot more both in the quality of our stories and the soundness of our ideas. We can't skate by on explosions or cool art direction. We have to think this shit out. We have to be internally consistent. We have to have substance, or readers will quickly get tired and move on. 

This isn't to say the Rule of Cool doesn't work in novels. It works phenomenally. We've all read stories that were so cool, we willingly overlooked mistakes or questionable plot choices that would have doomed a less cool title. This is why we should always be looking to pack our books with as many hooks and other coolness as we can fit. Not just because it's awesome, but because that cool is our safety net. Not that you'll need a safety net if your book is actually good, but it's never a bad thing to have!

But powerful as it is, the Rule of Cool isn't magic. There's only so far the suspension bridge of disbelief can stretch. If you jump on it too hard with bad decisions or things that just don't make sense, it will break. When that happens, there's no amount of cool in the world that will save you.

nope nope nope

So if you're plotting a book, or even if you're a pantser and you're just writing the thing, pack it as full of cool as you can, but also take the time to make sure all of your plot decisions make sense. If you set rules, follow them, and don't make stupid, lazy mistakes like having someone shoot C4 when a quick Google search would tell you that's impossible. Because while the Rule of Cool might save you, it works best when it doesn't have to work all. 

The best books are the ones that are super cool AND make lovely sense within their own rules. Where the reader's suspension of disbelief is so effortless they don't even notice it, and all their attention can focus on how amazingly cool your world is. That's when the Rule of Cool goes from a safety net to the kick that will catapult your story from "novel I picked up" to "OMG MUST READ OMG TELL EVERYONE," and isn't that what we all want?

Thank you!

Thank you as always for reading, I hope you enjoyed the post! If you did, I do writing posts every Wednesday, so be sure to check back in or just follow me on TwitterFacebook,Tumblr, or Google+ if you don't already to never miss a post!

I'm off to write more Heartstrikers and run some invasions (LEGION NEXT WEEK!). See you guys next time!



Kessie said...

Rule of Cool meets solid internal logic = The Incredibles. Even after all these years, that movie still boggles my mind at the sheer consistency.

David Jordan said...

I like your formulation of the Rule of Cool. I've not come across the Rule of Cool as safety net, but it's an interesting way to understand why Hollywood often ignores solid storytelling in favor of "cool." (Though I suspect a lot of the issue may come down to the confluence of tight pre-production timelines and the huge difficulty in writing a fundamentally sound story with the economy a movie needs.)

My Own Formulation:
I've always thought of the Rule of Cool as a trade off where sometimes the "cool factor" outweighs the implausibility of the scenario - a reminder that we're *telling stories* with life and drama, not documenting fictional histories.

Hence having the plastic explosives not react at that moment would be a major letdown (or just really funny and force some other resolution), or the writer would need to make things overly complicated. Maybe the filmmakers just felt they needed to give Deadshot a particular story beat (haven't see the movie, don't want to).

But it's like walking a tight rope, and you can really only invoke it when your story is already working on some level. When doing something cool that flies in the face of logic, it's got to pull its narrative weight. Thought of that way, it's really just a special case of Rule of Drama.

Unknown said...

The thing that often breaks my suspension is when an author makes a character do things that have no flow from previous actions. No motivational consistency.

I recently started the 5th book of an urban fantasy series with a young protagonist. Our protagonist describes a dire situation to an older man, a police captain, with years of experience, and the police captain responds with a peppy, "What's the plan?" That was the ed for me. The book was put down.

I find your secondary characters believable (within the suspension of disbelief schema). They have their own motivations and have to be persuaded or coerced when their motivations clash with your protagonist's. And they HAVE their own motivations!

So to end with a gush.
Thanks for writing great characters with emotional lives and motives! You villains have understandable motives and your heroes are not perfect but I can still like them (really important to me).

Can I also say I enjoy the deeper questions you seem to be exploring. Loved the explorations of freedom and power and morality in the Eli Monpress series and enjoying the exploration of power and violence in the Heeartstrikers series.

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deadnotsleeping said...

Thank you for the lesson on the rule of cool! although as a fan of deadshot I would have to make the point that he CAN totally explode c4 with a single shot. You see when c-4 is ready to go boom-boom they install a blasting cap, the size of about a half used pencil, and anyone shooting would have to 1. know exactly where it would be placed, 2. be able to hit it from a fair distance away, in case they actually hit it. In the real world, this would be impossible to do, however as the best in the business, deadshot would DEFINITELY be able to tell where the blasting cap is at a glance and hit it with a single shot... cause hes deadshot. So in summary, deadshot can and will deploy c4 just by shooting at it.

Sharpedon said...

"The fact that they are so fucking blatant tells me that people did, in fact, see them (b/c how could they not?) and just didn't care."

I think the truth is a bit more nuanced than that. Of course they saw them, but it's not that they didn't care; it is simply that the plot would not have worked if they removed them. As you must have often observed most plot holes are crappy plot devices in disguise that move the plot forward. Hence if you remove or fix said plot hole you also remove a plot device without which the plot will get stuck.

Therefore it is easier (and faster) to leave the crappy plot device/hole in place rather than have to rewrite your script, particularly if the studio has you on a tight deadline. The C4 example you cited is both a plot hole (assuming Will Smith shot the C4 itself) and a plot device crucial to the story. I do not recall that scene but it's theoretically* possible to detonate C4 with a bullet if you manage to hit its detonator (or blasting cap).

C4 is a quite stable secondary explosive, meaning it requires a small quantity of another more sensitive explosive to detonate. The usual detonator -in the form of a detonation cord- for C4 is made largely of PETN (Pentaerythritol tetranitrate), which is a quite sensitive explosive material that can be ignited by a bullet, quite easily actually.

So, if the writer was slightly careful he could casually have Deadshot shoot the detonator of the C4 rather than the C4 itself, and avoid a plot hole. As for the even higher accuracy required it is consistent with Deadshot's singular markmanship, so it is not a problem. I doubt that's what happened (my faith in Hollywood is not that high...) but as you can see in this case there was a way out of a plot hole.

*The "theoretical" part is due to the unparalleled markmanship required, the fact that a detonator obviously would need to have already been inserted, and finally the shooter would require a clear view of the detonator; if it was inserted "behind" the C4 (relative to the shooter's position) it would be impossible to hit it, even if you were Deadshot.


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