A couple of weeks ago we talked about the JJ Abrams Trek movies. Actually we talked about ALL THE TREKS. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have made that a weekly series instead of doing a new Trek every day. There just wasn’t enough time to give each show the attention it deserved.
But talking about the Star Trek reboot got us talking about plot holes and contrivances, because JJ Abrams doesn’t like to burn screen time explaining why things happen when events seem to break the established rules of the world. So, his Trek movies frequently and flagrantly break all kinds of rules and are constantly having things happen simply for the sake of drama.
I’ve talked before about Story Collapse. That’s where you keep getting yanked out of the story by things that don’t make sense. The more it happens (and the more seriously it happens) the more you stop thinking about what you’re seeing now and the more you find yourself looking back, trying to figure out how this can all possibly fit together. If the story is a huge mess, then this sort of reflection will just reveal more problems, and trying to sort out those problems will uncover even more, until you have story collapse.
The threshold is different for everyone, because everyone’s standards are a little different. We’re a lot more picky when we’re not having fun. We’re incredibly picky when a story is dealing with a domain in which we have professional experience or expertise. (A musician will notice that none of these actors appear to be playing the musical instruments they’re holding. To them it looks as silly as someone “typing” by slapping a keyboard. A non-musician won’t even notice.) We’re more picky if we know a lot about the world from other sources. We’re more picky if we happen to be analytic or detail-oriented people.
The thing is, Nu Trek is actually pretty good at avoiding all my normal nitpicking. I didn’t notice the problems with Into Darkness – and there are a lot of problems – until after I’d finished watching the movie. Does that mean Into Darkness makes more sense than (say) Mass Effect 2? I don’t think so. But I enjoyed Into Darkness and Mass Effect 2 drove me bonkersPart of the problem is that games are consumed over the course of many long play sessions, giving you lots of time to reflect..
Let’s imagine a movie about some guy named John. Let’s assume this is intended to be a typical Hollywood release (and not some crazy black and white indie arthouse experiment) with a good budget, nice visuals, and popular performers. John is trying to accomplish something that doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise, but we can assume it involves stopping some variety of Bad Guy.
- So John arrives at a large, spooky house. We don’t know why he’s here. We know his goal in the story, but we have no idea how visiting this particular house advances that goal. The story has already established that he has a key to the front door. But for no (explained) reason, he walks around the house and looks for a way in without trying his key on the front door. This scene is long and tedious and the whole time the protagonist is narrating his actions to us in a flat monotone.
We have no idea what the protagonist is doing and no idea why he isn’t using the key. We have lots of time to notice all the ways in which this makes no sense during a boring sequence where nothing happens. Likely as not we’ll get angry at the stupid movie for wasting our time. Story collapse is inevitable.
- Same as above, but the story at least has the decency to explain why John is trying to enter the house. (He needs to find the gold-plated MacGuffin.) We know the goal: Get into the house. We know that he has the means to meet that goal. (Use the key.) Yet he does something dumb and counter-productive by not using the key.
So the plot makes a little more sense this time, although the character still seems pretty dumb. This sequence will probably still lead to story collapse for a lot of people, but at least it’s not torture to watch.
- Same as above, except instead of the tedious monotone narration we get an exciting fight scene!
He goes around the house, and the audience begins wondering why he’s not using the key in his pocket. But before we can dwell on that he gets jumped by bad guys and the resulting fight ends with him entering the house as part of the fight. (Maybe someone gets thrown through a window.)
It’s still a plot hole, but we’re distracted from it and entertained. Lots of people will gloss over it, forgive it, or forget all about it before the next scene.
- As above, except we don’t find out he has the key until several scenes after he enters the house.
It’s still a problem, but you won’t notice it unless you think back and ask why he didn’t use it several scenes ago when he needed to enter the house. And if the movie is interesting, flowing, witty, and clever, we’re probably not going to be doing that sort of on-the-fly retrospective.
It’s less of a “plot hole” and more an instance of fridge logic.
- As above, except now John has a partner, Jane. She knows his key opens the house, and he doesn’t.
So several scenes later when we see the key, we have to wonder why she didn’t suggest they try the front door.
Is this still a problem? It’s hard to say. Why did she follow him around the house and get in that big fight without suggesting the key? Did she realize he had the key? Did she think he was looking for something? Something is a little odd here, but it’s no longer clear what the problem is, and it’s likely most people won’t even notice.
- As above, but the two of them were in a buddy-cop style argument when they reached the house.
Yes, Jane didn’t say anything about the key, but then John had just been talking about how useless she was and about how he could solve this case on his own. So she was probably (maybe?) just letting him make a fool of himself so he’d understand how much he needed her.
This isn’t a plot hole at all. It’s now a discussion on characterization.
The point is that there isn’t a clean line between broken and not broken. There’s a long gradient and probably some sort of upward trending curve in the percent of the audience that experiences story collapse. No story is 100% flawless, and there will always be couple of moviegoers who will accept anything the screen shows them.
For me, JJ Abrams is really good at doing the “distracting you from plot holes” shtick. Sure, his stories are frequently full of holes and don’t stand up to analysis after the fact. But they mostly survive that first viewing. Michael Bay, with all his teen-drama rom-com horseshit, gives us long sections of movie where we have nothing to do but sit there asking ourselves what the character’s goals are and why they aren’t moving towards them.
People defend Bay as being good at making “popcorn” movies, where you just shut off your brain and enjoy the vulgar sensory flood. But Bay is horrible at that. His movies are bloated and slow and the action is incomprehensible. JJ Abrams is the popcorn guy. You’re not going to walk out of the theater nourished or pondering any big questions about ourselves or our universe, but you’ll get an hour and a half of sensory gratification where attractive people say wittyYour mileage may vary. things and engage with a plot that generally makes as much sense as it needs to in the moment. And when there’s an action scene you can tell where the combatants are and what they’re doing.
Having said all that? Yeah, Into Darkness was pretty dumb. If you didn’t notice the plot holes it’s probably because you forgot the movie ten minutes after it was over.
 Part of the problem is that games are consumed over the course of many long play sessions, giving you lots of time to reflect.
 Your mileage may vary.
The Gradient of Plot Holes
Most stories have plot holes. The failure isn't that they exist, it's when you notice them while immersed in the story.
Fixing Match 3
For one of the most popular casual games in existence, Match 3 is actually really broken. Until one developer fixed it.
The story of me. If you're looking for a picture of what it was like growing up in the seventies, then this is for you.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
Mass Effect 3 Ending Deconstruction
Did you dislike the ending to the Mass Effect trilogy? Here's my list of where it failed logically, thematically, and tonally.