Consistency In Storytelling

I’ve been following FRINGE pretty much since it first aired, and while the first half of the first season or so was a little iffy, it’s since grabbed me by the throat and pulled me into the detailed, plot-driven long-term story and interesting, well-thought-out storyworld. I think it’s done a pretty decent job of setting things up early on that only come into play in later storylines, such that when they come, we all go “Ohhhhhhh!” instead of scratching our heads and trying to figure out what we missed or why the writers are pulling so much out of their rear-facing orifices.

An observer watching the filming of Fringe on the UBC campus when I happened to walk by. Apparently Buchanan Tower is a metal depository. Who knew. (My creative writing classrooms are in the top right corner of the picture.)

WARNING: Fringe spoilers ahead.

There are storylines they’ve set up from the beginning that didn’t really come into play until season two or three –

Walter’s cortexiphan experiments on Olivia, for instance, or the presence of the Observers (who appear, apparently, in every single episode, watching — in the recent episode Os, there’s one barely noticeable in the background at the metal depository when the gang is investigating the floating body; I know only because I walked past while they were filming that scene!).

The writers have, for the most part, done a fantastic job setting up the major plot elements early on.

And I think it’s impotant to make note that this is, really, noteworthy. When a story is that well planned, the effort really comes across to an audience, and makes the whole property that much more fulfilling. It solidifies the authenticity of the narrative.

Recently, though, they did their second 1985 episode (and hey, if the only reason they did another 1985 episode was to reuse the 80′s-style opening credits, I have no quarrel with them:

). And watching this episode raised some questions for me.

It starts with an extended sequence about 8-year-old Peter not believing his parents are his real parents, and trying to get back to his own world (complete with its zeppelins). Later in the episode, he meets Olivia as a child and participates in a fairly noteworthy series of events with her. And immediately, these things raised questions for me.

In the early seasons leading up to finding out that Peter was from the other universe, Peter has no thought or recollection that this might be the case. He specifically calls out things he does and doesn’t remember about his childhood, meant to hint at us that this version of Peter didn’t actually experience all the things Walter says his son experienced. I assumed, based on this evidence, that Peter never really realized as a child that he had been ‘kidnapped’ and brought to another universe. The extent to which he might have thought that in the first 1985 episode could easily be passed off as momentary confusion, a nightmare, his sickness.

But in the more recent episode, it was clear that for six months Peter was convinced he was from somewhere else and would not accept his parents as his parents.

Why wouldn’t adult Peter remember that?

And furthermore, there’s the fact that he met Olivia, that all the main characters knew each other 25 years ago. It’s been established that Walter is missing parts of his brain, that Olivia has blocked out that entire part of her childhood (though, hey, her whole thing is that she has a photographic memory, so that’s a little strange, but I’m willing to forgive memory-blocking for trauma), but Peter? Why wouldn’t he remember a girl who blew up and with whom he ran away for a day, a girl who also seemed to confirm his belief he was from another world with her visions of zeppelins?

Suddenly, there are parts of the entire previous three seasons that make one ask questions about consistency.

Consistency

The thing is, the problems I’ve raised could fairly easily be explained away. Peter was, what, 8? How much do you remember from grade 3? Some things, sure, but he could have forgotten a lot of that, he could have blocked it from his memory. Maybe Walter even gave him something to make him forget.

But there’s a piece of advice I’ve often given in writing workshops before — if something raises questions for me, it probably raises questions for some other people, too. But the problem here isn’t so much that the issue isn’t explained — things go unexplained in stories all the time, often very purposefully if the writer doesn’t want to reveal certain information until later for narrative purposes.

The problem is more that it’s ignored. All I really want to know is that the writers know what they’re doing, and all will be made clear in time. If I know that, I can sit back and let it happen. If not, inconsistencies raise red flags and I feel like the story hasn’t been planned as well as it could have.

Perhaps more important is acknowledgement from the characters in some cases. If I have questions about something, it might seem very strange if the characters don’t have the same questions. If something seems strange, why don’t the characters think it’s strange?*

Like I said, maybe the writer doesn’t want to reveal some piece of information, yet or at all, and that’s perfectly fine. All it takes is for one of the characters to say, “Hey, why…?” and another to say, “I don’t know,” and move on.

As soon as that happens, I know that the characters aren’t stupid, they’re just as in the dark as me, and I know that the writers know what’s not being explained and I can trust that there’s a reason for it.

But if it doesn’t happen, I feel like the writing isn’t as good as it could be. I start looking for the answer, looking for other inconsistencies, and am no longer as deeply immersed in the story (though I suppose my intense scrutiny suggests I am deeply engaged).

I don’t need everything explained to me. I don’t want everything explained to me. But I need it to be acknowledged, I need to see that the characters aren’t unrealistically oblivious, that the writers know what they’re doing.

Workshopping

These issues can come up in any writing, from short stories and novels to TV shows like Fringe. You may not notice them when you’re writing because you know everything that’s going on, and you know what you want your readers to know. But if it’s raising questions for readers, it could be a problem — and it’s such an easy fix. Acknowledge where the inconsistency is, through a character or by writing two lines explaining it away, and it ceases to be a problem at all. You’ll go back to being a writer your reader trusts to bring them through the story with all the knowledge and understanding they need.

*The caveat to this is that what the characters do or do not think is strange can tell us a lot about the characters and/or the world. If something is not questioned, we can assume that’s because it’s normal to that character. But that’s not quite the same issue I’m talking about, where there’s seemingly an established inconsistency, not the setting up of a world.

Published at Silverstring Media as well, with a transmedia focus.

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